Yesterday on NPR’s Fresh Air, culture critic John Powers offered his list of 2006’s defining cultural moments. What struck me about many of them was their similarity: deducing 2006’s essential character from Powers’ list, you’d have to say that stateside, it’s been a year of culture clash.
Half of Powers’ dozen or so items comprised Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat movie, Stephen Colbert’s April in-your-face speech at the White House correspondents’ dinner, the exposure of George Allen’s racism during the 2006 U.S. Senate race in Virginia, Mel Gibson’s drunken antisemitic rant in July, Michael Richards’ racist tirade jet-propelled into the zeitgeist via YouTube.com, and the Dutch cartoons widely protested as insulting the prophet Mohammed (even though they were first published in the fall of 2005, so technically not of 2006). (Google any of them and you’ll have instant access to vivid footage, some of it viewed millions of times.)
Cohen’s humor turns on pushing liberal tolerance beyond its breaking point by putting outrageous insults in the mouth of a walking, talking stereotype. Colbert’s comedy takes a similar approach, though on this occasion, his subject wasn’t race or religion, but a different clash of cultures: deference to power versus impertinence, the worldview that worships constituted authority versus the one that questions it at every opportunity. Using the voice of his right-wing pundit character, Colbert issued an unvarnished, unabashed and positively gloating account of the media as cuddly lap dog to the powers-that-be: “Listen,” he said to the assembled reporters, “let’s review the rules. Here’s how it works. The President makes decisions, he’s the decider. The press secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type: just put ’em through a spellcheck and go home.”
Had George Allen been a satirist instead of a politician, he too might have achieved big box-office, but he was merely bigoted and stupid, the real thing as opposed to its edgy imitation. Mel Gibson’s unscripted id repudiated his many disclaimers about the antisemitic message of his 2004 cinematic bloodbath, The Passion of the Christ. Michael Richards blurred the line between Allen, Gibson and the satirists: bad art, bad judgment, even bad apology.
Looking past the distinguishing details of this cluster of defining moments, it’s easy to see they are all about the same thing: the emergent awareness of what Carlos Fuentes has called “cultures as the protagonist of history.” Whether planned with rational coolness or vomited out with drug-addled spontaneity, these emblems of 2006 demonstrated culture’s increasing centrality in the information age. Stepping back, I am reminded of a child testing the boundaries of a new reality: if I say this, will they be mad? Can I get away with this? What will happen if I do X?
At this stage, the way we are attempting to negotiate these questions is polarizing. But I doubt a fight this intense will last forever. Sooner or later, we’ll learn how to navigate this new reality of culture as the crucible in which humanity’s future is forged. But right now, it’s all stumbles and growing pains.
The rest of Powers’ list supports my optimism. Among other moments, he cited documentaries that pierced consensus reality, shining light on important truths—Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, Spike Lee’s When The Levees Broke; books on Iraq that contributed to the national eye-opening we are now blinking our way through; and the advent of Barack Obama’s candidacy for president. Taken together, they say this: don’t imagine you know the future; even the most entrenched ideas can be dislodged with a well-placed truth.
My own list would include the rise of a Latin American populism, in which a continent in the South shakes off its deference to the North and sets off on its own path; the slightly mind-boggling culture clash whereby rappers Three 6 Mafia won the best song Oscar for “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp,” a pinball game of a cultural moment which still ricochets through my brain; and the way the Republican party came pretty close to being crushed in the clash of paradigms, fighting tooth-and-nail against same-sex marriage while protecting a pedophile in office, the egregious Mark Foley.
How about your list?
The great Paulo Freire defined an epoch’s “thematic universe” as a great complex of ideas, themes, values and so on in constant dialectical relationship. According to this understanding, it isn’t any particular manifestation that characterizes an era, but the entire pulsating multiplex itself. The flavor of 2006’s dialectic is urgent, energetic and propulsive. Labor pains of a new paradigm? That’s my guess.