American Culture 101

"We found ourselves saddened by the recent demise of the local video arcade. There, when motivation proved elusive, we had been known to pass the stray half-hour (and many dollars) at one of several amusing pinball machines.We asked the proprietor why the establishment closed. He said parents had complained about the violent content of several of the games; when those games were replaced by more benign fare, business fell off by more than half.This conversation came to mind as we mulled the possibilities implicit in Culture and the American Character, the ambitious five-month Bainbridge Island Arts and Humanities inquiry that begins this weekend. Through participation in a variety of presentations and lectures, we shall be asked: What does it mean to be an American, as reflected by our cultural artifacts? If there is a national character, to what extent does Bainbridge Island fit the mold? And do we shape the culture, or does it shape us?We are impressed by the array of topics to be addressed - fashion, Vaudeville and theater, rock music, advertising, film, verse. The series boasts a fine web site (, with curriculum ideas for local teachers; we trust the series will inspire thoughtful discourse in Bainbridge classrooms. Why? An intellectual was once described as someone who could listen to the William Tell Overture without thinking of the Lone Ranger. Those distinctions are increasingly blurred. We are, theoreticians tell us, now in an age of post-modernism - an aesthetic defined by its pastiche of both high-modernist and popular art, pilferage of once-exotic regional forms, heavy with irony and self-reference, and obsessed with post-industrialism, the information age and multinational capitalism. The upside: It's more democratic, because anyone with a television, regardless of education or economic class, can fully participate in a cultural moment. The downside: We find ourselves awash in garbage like professional wrestling, Survivor and Boyz 2 Men. If everything is of equivalent cultural value, it is, increasingly, valueless.It is these shifts and moves and contradictions we expect the humanities inquiry series to examine - do we shape popular culture, or does it shape us? - even as we increasingly pledge our collective allegiance to celebrity over achievement, commodity over character, lifestyle over community.What relevance might Bainbridge find in this series? Three thoughts occur to us:1) We are a community obsessed with identity. Our boundaries are as clearly defined as could be - we have our own moat - and you're either in or you're out. We even enjoy a self-bestowed pet name - islanders - of which our neighbors can boast no equivalent.2) We guard our identity with fervor. Witness the fast-food ordinance, a quixotic attempt to hold at bay the creeping sameness of the the American commercial landscape. For hamburger and pizza chains are icons of our junk sensibilities as surely as People magazine or the next Jim Carrey film - certain to be trumpeted, to the chagrin of more than a few, on a new back-lit marquee in our midst.3) We may know what's bad for us, but we can't help flying toward the flame - just ask the kids who skipped out on the arcade when the shoot-'em-up games were gone. And you can't complain about the parking outside the Pavilion without implicating yourself in the American mass-culture morass. Whether you're highbrow, lowbrow or middlebrow, this humanities inquiry should be fun. See you there. "

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