thoughts on “american vulgar”

went to hear a talk today by robert grudin, author of american vulgar : the politics of manipulation versus the culture of awareness.  i found the talk frustrating – despite having a great interest in the subject matter.  Here’s the abstract for the talk :
In his new book philosopher Grudin examines postwar developments in American social consciousness, as we have moved from the nineteenth century ideal of the commonwealth to the contemporary fixation on the individual.  Grading identifies how easily misled individuals can be by a class of “professional manipulators”: politicians, marketers and advertisers, and traces what he sees as a calculated effort to diminish and demean broad national awareness.  He argues for a rebirth of individual awareness, which will lead to a more informed electorate.
the media manipulates us as a means to hold onto their power and money.  it’s a problem that exists in both liberal and conservative interests.  true – although the republicans have definitely spent time honing their manipulation skills in recent years (one of the reasons they’ve been able to hold onto power despite many signs of the apocalypse).
before ever hearing about grudin or his books, and without his extensive academic background, i’d concluded that the problem was a fixation on the salacious, and moreover that it wouldn’t get better unless we demanded it.  that means not watching crap tv, listening to crap radio, reading crap magazines.
of course, the problem is that the media itself is designed to suck you in.  it’s not that we’re helpless – but it’s definitely an uphill battle.  and it has ugly elitist and classist overtones too.
how do we make the broad case for awareness, and inspire everyone to demand that our media providers and our politicians don’t talk down to us?
grudins’s answer to this is unsatisfying to me.  he cites a few anecdotes of "different business models" where people give you "the gift" (of awareness) rather than telling you what to think.  while i’d agree that more ubiquitous technology has been a sort of equalizer, i’m not convinced that it has significantly eroded the divisions between classes.  so, ultimately we’re left with grudin’s post-enlightenment optimism.
if you share his optimism, then you have hope.  if you do not, you’re like me.  whether you’re optimistic or not, it’s good food for thought.

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