News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to

Sunday, February 18, 2007

The Rinktum* Dialogues: over by the swingset, down at the tavern

[As a companion piece to this, read this article in the current issue of the Columbia Journalism Review.]

Talk about culture wars has died down a bit after the Democratic resurgence in the 2006 elections. However, in South Dakota, cultural attacks are like truck bombs in Iraq. They happen so often that, even if one notices them, one doesn't find it necessary to remark on them. They happen. And no place is that more evident than on the blogs which purport to be political in nature.

Those stalwart publishers of the abortion-bans are still screaming "baby-killer." The prairie regressives are still labeling any government program designed to give assistance to the poor, the sick, and disadvantaged a communist plot. And loquacious liberals are, well, loquacious. But the culture wars were never really about the conservative-liberal divide or merely about sectarian fundamentalism versus secular science--although the battle lines sometimes get drawn at those disjunctures.

The culture wars are really between people who hold to the social relationships of feudalism--which stem from the social organization in chicken flocks and dog packs--and the people who have accepted the concept of democratic individuals whose relationships to the human community include autonomy, equality, and a regard for personhood.

Everyone who has attended a school is acquainted with bullies who gather by the schoolyard swingset to assert control over their peers. They try to intimidate those who appear weaker than they. The deride the achievers. And they taunt and insult the low-achievers. And to anyone who exercises some independence of thought and conduct that is not submitted to the bully-gang for approval, they proclaim the individuals are not fit to be their friends. This proces goes on throughout the school years. The process of community socialization often breaks down into grades of submission or alienation or rejection. Young people who leave states like South Dakota are frequently motivated by a desire to be rid of the schoolyard discriminations and oppressions that they lived with throughout their school careers. I have read hundreds of papers from college students that talk fondly of their homes but explain why they will never return to their hometowns. The common reason is the pettiness, the peevish resentments, and the underlying malevolence that appears to be what bonds the playground despots and the town tavern detraction choirs together. Following the words of Christ, many young people simply have to shake the dust of those places from their feet and tread on more respectful ground.

This attitude is by no means confined, however, to small towns and rural America. It raised its malformed head in many in ways in America in recent weeks. As the new season of American Idol got underway, the show received many comments about the cruelty of its panel of judges toward some contestants. Still, the show has the highest audience rating of any show currently on television. In responding to the criticisms, television critics make the point that people find such moments of humiliation for others entertaining. And the television producers merely give people what they want.

Anyone, who like me, is involved in ways to develop and showcase talent knows something about the show that is never mentioned. First of all, I have judged and adjudicated numerous talent contests over the years. I have never seen any performers as bad as the ones that appeared on the first episodes of this year's American Idol. Such performances are disqualified in the audition stage. Even in small contests, such as the South Dakota Snow Queen Festival, you will not find performers who are as devoid of talent as some of those who appeared on American Idol. Clearly, the producers put some of those non-talents on the show so that the audience could have the entertainment of seeing someone abused, humiliated, and despised. The American media has found huge successes in catering to the ignoble mentalites of the playground bullies and town cafe gossips. To us, those mentalities that find amusement and pleasure in the humiliation and denigration speak for themselves. They sure as hell do not speak for us.

Blogs have joined the other media in becoming a gathering place for those who have something malevolent to heap on other people. The death of Anna Nicole Smith produced an insane media frenzy and accompanying maledictions on blogs. On the state level, the South Dakota hearings into the Sen. Sutton and his encounter with a page produced the same kind of perverse speculations and condemnations. If one reads the comments on any of the blogs that permit--and don't edit--them or the discussion boards sponsored by newspapers, one realizes that the undercurrents of malice run deep and fast in our culture. Some blogs and discussion boards post stories solely for the purpose of boosting readership by appealing to depraved and malevolent attention. It sells.

America has an unusual history. As literary historians point out, every stage and nuance of its development has been recorded in the literary record. The genius of America has been in the way that its culture has surmounted envy, resentment, and the presence of malice to form the national character that has been so admired throughout the world. Until recently.

Those of us--and there are many--who admire the advances of technology and the opportunities they offer for human communication find the content on television and the Internet fails terribly the benign tradition of American culture. There have always been the mean, nasty, and slanderous, but they have a dominating effect on the new media, just as the schoolyard bullies often had a dominating effect on the character of their shools.

It is not difficult to identify which blogs lower the cultural level. They are obsessed with the ad hominem disparagements of other people. And we are not speaking of the criticism leveled at the actions and words of politicians and other public figures. We are speaking of the personal attacks, the name calling, the application of patronizing and demeaning stereotypes, the denigrating categorization of personality. Those personal attacks are not mitigating by couching them in affectations of smarmy humor. And we speak of the habit of misquotation. Many blogs undermine the whole concept of rhetoric.

The new media makes rhetoric a dirty word. In fact, many people know it only by the negative connotation supplied by our current modes of political debate and information control.

Utimately, it is a matter of the culture wars--the battle of the autonomous with the resentful. We have many e-mails asking us to give examples of the good blogs and the bad. We do not wish to get drawn into any peevish, insulting exchanges by identifying those who offend us. We've been there before, and nothing constructive is accomplished.

We know of many people who have found blogs not worth the time. In fact, in the past two years, we have had numerous friends move out of the state to find more culturally compatible environs.

Some blogs contribute to the cultural dialogue. Others corrupt it. Right now, American society has lost its glow as the beacon of freedom and democratic society. It festers under a blanket of belligerent propaganda and it provides no reason for people of the world to trust it as a model of democracy.

America needs a stringent criticism of its culture to define what is valuable and what is destructive. It does not have enough blogs to point out what is so terribly wrong with some blog posts. But sometimes, the only thing to do is shake the dust from your feet and leave the swingset to the bullies.

*See William Faulkner

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States