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The Demise of America's Moment

January 25, 1998|Richard Rodriguez | Richard Rodriguez, an editor at Pacific News Service, is the author of "Days of Obligation."

SAN FRANCISCO — After a football season that drones on, every weekend morning to night, summer through fall; after "Monday Night Football" and wintry playoffs and two weeks of jock talk on ESPN ("Does Denver have a chance?"), most women I know will get out of the house during Super Bowl Sunday and a surprising number of men, too.

The assumption we make about a society--a village, a nation--is that its citizens are united by memory, shared feelings of joy or grief. But is such a thing--the common moment--possible in America anymore? Executives at NBC doubtless want to believe that America will be watching Super Bowl XXXII (as it is ponderously advertised, in Roman numerals for the ages). After all, two weeks ago, the four major networks clobbered each other for the right to pay the National Football League a total of $18 billion to televise its future games.

But what must trouble media moguls like Michael Eisner and Rupert Murdoch is the dawning realization that television channels keep proliferating, just as that infinity we call cyberspace keeps expanding. Audience shares for the major networks are declining. We Americans are increasingly, variously engaged. We are alone with ourselves.

"You should have seen this country--how united everyone was--during World War II," people used to tell me when I was a kid. They said it with a wondering nostalgia for those terrible years of the '40s. I barely understood what they were talking about.

Then came November 1963. When President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, it seemed to me a consolation that every voice on the radio, every face on TV, was transfixed, for four days, by nothing else.

That memory of a nation in grief now seems now exceptional. In 1992, for example, when Los Angeles was burning, from east to west, one could, alternately, watch fires on Olympic Boulevard, LIVE, or one could watch reruns of Mary Tyler Moore on a neighboring channel. Traditionally, societies gather themselves, turn from the distraction of the week's chores, at week's end, to celebrate life in common. The tyrant always knew this, just as the media billionaire knows this. "Give the mob its entertainment on Sunday!"

Sundays used to be quiet days in America. Americans used to gather to pray. Even after Americans started going to the mall or to the football stadium on Sundays, they sought their entertainment communally. It was that kind of day.

There still are places in the world where an entire town seems to stop for a common hour of prayer or the village watches a soccer match as one. Perhaps today, Green Bay, Wis., will come to a halt for several hours. But Denver? Surely, Denver is too big, too complicated a city to cheer as one.

Whereas: I know a village in the Mexican state of Michoacan where, this week, young people who have moved far away for city jobs--to Dallas, to Guadalajara, to L.A.--returned. For several noisy days, the village has been crowded, young reuniting with old. There have been promenades after dinner; men and women who work as laborers dressed up in fine clothes. At week's end, just yesterday, there was a Mass in honor of the village's patron saint. Then the village gathered in the plaza to gasp and sigh as one at fireworks lighting the dark.

W.H. Auden has a wonderful poem in which he talks about how suffering takes place "while someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along." This seems to me the modern predicament. Last week, I left my elderly mother's bedside several times to find, just one hospital floor below, young couples taking their newborn infants home. Their pleasure made me smile.

Sometimes, in the complicated city, it is reassuring to know that the city does not suffer in common, that there is youth living alongside age. A friend I know tells me, yes, she was saved from a nervous breakdown by the fact that street lights kept turning--green to yellow to red--during her blackest moods, reassuring her that life went on. And so, ultimately, did she.

Other times, however, there is surely a need to experience joy and sorrow in common. Why do we laugh out loud when we are in a crowded theater and not when we are alone? Today in Turin, Italy, the entire town will turn quiet during the evening's soccer match. In Iran, the call from the minaret will turn noisy sidewalks silent.

We Americans gave the world notions of individuality and self-expression. We seem not so easily capable of communal experience.

"You should have seen America during the war," the old-timer sighs. At church today, the minister or the priest will joke about wanting to get home in time for the game. Same joke every year. The congregation will laugh and cough. Everyone knows that it is the money-driven spectacle that will create a semblance of community in America today.

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