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THE CULTURE WARS : The Democratic Spirit's Romance With Trash

June 04, 1995|Neal Gabler | Neal Gabler is the author of "An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood." His new book is "Winchell: Gossip, Power and the Culture of Celebrity" (Knopf)

NEW YORK — Now it's Bob Dole's turn. "We have reached the point," the presidential candidate declaimed last week, "where our popular culture threatens to undermine our character as a nation." Hollywood is turning out "nightmares of depravity," he boils, citing movies like "Natural Born Killers" and "True Romance," neither of which, he admits, he has seen, while extolling fellow Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger's "True Lies" as a film that, presumably, fortifies our national character.

Although Dole is opportunistically whacking an easy target, this, at least, conservatives and liberals seem to agree on: American culture is in a parlous state. Assaulted by rap music and heavy metal, made softheaded by the novels of Robert James Waller and Danielle Steele, stimulated by violent films, narcotized by mindless TV programs and obsessed with O.J. Simpson, we slide ever closer to a cultural abyss filled with trash and nothing but trash.

Who is to blame? Dole, of course, blames a nefarious liberal media elite imposing its sybaritic values on an unsuspecting and upright populace. Liberals blame a nefarious conservative corporate elite reaping profits the only way it knows how--by pandering to our basest instincts. Whichever theory one buys, we ordinary citizens are not held responsible for devouring trash the way we do. We are either too malleable or too stupid to be accountable--malleable because we supposedly spend our money on things we really don't like; stupid because we supposedly like things we really shouldn't.

But if malleability and stupidity are the reigning theories of trash culture, it is probably because cultural critics find them preferable to the alternative. The alternative is that Americans have deliberately chosen the vulgar, the profane, the insipid, the disreputable over things that are supposed to be better for them, and that, at a time when we are hearing a great deal from the right about the exercise of democracy and about restoring power to the people, the effulgence of trash today is a sobering exercise in democracy where it really counts--not in politics but in culture.

To be fair to the cultural critics, trash certainly seems a departure from our traditions. We think of 19th-Century America as a repository of gentility and high-mindedness, beginning with Jefferson and moving through the novels of Hawthorne, the essays of Emerson, the poetry of Dickinson, the paintings of Church. We think of a hard-working, religious, deeply moral people striving to build a nation and a culture. This is the America that conservatives routinely evoke when they talk of traditional American values.

But this America, while not wholly fiction, was only part of the story, just as cultural conservatives are only part of the story today. There was always another America, a larger, more polymorphous America, though it has been expunged from most cultural histories partly because its products were not meant to endure and partly, one assumes, because cultural historians would just as soon forget about it. This America wasn't genteel, it wasn't high-minded, it wasn't even particularly religious. This America loved trash.

In fact, long before O.J. Simpson, Americans craved crime news and turned it into a cottage industry. The scandalous penny press, which sprung into existence in the 1830s as a vehicle for the working class, subsisted on juicy tales of criminal conduct. The case of Helen Jewitt, a young prostitute allegedly murdered by a rich client named Richard Robinson, held New York City rapt for months as newspapers screamed the lurid details and ordinary citizens debated the evidence. At the same time the penny press was selling crime, one of the most popular and ubiquitous literary forms in the country was the crime pamphlet, sandwiched between yellow covers, recounting tales of real-life murder, rape and pillage the way paperback crime stories do today and making national figures of the perpetrators.

It didn't take long for the other accoutrements of trash culture to surface. In short order, violence was joined by pornography, scandal, exploitation and the mindless celebration of fame for fame's sake. By the 1870s, the protagonists of real-life crime and moral transgression were appearing on the vaudeville stage as similar protagonists today appear on tabloid TV shows: human commodities of trash. Today, we have Faye Resnick and Kato Kaelin. Previous generations have had Jesse James' brother Frank, beautiful Evelyn Nesbitt whose husband shot and killed architect Stanford White for romancing her, even Joyce Hawley, a teen-age showgirl who appeared nude in a bathtub of champagne at a scandalous Broadway party in 1926, then hit the vaudeville trail to tell about her travails.

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