By Mark Rodgers
It’s been a long time coming.
Almost 20 years ago, while working on the Hill and hosting a conversation with UVA sociologist James Davison Hunter over lunch, I recall waking up to the growing impact of the popular culture, and its inevitable trajectory to surpass education, family, faith and journalism as the dominant worldview shaping force in 21st century America, and possibly the world.
We now have a billionaire reality show President who might be challenged in 2020 by a talk show billionaire. The British monarchy has been invaded by an American actress. Rap music is the voice of protest on the Arab street. Blockbuster films like Black Panther and Get Out, and music videos like I’m Not Racist and This is America are our conduits for conversations about race. As is Roseanne. One former president is writing fiction and another is advising Netflix, along with his wife.
“Barack and I have always believed in the power of storytelling to inspire us,” Michelle Obama said. “To make us think differently about the world around us, and to help us open our hearts and minds to others.”
It’s the pop culture, stupid, that is shaping society. And it’s been a long time coming.
“Cultural liberalism wins battles when its omnipresence just seems like the natural air we breathe,” Ross Douthat observed recently while commenting on Samantha Bee. “Direct political hectoring plays against that strength; instead of the subtle nudge of a sitcom’s implicit values …”
Robert DeNiro’s f-bomb laden hectoring was a case in point. None of us like being lectured.
I was reminded last month at the news of Tom Wolfe’s passing, however, of another lunch conversation I had while on the Hill that woke me up as well.
I had invited Wolfe to meet with Senators and senior staff when, over a pizza lunch with him (an existential threat to anyone in a white suit!) I mentioned that his novels were as important to shaping society as our laws. He chastised me. His stories reflect reality, I recall him saying, while political power shapes it. The bully pulpit, he felt, was perhaps the most important stage in America.
I think he was rebalancing my enthusiasm for his craft, not rejecting it. He was reminding me that culture-shaping is a “both-and” proposition.
Our firm is named after the 18th century Clapham Group, which included both William Wilberforce, a member of Parliament, and Hannah More, a playwright, poet and author. They led the effort to “reform the manners” of England, to correct the consequences of an overindulgent and coarse society. Their engagement was “both-and”; political and cultural.
Our society is coarse as well now, historically coarse. We all know it. I’ve talked to many friends on the Hill who are concerned about deepening division, growing animosity, a loss of shared vision, and creeping despair. How do we “renorm” society, or is this the new normal?
It will take “both-and.”
In watching the recent documentary about Mr. Rogers, I was reminded of third lunch conversation I had in the Senate Members’ dining room. He was from Pittsburgh and we both attended seminary there. We talked about our shared interest in theology and our different approaches to integrating our faith and our work.
After describing the Wilberforce/More reformation of manners effort to make “goodness fashionable”, Mr. Rogers lit up. This was our common cause! He wrote me after to encourage me in my “media project”, and although he died a few months later, our brief encounter has been an ongoing encouragement ever since.
Regarding our current crisis of coarsening, the documentary asks “What Would Mr. Rogers Do”? Would he persist his counter cultural crusade of civility? Or would he throw in the terrible towel?
“I don’t think his message is partisan,” the filmmakers said. “He’s saying we all have the capacity to change for the better.”
We can change for better, but we have changed for worse. A series of studies on cultural rudeness have concluded that rudeness is like the common cold: it’s contagious.
The gentle spirit Mr. Rogers wore cloaked a steely resolve, and I believe he would have doubled down on his counter-cultural crusade. But I do know that he would encourage us to engage “both-and” to make goodness fashionable again.
The space between the television and viewer is “holy ground,” he said.
And so is the bully pulpit.