Sunday, July 31, 2005

A Crass Course in American Culture

The sight of a feeble old man being publicly humiliated is not a comical sight--and yet, I must admit I derived some satisfaction from watching Bernard Goldberg get picked apart by Jon Stewart in an interview on the latter's show a couple weeks ago. Goldberg, the former CBS newsman turned conservative commentator, was on the Daily Show to promote his new book 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America (and Al Franken is #37). Appearing in front of an unsympathetic crowd on a late-night cable TV show specializing in satire, I'm not quite sure what he hoped to achieve.

Despite his unflattering performance, I nonetheless ventured to read Goldberg's book for myself. Now it would be easy to poke fun of the man for being a "square" and hopelessly "out-of-touch" when he rants about the increased proliferation of sex, profanity, and other crass elements into the popular culture. However, between his predictable take on stale subjects such as obscene rap lyrics and frivolous lawsuits, Goldberg does raise some valid points. One segment that especially resonated with me was his complaint of the cheapening of "serious news" into "murder-of-the-week crime shows or vehicles for dumb celebrity ass-kissing interviews." Having worked so long for CBS News and 48 Hours, Goldberg's anger here is palpably personal.

Yet even the occasional astute observation doesn't provide enough depth to back his claims of a depraved society. In his book, Goldberg never examines the cause of today's social trends or suggests why they are accepted and embraced by the public. Instead, he chooses to excoriate an arbitrary assortment of pop culture icons, left-wing academics, and other public figures who annoy him. The vast majority of his targets actually wield little to no influence on most American's lives. Barbara Streisand, Paul Krugman, and Paris Hilton's parents are key members of this unholy alliance which possesses such extraordinary control over public civility? The sex lives of adults today are guided by episodes of Two and a Half Men? Give me a break.

Undoubtedly the creation of "the list" of 100 people was a clever marketing ploy for the book, designed to be controversial and draw attention. On that note, it has succeeded. Yet the list also happens to be the book's downfall. What could have been an engaging analysis of American culture was instead distracted by Goldberg's selections, which do not live up to the title of the book.

The list, which is composed overwhelmingly of people with no real power, also features a majority of people that many Americans may never even have heard of. Many of Goldberg's villains--rabid feminists, liberal cartoonists, college professors, partisan polemics--make ripples only on the fringes of society. Their position outside the mainstream aside, they also happen to be products of the culture, not the cause of. Try as they might, they really couldn't succeed in screwing up America even if they wanted to!

All in all, 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America is a surprisingly readable book (even for liberals) that has its funny and informative moments. In between that, however, the book is prone to exaggeration, inaccuracy, or flat out missing the point. It's worth a read to check out for yourself the accuracy of this latest purported cultural barometer.

1 comment:

Kevin said...

I didn't see the episode you're talking about, but an unsympathetic crowd won't do you in if you know how to work it. I thought Rick Santorum was setting himself up when he went on The Daily Show to talk about his new book, but he actually handled himself quite well; I think he was even applauded one time.

After watching for a few months, I've realized that if you're going on that show, you only need to be able to make irrefutable (or at least very strong) points and match Jon Stewart's wit once every few minutes. Honestly, it's a comedy program at heart, and if you get the people laughing just a little the audience isn't bad at all.

Santorum threw a joke or two in there, and like all of the other guests who make an occasional joke, he got a good response. He also made the smart move of simply presenting his opinions and beliefs and arguing from them, rather than trying to foist them on the audience; I can see why he's a senator. It's much harder to argue with a guy who says "I did x because I believe y" than one who says "I believe z so you should believe z too!"