Note To The Over-Forty Crowd: The Obligation To Be Culturally Literate Has No Age Limit, And The Duty To Be Aware Is Forever

ignoranceIn the Washington Post’s weekly crank section “Free For All,” a reader chastised the paper for not quoting more extensively from Bob Dylan’s works in its piece about his Nobel Prize, writing:

“It may come as a shock to the young people who now write and edit the paper, but there are many of us who are not familiar with the lyrics of “popular” music.”

Granted, in respect to Dylan, the complaint makes no sense. “Blowin’ in the Wind” was written in 1963; I’d expect “young people” to be more unfamiliar with Dylan than seniors. How old IS this guy? Still, the letter raised a crucial ethics point related to life competence, an ethical obligation for all of us. Being willfully ignorant of current popular culture is as much of an ethical lapse, and as great a threat to societal cohesion, as young people not bothering to learn about “Moby-Dick,” minstrel shows, Will Rogers, Stephen Foster, Babe Ruth, Charlie Chaplin, Fred Astaire or Lee Harvey Oswald.

In 1987, University of Virginia English professor  E.D. Hirsch wrote “Cultural Literacy,” making the argument that nations require common cultural reference points for generations to communicate with each other. He argued—correctly— that teaching this cultural vocabulary was a primary duty of the schools, in part because cultural literacy is an inextricable element of individual autonomy and power. Since then, the problem of the fracturing of society and the breakdown in communications between segments of the population has worsened considerably, its deterioration propelled by the loss of common information sources and the rise of the internet.

Throughout life we continue to have an obligation to learn about our shared history and culture, or risk becoming isolated, confused, and increasingly powerless. Moreover, as Hirsch correctly pointed out, the lack of common cultural touchpoints for comparisons and metaphors increasingly leads to a divided and dysfunctional society. The young need to know about the myth of Icarus to understand references to the dangers of celebrity and ordinary people being destroyed  by underestimating the dangers of fame and power. But being over forty and looking blankly when someone refers to “The Hunger Games” is equally crippling, and equally irresponsible.

Is it more difficult for the old to keep up with culture as it evolves than it is for the young to learn the historical and cultural reference that will help them engage in critical thought and cross-generational communication? No, it just seems that way. As people age, they tend to dismiss new cultural developments and ideas as fads and foolishness, when they are no more faddish or foolish, and often just as significant and influential, as what are now recognized as turning points in history and crucial catalysts for societal change. It is a terrible mistake to be ignorant of current popular culture, for as an individual becomes more estranged from the culture, he or she becomes its victim rather than its participant and beneficiary.

Yes, it takes time and attention to listen to new pop songs and watch the popular TV shows, but really no more, indeed less, time and effort than it takes a teen to become effectively familiar with world history and major cultural forces from Plato to Beethoven to O’Neill to Elvis. Indeed, it is easier to keep up (and catch up) now than ever, thanks to the internet, and YouTube in particular.

Now, being familiar with “Hamilton,” Beyonce’s songs, “OOOUUU,” Kendall Jenner, and TV’s “Scandal” doesn’t mean you have to like them, and as with history, nobody can know all of this stuff. Nonetheless, the more you know, the better you understand the world, nation, culture and the people around you. The less you understand, the more you make yourself irrelevant, useless and helpless, and it simply is not ethical to do that until you have no choice due to infirmity or catastrophe. We all have an ongoing duty to be aware, and to stay aware.

Inextricable from the task is keeping up with technology. No matter how bewildering and scary it seems, being technologically literate and competent is part of your ongoing obligation, because it is now impossible to be culturally literate without being at least minimally able to use the web, social media, and a smart phone.

Here is a way to test how much cultural homework is waiting for you if you are over 40: check out Vulture’s 100 Pop-Culture Things That Make You a Millennial.

(I knew a little over half of these. I’m trying though. Never stop trying.)

100. “All I Want For Christmas Is You”
99. The Room
98. The Fresh Prince theme song
97. Punk’d
96. Ryan Gosling and “Hey Girl”
95. Paris Hilton
94. The Illustrations from Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark
93. “The Cha-Cha Slide”
92. “A million dollars isn’t cool…”
91. Matt Damon, ass-kicking everyman
90. Clue
89. Reader’s Choice
88. “It’s Friday, you ain’t got no job, and you aint got shit to do.”
87. Call of Duty
86. Blink-182
85. The Babysitter’s Club books
84. Now That’s What I Call Music!
83. The Perks of Being a Wallflower
82. Wacky Johnny Depp
81. Chelsea Handler and Tucker Max
80. Ace of Base
79. The Star Wars prequels
78. High School Musical
77. Toy Story
76. Janet Jackson’s breast
75. “The first rule of Fight Club is…”
74. Catfish
73. “Gasolina”
72. The Royal Tenenbaums
71. Guitar Hero/Rock Band
70. Mash-ups
69. “The Real Slim Shady”
68. The Hills
67. The baby sounds on Aaliyah’s “Are You That Somebody?”
66. Illuminati theories
65. Tracy Flick
64. Adult Swim
63. The Romeo and Juliet Soundtrack
62. Lost in Translation
61. “In Da Club”
60. Dawson’s Creek
59. Will Smith
58. The O.C.
57. “Umbrella”
56. The Kardashians
55. Rent
54. YOLO
53. James Franco
52. Jimmy Fallon
51. Spice Girls
50. “I’m Rick James, Bitch!”
49. The Hunger Games
48. Dave Matthews Band
47. Arrested Development
46. The Matrix
45. Doug
44. The Blair Witch Project
43. TRL
42. Dubstep
41. Karaoke
40. Amy Winehouse
39. Mr. Feeny
38. “I Want It That Way”
37. Mean Girls
36. American Idol
35. The Neptunes
34. Garden State
33. The Office
32. “I’m so excited, I’m so scared.”
31. The Little Mermaid
30. Taylor Swift
29. The Family Guy Chicken Fight
28. “Cry Me a River”
27. Twilight
26. Netflix
25. Auto-Tune
24. “Milk was a bad choice.”
23. Britney Spears and the Snake
22. Judd Apatow
21. Titanic
20. Matt and Trey
19. The Rise and Fall of Lindsay Lohan
18. “Poker Face”
17. Funeral
16. TGIF
15. The “Single Ladies” dance
14. Gossip Girl
13. “Since You Been Gone”
12. Celebrity couple portmanteau names
11. “Hey Ya”
10. Christopher Nolan
9. “Dick in a Box”
8. Harry Potter
7. The Onion
6. “I’mma Let You Finish”
5. “I’m Not Here To Make Friends”
4. Tina Fey and Amy Poehler
3. “Ignition (Remix)”
2. Clueless
1. Beyonce and Jay-Z

61 Comments

Filed under Arts & Entertainment, Character, Citizenship, Education, History, Literature, Popular Culture, The Internet, U.S. Society

61 responses to “Note To The Over-Forty Crowd: The Obligation To Be Culturally Literate Has No Age Limit, And The Duty To Be Aware Is Forever

  1. charlesgreen

    Ha ha, brilliant! One of your better pieces – really, this is important stuff, how to bridge gaps to “others,” whomever they might be.

    Great list, too: I’m at about 65, which is just about my age, so I’m feeling pretty good about that. But it means I’m ignorant about one third of it, so I’ve got work to do.

    Thanks for the inspiration!

  2. Wayne

    I’m familiar with a lot of this due to my interest in rock and actually playing in some jam sessions. Why I should be interested in “Toy Story” eludes me. There are also a certain percentage of millennials that I have met that fit the catagory of narcissistic jerks and I really don’t care much about their preoccupations.

    • 1. The post had nothing whatsoever to do with “interest.” I’m not interested in socialism at all, but I still need to know of its existence, what it is, its history and why people support it.

      2. In a democracy, you have to deal with all kinds of people, including a plurality of jerks. It is undeniably helpful to know where their attitudes and world view comes from.

      3. All classic films are part of the larger cultural context. It is as important to be familiar with Toy Story as with Casablanca, Modern Times, Rear Window or It’s a Wonderful Life.

      • Wayne

        Jack, I am puzzled why you compare socialism to something as trivial as “Toy Story”. Socialism influenced people as varied as Jack London, George Orwell, and Benito Mussolini. It led to the New Deal, the decline of free enterprise in Scandinavia, and made Africa a post colonial mess. I really doubt that “Toy Story” will ever become a classic film.

        • “Toy Story” is already a classic film. It’s also pretty close to a perfect film.

          And being on a list of things people need to know about doesn’t make them equivalent, except that they are all on the list. Boy, I hate it when people do that in comments. I said that I wasn’t interested in socialism. I’m not interested in calculus. I’m not interested in the Kardashians. I’m not interested in string theory. I’m not interested in beetles, or Renoir films. The fact that I’m not interested in them doesn’t mean that I fail to understand their importance, or fail to educate myself about them, nor does the fact that they are all on the list of “Things that don’t especially interest Jack but that eh reads and learns about anyway” doesn’t mean that I think they are the equivalent of each other on the significance scale.

        • Chase Davidson

          “Toy Story” not a classic film? It radically changed the course of an entire cinematic genre. Just because you don’t like something or aren’t interested in it, doesn’t make it any less good or influential. I hate horror movies, but I understand that ‘”Poltergeist” and “Friday the 13th” are both classic movies that both defined their genre and altered the overall culture.

    • I have to say Wayne, your response is exactly the reason for Jack’s post and what it has to say about people in an earlier generation and lack of current cultural awareness! And the dig on millennials is silly, as the baby boomers have classic narcissitic examples just in our presidential election as well. Should other generations not care about baby boomers (or Gen X, or Y, or the “2000s”) because some members are jerks?

  3. Carcarwhite

    Love and kindness are effective in any age bracket. Even though I knew most of these, I find being a good listener, interested and authentic Is most important. Also the more I know about my own nature, flaws, biases, the more I can relate to others on a much deeper level than pop culture.

    I am not saying to be dismissive of them, but I think there is more power in the underbelly of us as humans that what pop culture things we like or don’t.

    Maybe I don’t get the article?

    • You don’t get the article. Listening will not make up for ignorance of the nature, values and attitudes in the evolving environment and culture around you, nor does listening help you understand references that you are too isolated to understand.

      • carcarwhite

        I tried to get it and don’t. Who picks this stuff to “get?”

        I really tried to get it.

        I guess if you are a student of pop culture? But, I’ve never had a hard time relating or understanding people. I suppose when I don’t know I ask, and then they educate me very quickly.

        (I do this a lot when traveling or meeting people outside my normal “group” which is weekly)

        There is far too much to keep up with it seems you confirmed that knowing 65 of the 100. (again WHO said this was the stuff to know and how are they qualified?)

        I don’t think values come from Toy Story or Janet’s boob, or any of the other things on that list. The current values are reflected all over the place.

        I will stand by my most effective way of bridging any gap is asking questions, being interested, listening and being genuine. People want to be heard and have a real connection in life, that can come in various ways.

        I am glad this works for you and others and that you get it. I still don’t get it or I do and don’t agree. BUT I still respect and love your blog!

        • If you don’t know or follow pop culture, you increasingly don’t understand the language, reasoning, motivations and values of people younger than you, because you cant possible comprehend how they see the world. It is cause and effect. Simple as that. It should be obvious, but I have found that it’s not.

          I don’t know why Toy Story is so bewildering in this context. Toy Story is to millennials what Snow White and Peter Pan was to earlier generations. The different values and attitudes between the two eras are significant, and the movies are part of the puzzle.

          • I completely agree with you. I’m in the later half of the Gen X’er generation (not that it matters). We have a 12yo daughter. In the car when driving, I let my daughter listen to her music or stations talking about things she’s interested in most of the time. I might not like it all, in fact many of the songs I find dull, boring, inane, bad, etc (Just cannot get into Hip/Hop after being a classic rocker) But I do like knowing what is going on currently, not just in her life but in the world around us. My wife does not do this, she hates the songs/info so they listen to music from our generation. But I can tell she misses out on a lot of the cultural references that come up in discussion, or news, or other items. The one I’m more behind in is television shows, as I can’t sit through most of the reality tv shows, but I do know what many of them are and what they’re about.

  4. I was absolutely dumbfounded that I couldn’t get past 84 separate items on the list, I really thought I’d do much better than that and I’m pushing 60. I remain very active, involved in my community, involved with younger children, and have a really Really wide life experience to draw from to help bridge the gap – but I guess I need some catching up to do too.

    Personally, I think there is a little less generational gap between those around my age group and our children; however, the generation gap between my age group and our grandchildren is ‘UGE! The advantage I’ve got is I’m quite tech-savvy and I still can, and I’m willing to, take the time to learn new things, and fortunately at this point I can still learn quickly. Keeping up with the grandchildren generation will probably be difficult.

    The generational gap between my age and my parents was a freaking chasm and in some ways it still is, but in other ways there was a sturdy bridge of respect built years ago and that bridge has been well used. In my experience, the generation gap between my generation and our grandparents was less than it was with our parents.

    The biggest problem I see with the generation that <25 is lack of respect, a sincere lack of discernible logic, almost no critical thinking, and it doesn't seem that teaching ethical behavior wasn't much of a focus of our children's generation when it came to teaching our grandchildren – that's OUR failure!

    Maybe it's just because I'm inching my way into my later years of life that I'm noticing that.

  5. Emily

    I’m an older mellennial myself, so I get all but one or two of those. There are many things on there that I’ve never seen or heard, but I know *of* them, I can explain the context and make or understand a reference.

    I also, in my teens, took an interest in 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s events and pop culture, and I have to say it’s been useful for communicating with baby boomers throughout my life. I recommend that to other young folks, because communication is two ways. Of course, a lot of times that happens naturally as you look into the history of things that interest you. (Someone who’s learning to play guitar today will probably listen to musicians from the 60s, someone who learned to play in the 60s might never notice musicians of today. When my brothers got old enough to be into music, they introduced my dad to some bands he really likes.)

    • Emily said, “someone who learned to play in the 60s might never notice musicians of today.”

      I think you’re just flat wrong with that assessment.

      I picked up a guitar in 1972 and I do and I personally know guitarists that are older than I am that are constantly listening and exploring today’s music. Metal ROCKS!!!!!!!!!!!! I’m a huge fan of bands that blend metal with symphonic undertones and overtones – bands similar to Nightwish, Stream of Passion, ReVamp, Tarja, etc. I play it all the time at home and the band I’m in is branching into that realm a bit now too. Musicians are “artist” and true artists just never stop exploring to stretch and you MUST listen to explore new techniques and styles.

      • Some might call what I talked bout above as some branch of Progressive Alternative Rock, I disagree with them.

        I’m not currently a fan of Death Mental, I just don’t find that guttural kind of music pleasing to my ear – and to be honest that may be exactly the point of the genre in that case it great at what it does.

        • Emily

          It’s funny, I like Nightwish too, but I’m not a metal fan at all. I come at it more from the fantasy geek direction, along with bands like Blackmore’s Night and Faun. Bands that combine styles are always cool that way, the audience can come from totally different directions.

          And then, to throw in another direction, Nightwish’s cover of The Phantom of the Opera is my favorite version of the song.

          • Emily said, “Nightwish’s cover of The Phantom of the Opera is my favorite version of the song”

            I like that version too for what it is; however, I’m more of a purists and that is a core for me that was enhanced by my theatrical experiences. Nightwish does a really nice job at it but it’s a bit over the top for me; that said, it has its moments here and there that make the hair on the back of my neck stand straight up, still it’s not my go to version.

  6. Other Bill

    I’m 65 and am variously aware of about forty items.

    There’s still a time issue here Jack. Most of the time, I feel as if I’m still trying to get through my high school summer reading list. I’ve finished “Recapturing Lost Time” recently, and a bunch of Racine and Moliere. Now reading Greek tragedies. Done with Prometheus and Oedipus. On to Elektra now..

    By the way, I’m not a fan of Mr. Zimmerman getting the Nobel prize for literature. Bob’s a genius, all right, but he’s a genius at giving an entire generation (mine) what it thought it wanted to hear and getting it to pay for it.

  7. dragin_dragon

    OK, I’m 71 and a quick perusal of the list yields about 70 items I’m familiar with. Since I am now stone deaf, most of the newer music items eluded me, since I can’t hear them. I loved the music of the ’50’s, ’60s and ’70s, and I got to hear some hip-hop before the ears faded, but thought it to be a symptom of the cultural rot. Z, my favorite is Iron Butterfly and virtually ALL folk music, such as ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’. Actually saw some value in some of the protest songs, such as ‘One Tin Soldier Rides Away’. To be as fair as I can, I am familiar with Taylor Swift because she is as cute as a button…I have never heard her music, sadly.

    • Other Bill

      DD, her music is cute as a button but not much more. Teenage girl angst to perfection. She grew up across the street from my moot court partner in law school and her daughter. TS is evidently from a very good, grounded family and a very nice girl. And now fabulously wealthy. Good thing her father is a Merrill Lynch stock broker and investment adviser.

  8. Wayne

    Ok, I watched the video of “The Fresh Prince Theme Song” and for rap (which I generally dislike) it was mildly interesting. But “a turning point in history?” Give me a break! And Paris Hilton’s main claim to celebrity is that she’s pretty, had extremely rich relatives, and made a sex tape that got out. I guess that I should be reading People Magazine than learn where Aleppo is and why it’s important.

    • You are making a fool of yourself, Wayne. I wrote:
      Is it more difficult for the old to keep up with culture as it evolves than it is for the young to learn the historical and cultural reference that will help them engage in critical thought and cross-generational communication? No, it just seems that way. As people age, they tend to dismiss new cultural developments and ideas as fads and foolishness, when they are no more faddish or foolish, and often just as significant and influential, as what are now recognized as turning points in history and crucial catalysts for societal change. It is a terrible mistake to be ignorant of current popular culture, for as an individual becomes more estranged from the culture, he or she becomes its victim rather than its participant and beneficiary.

      That’s what I wrote. Nobody who has a spaniel’s understanding of English would read that to say that every entry on that list or ANY of them are or are ikely to be seen as “turning points in history.”

      If you are determined to misconstrue the very straightforward point of the post: we have an obligation to keep up with popular culture or we gradually become unable to communicate, empathize or function sufficiently to be a trustworthy or productive part of it. If you want to celebrate willful ignorance, go ahead. Don’t distort my words and meaning in the process.

      • Other Bill

        You’re right Jack. I think the point is basically, “Don’t be a jerk. Be as open as you can.” A good idea.

      • Wayne

        If you are implying that most of the items list represent a sad drift in our culture toward mediocrity and a focus on trivia, I would agree with you. There is a big difference between hip on this stuff and learning to become up to date on the latest technology however. As far the Beyoncé, I really don’t think she will have any historical important except for her stupidity at the Super Bowl.

        • Chase Davidson

          You’re still missing the point, I think, by getting hung up on the idea of historical significance. Events are only historically significant in hindsight, but it’s important to understand the artists, events, and works that define the culture. You’re being parochial and dismissing things because they’re not important to you.

          • Wayne

            What! You don’t think that 9/11 became historically significant almost immediately after it happened. Truly amazing. Some art works become historically significant shortly after they are completed too such as the painting Guenica which is now in the Prado now. One could reasonably argue that the Woodstock Festival had signicant cultural importance. Perhaps you are confusing current popularity with importance.

        • Wayne, I’m going to let someone with more patience explain this to you.

  9. zoebrain

    Note: List will differ with your geographic location.

    • Well, sure. Nor am I endorsing that list as THE list. I’m not qualified to create THE list for that segment of popular culture.

    • Chase Davidson

      I should point out as well that the list will differ from subculture to subculture; people like to lump everyone of my generation together in the same boat, but we have very different cultural influences. I think the obligation to be culturally literate isn’t just a matter of understanding different age groups, but understanding different cultures and subcultures that you will come in contact with, such as, to name a few examples, American Black culture, LGBT culture. or the Bible Belt culture.

      • Chris

        Very good point. I was surprised to not see Buffy the Vampire Slayer on the list; that show probably had as big an influence on the modern television landscape as anything else. But I don’t think the list is meant to be definitive, and does seem pretty random. Still a good list, though.

  10. Wayne

    Here’s an article that all that believe current pop culture is important really should read: https://www.google.com/amp/elitedaily.com/life/pop-culture-making-society-stupid/amp/?client=safari

  11. Alex

    I’ll acknowledge that being under 40 I’m cheating, but I got most of the list. Now I wonder how I’d do with one looking in the other direction (stuff us whippersnappers should know about our elders’ world). One thing I do appreciate is when people an age bracket above mine come up with the best pop culture riffs – just recently a coworker 10 years my senior referenced Skrillex, and that is on the tail end of MY age bracket!

  12. Isaac

    “It may come as a shock to the young people who now write and edit the paper, but there are many of us who are not familiar with the lyrics of “popular” music…and therefore know nothing of your newfangled “Bob Dylan” not to mention “Elvis” or whoever this kid “Beat-Hoven” is.
    -Gandalf
    (PS The Age of Men totally sucks.)

  13. E2 (nee Elizabeth I)

    I think you should have placed more emphasis on the cultural literacy of all citizens on history, art, and pop culture — as well as the ability for everyone to place themselves in space and time, and in the context of both past and current events and culture. I am assuming — and correct me if I’m wrong — that your post is aimed at a particular demographic for your readership, so that the focus of your piece was a perceived need for the current or soon-to-be elders to keep pace.

    That said, I see a horrible dearth of knowledge of history, art and culture on the part of today’s young people, as well as people from an earlier generation or half-generation. And I don’t see it being addressed on either an institutional or individual basis. I do think many, many people are so consumed with their jobs, with their children, with ‘getting ahead,’ etc., that they simple lose any passion, curiosity or regard for matters of any kind that fall outside the workings or demands of their daily lives, and leisure time is no longer regarded as a time when personal enrichment can be found. It is depressing. And from a civic standpoint, it helps leave those people more prey to every charlatan that comes down the pike.

    My son is an exception: he knows more history and cultural touchpoints from the past than any other kid (in his early 20s) I have encountered. And he did not learn this in school, but through his own insatiable curiosity. (But it may say something that the radio in his car has buttons for both ska (sp?) music and classic jazz…)

    I do remember with some embarrassment an incident with my niece, whom I generally regarded as relatively shallow and uninformed, talking about her desire that her kids learn about the Bible, mythology, and the ‘great books.’ She said then that “you can’t understand any intelligent writing, for example, without knowing the metaphors… and they don’t teach that in schools anymore.” But then I think she’s also an exception.

    But to your main point: you have shamed me into paying more attention to the millenials’ culture and art. So you’ve done that job well. I would thank you but really don’t want to…

  14. Spartan

    Wow. I only got 68, and I’m still fairly young. I’m so out of touch ….

  15. deery

    I missed two, but I’m at the tail end of Gen X, so it’s almost like cheating.

  16. Unless I’m mistaken, the list is a little light on video games. Is this an unfortunate omission, or a statement on video games’ ephemeral nature/lack of impact on popular culture?

    • You are right, and that’s a serious flaw. Puzzling. Video games are obviously a major pop culture divide. And I’m hopeless at them. I stunk at pinball, too,

      • I’d bet good money that more people know and care about MMORPGs (like World of Warcraft and Ultima Online) than know or care about Lindsay Lohan’s life and career, to say nothing of economic impact. Oh, and remember when Google ate up millions of man-hours or productivity just by putting Pac-Man in its doodle? There’s no way that at least one of the great arcade games doesn’t deserve a mention.

        • deery

          The list is tailored towards the Millennials, and for them, there really isn’t such a thing as “one of the great arcade games.” Video games were something always meant to be played at home for them.

          I’m trying to think of a video game meme that pierced the public consciousness. “The cake is a lie”? Taking an arrow to the knee? Is Grand Theft Auto too Gen X to qualify? Call of Duty perhaps? Have any of those broken through enough to understand the reference without actually having seen the original? Tough call.

    • Chase Davidson

      I think the problem is twofold. The first, I think, is media bias. Video games are still viewed as pointless diversions designed for children, stereotypical “nerds”, and hardcore hobbyists, and I think the media hasn’t yet caught up on the impact video games have on pop culture, outside of specialized sources such as Kotaku or PC Gamer magazine. When games are actually discussed in the media, it tends to only be in terms of how they’re being used for other purposes (Such as treating PTSD), or pearl-clutching about how M-rated games like Grand Theft Auto are destroying children’s minds, rather than discussing the medium as art.

      The second problem is one of technology, which is that the industry has moved more and more to try and sell consoles with exclusive games, which means that for all but the most hardcore of gamers, who can splurge on multiple devices, there are becoming fewer common points of reference.

      If I could name the 5 games that I think have had the most impact, at least for my generation, I’d name “Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare” (turned a previously mediocre franchise into a genre-defining cultural juggernaut), “Portal” (originator of “the cake is a lie”), “Lego Star Wars” (the video game equivalent of Toy Story), “World of Warcraft” (a similar economic and cultural juggernaut to Call of Duty), and “The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim”.

  17. Jack, I disagree at least partially with your assertion that “cultural literacy,” as you describe here, is necessary. My experiences among Amish Americans and their culture insofar as I learned it and came to understand it, but also more significantly, my experiences in the (“sub-”)culture in which I consider myself grounded (if not as well-grounded in it as I might prefer, and, even if not as “popular” as what “popular culture” in the U.S. is today), secure my peace of mind with my disagreement.

    Your diligence about ethics and apparent trustworthiness notwithstanding, I refuse to trust, say, a Harvard Law graduate who’s roughly my age, any more than I trust, say, Jimmy Fallon or “Matt and Trey,” for authoritative argument about “what I should know” regarding global, regional or local culture – especially culture (such as it is) in the U.S.

    I agree that “life competence” is an ethical obligation. Any culture that is less self-destructive and more self-sustainable than, say, the Republican Party, promotes such competence.

    But, I do not agree that “Being willfully ignorant of current popular culture is as much of an ethical lapse, and as great a threat to societal cohesion, as young people not bothering to learn about “Moby-Dick,” minstrel shows, Will Rogers, Stephen Foster, Babe Ruth, Charlie Chaplin, Fred Astaire or Lee Harvey Oswald.” Perhaps, being so much nearer death than birth, I am at peace with the truth that history (well, what we call history) is simply made to be forgotten and repeated – “Never again!”s notwithstanding.

    Life competence in the U.S. these days requires less literacy of “current popular culture,” and more skill at “LA!-LA!-LA!-LA!-LA!-ing” so much competing noise, distraction and diversion out of one’s life, to be able even to begin to recognize what is worth knowing, let alone focus on what is worth sharing and valuing in common.

    So it is fair to ask at least rhetorically, of the asserted threat posed by willful ignorance of “current popular culture,” at least in the country that has been known as the United States of America: WHAT “societal cohesion” exists in the U.S. anymore? So, WHAT threat?

    Maybe I should be challenging you, Jack and other blog commenters: How is current U.S. popular culture enhancing societal cohesion?

    Follow-up: Given the celebration of cultural diversity that modern media enable and sustain (even when they’re not trying, or are aiming for the opposite!), along with the ultimate incompetence of every authoritarian regime to homogenize its subjects permanently with “literacy” of what such a regime might consider “culture,” how realistic is it, ever, to expect near universal literacy among Americans about any one unifying culture?

    One’s grounding in, or assimilation into, a culture which one recognizes as “their own” is, certainly, a desirable state for a person, for the sake of basic social functionality if nothing else. That culture, however, need not be “popular.”

    Seems if we “old folks” have learned anything from U.S. “culture wars,” it is that thriving minority communities can (and do) exist within a larger society – and even, can be (and are) exalted by (and bring benefits to) larger communities, even if never blended seamlessly into those larger communities. The minority communities thrive while living according to their own unique cultures; they are certainly full of persons uncompromised in their common fundamental values. But just as certainly, given time and fortuitous action of forces, those persons are no worse off for being “different” than any person in any “popular culture” that may have “cultural” tendencies to reject, marginalize, or otherwise be unaccommodating, even hostile, to persons of the “different” culture.

    Likewise, one’s recognition of a culture which is NOT “one’s own,” including rejection of such culture to the point of being “illiterate” or even “ignorant” of much, even of most (if not all) of “the other” – even, willfully “ignorant” – is not necessarily detrimental to an individual. Nor is it necessarily detrimental to the segment of society in which the individual is grounded or “cultured.” Nor is it necessarily detrimental even to a larger (surviving, somehow), multicultural society. (see previous paragraph, first sentence)

    But, as far as culture in the U.S. is concerned, it’s basically “over.” The only potential for restoring a unifying culture in this part of the world – or, cultural literacy with a unifying benefit – would rest in and with those who survived an all-out, coast-to-coast war of mass destruction, and who took relentless pains to preserve amongst their community whatever remaining known history that led to, and that was made by and through, such destruction and its survival. Imperfection of course perpetuates imperfection.

  18. Chris

    Jack, this is a tangent, but your comment about “Scandal” made me curious: have you seen the show? You write about ethics of television episodes every now and then, and I’d be curious to get your take on it. I loved the first few seasons for the over-the-top political thriller aspect, but it ultimately came to strike me as one of the most ethically bizarre shows I’ve ever seen. It was always about unethical people doing unethical things–the strongest storyline involves the main character trying to cover up a rigged election–but I had to give up at a particular scene when a character invites her murderer boyfriend to her murderer father’s house for dinner, knowing said father had said boyfriend tortured for months. It’s so unethical that it’s literally inhuman–no one would ever behave like these people do. Why it continues to get positive buzz is a mystery to me–it’s got a diverse cast but it’s politics are regressive as Hell. It also has a “Republican” president who does nothing but spout liberal positions. I hate-watch from time to time for amusement, but it’s dreck.

    • Your experience and mine are about identical. In the same category is “How to Get Away With Murder.” I’ve been meaning to write about both of them.

      If you’d stop arguing so capably with me, I’d have more time!

  19. GC

    Some strange choices in this list. “Now That’s What I Call Music”? Really? When did that album come out, 83? 84? If we take Strauss and Howe’s definition of a millennial (born 1982), the eldest of the cohort would have been one/two years old when it came out. And Fight Club? No. Not aimed at millennials.

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