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July 26, 2006

the link between civic engagement and culture

Here's an argument, inspired by Tocqueville, that we can assess the health of a democracy by examining the heterogeneousness of its culture.

Truly engaged citizens produce diverse cultural products. That is because cultural identity is always contested; it provokes debates, parodies, and expressions of dissent as well as consensus. Besides, engaged people clump together in communities and associations, each of which inevitably takes on a distinct character. Many communities and associations choose to display their identities through music, statuary, graphic design, narrative history, and other forms of culture.

Conversely, a homogeneous, mass culture is a threat to civic engagement, because when only a few people produce products that reach a mass market, they obtain great influence. Today, various groups of Americans criticize mass culture for being secular, materialistic, superficial, violent, sexist, and racist, and for undermining local, traditional, and minority cultures. These critiques are not always mutually consistent and may not all be valid. But it seems clear that people feel powerless to change mass culture; that feeling demonstrates the tension between mass culture and democracy.

Mass culture is, in part, a product of corporate capitalism. Capital investment increases the audiences for certain books, films, and songs. Sometimes corporate power is relatively weak: for instance, when there is competition among many producers (as in the Jacksonian era of small printers or in today’s age of blogs), or when the government sponsors cultural production (as in Western Europe). However, there remains an intrinsic tendency for liberal and democratic societies to develop mass cultures.

When people are free to choose which cultural products to consume, a small handful of products become enormously more popular than the rest. It is not certain why this occurs, but it seems plausible that people want to know what other people are reading, hearing, or viewing; thus they gravitate to what is already popular, making it more so. That instinct is perhaps especially strong in a democracy, where people are taught to believe that average or majority opinion is a reliable guide to quality. Books are advertised as "best sellers," movies as "blockbusters," and songs as "hits" because democratic audiences trust popularity. In aristocratic cultures, on the other hand, elites have disproportionate consumer power and tend to view popularity as a mark of poor quality. Aristocrats want to have unusual tastes. As Tocqueville wrote:

Among aristocratic nations every man is pretty nearly stationary in his own sphere, but men are astonishingly unlike each other; their passions, their notions, and their tastes are essentially different: nothing changes, but everything differs. In democracies, on the contrary, all men are alike and do things pretty nearly alike. It is true that they are subject to great and frequent vicissitudes, but as the same events of good or averse fortune are continually recurring, only the name of the actors is changed, the piece is always the same. The aspect of American society is animated because men and things are always changing, but it is monotonous because all these changes are alike.

Tocqueville thought that mass culture posed a serious threat to liberty. But he proposed a solution. Strong voluntary associations would have the means and the incentive to produce differentiated alternatives to mass culture.

Posted by peterlevine at July 26, 2006 08:06 AM


Seems to me sub-cultures play that role -- the differentiated cultural sphere -- today.

It's amazing actually how quickly someone, especially a young person, drawn into a subculture learns the gruesome details of that scene's superstars & canon, etc. -- which are SO distinct from the superstars & canon of mass culture.

In that way I think they're incredibly valuable, even if the content is vacuous. Getting into manga or speed metal teaches people that there is more to the world than the mainstream.

Posted by: Robin Sloan [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 26, 2006 12:41 PM

Eric Burns had an interesting essay that relates to this topic, called "Entitlement and the Modern Fandom". Money quote is:

"The idea, for many of the [members of fandom], is not so much the individual Marmaduke [or whatever] strips themselves, but the zeitgeist of all that is Marmaduke. It's the attitude. It's how Marmaduke makes them feel, and how much they can amplify that feeling in the company of others. It can be terrifically empowering and it can be terrifically satisfying. Right here, in this little community on the internet, Marmaduke is the coolest thing around, and by showing your love for Marmaduke, you're cool too." The whole thing is worth reading, at http://www.websnark.com/archives/2004/10/entitlement_and.html

Posted by: Meelar [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 26, 2006 05:27 PM

I like the subject and had to comment.

The word heterogeneous struck a core. I thought of the word polyphony as meaning something similar. Bernard Lewis introduced me to it in his book “What Went Wrong: Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response”. He essentially said that the lack of polyphony , like I think is similar with the lack of heterogeneousness, is likely why democracy does not take hold and flourish. Heterogeneity and polyphony seem to demand and necessitate democracy.

I was also thinking of a book "Out of Control" by Kevin Kelly. In it is a chapter called "The Nine Laws of God. One, if not all, I think is pertinent to this subject. The law is called "Control from the bottom up". It states that "When everything is connected to everything in a distributed network, everything happens at once. When everything happens at once, wide and fast moving problems simply route around any central authority. Therefore overall governance must arise from the most humble interdependent acts done locally in parallel and not from the central command. A mob can steer itself, and in territory of rapid, massive, and heterogeneous change, only a mob can steer. To get something from nothing, control must rest at the bottom within simplicity."

That law sound convoluted and rather obscure but what it describes sounds like the stuff democracy fines foundation in. Democracy seems to need a certain chaotic order, like that of heterogeneity, polyphony and the demands of many masters. And without it democracy doesn’t remain democracy.

The whole thing suggests that democracy evolves and can’t be imposed.

Posted by: airth10 [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 26, 2006 10:25 PM

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