Tuesday, November 28, 2023

The Final Days of the American Monoculture

The last month or so has been a difficult time for the former American monoculture. No one is quite sure when it stopped, but more and more evidence of its absence is all around us. And when I say monoculture I’m not talking about demographics. I’m talking about the shared experiences that people within a land and a country, which has borders, have to remember. The traumatic version of this is still evident. If you’re a baby boomer and older, it’s the “where were you when Kennedy was assassinated?” question and if you’re Gen X or a millennial it’s “where were you on 9/11?” 

These are both traumatic days for the country and a group of people called Americans. Both stretched beyond America onto the world, were experienced around the globe to varying degrees, and evidence of America’s once unchallenged role in the world. But there is also a positive version of these moments that reflect not tragedy and trauma, but joy and shared culture. 

Much of this change from mono to subculture upon subculture can be summed up to how technology has advanced to increase our choices, especially the advent of the internet as commonplace, and how media and programming is delivered. If we’re all tuning in and experiencing, even if on our own time, it’s increasingly going to be something going wrong, something tragic. However, in the days of three or four network channels these moments were created by “appointment.” Consider the finale of “M.A.S.H.”, which was seen by an estimated 60% of American households in 1983, an estimated 106 million people. A decade later the finale of “Cheers” garnered about 80 million viewers. Five years after that, “Seinfeld” held serve at 76 million. And six years after that, a show that increasingly feels like it took place entirely in the 1990s, “Friends”, garnered around 52 million. This past month one of the cast of that show, Matthew Perry, who played Chandler, died at the age of just 54. While Friends was largely about Gen X characters and experiences in the big city, it was consumed more and more by millennials. 

Consider one of the biggest water cooler equivalent shows in recent years, “Game of Thrones.” Its finale garnered just 13.6 million viewers, although the critics of it sounded like more than that and rightly so. Point is, we don’t have these more positive, “where were you, when” cultural moments. This phenomenon isn’t limited to television shows being bifurcated across many consumer streaming choices. It happened to music years ago. And don’t let the tentpole Marvel films fool you – it also happened to cinema. In the 1990s, Saving Private Ryan did massive box office numbers, especially if you adjust it for inflation. Today, it’s hard to imagine anything other than a Marvel film pulling in large box office numbers, and when it does – it becomes a breath of fresh air and we’re genuinely shocked each time it happens (think Top Gun: Maverick). 

In a world where we’re theoretically more connected than ever, and have more “friends” than ever – we’re bowling alone more and more, if we’re going bowling at all (because those are closing down too. Too much physical activity I guess, not as exciting as video games or better yet, watching someone play video games). While the passing of Matthew Perry, whose struggles with addiction and his battle to overcome it became one of the heartwarming stories of 2022, his death in 2023 is a mortality wake up call for his generation, Generation X, in a way that Kurt Cobain and company’s death was not. And for the generation raised on Friends, a show about the time in your life “when your friends are your family”, there was an additional layer of bittersweet. “Friends” coinciding with an era of genuine renewal in New York City (the Rudy Giuliani years) and along with the mostly insufferable “Sex and the City”, became the cosplay that the vast majority of millennial transplants to the city in the 21st century were attempting. While those living their best Carrie Bradshaw-life are currently hitting a wall, it’s notable that by the “Friends” finale – all the characters were growing up and moving on. They were getting married. Having kids. And the generation the show depicted and the one younger that watched – similar marriages, mortgages, and children are leading people into an aspirational home and family dynamic that will eventually lead to a rebirth of wholesomeness in American life, even if it won’t be an entirely ubiquitous one. It’ll be enough to win out over the forces of automized life and cosplay (fakeness). Authenticity and realness will win. 

Stretch back even further, and the baby boomers experienced their own bittersweet moment in these last days of common time and place life experiences – the last Beatles song. “Now and Then” debuted and along with it a video which showcased a rare quality usage of the benefits of modernity and technology in-tandem. The video reunited John, Paul, George, and Ringo on screen just as the music track did. Tears flowed from many. I’m sure some of them are getting clicks as reaction videos right now.

Whether it’s television show finales, or finales from the greatest band of all time, more and more we’re being reminded of another finale that is creeping up – the time when as Americans our unifying moments are either tragic, or they’re the Super Bowl where we’re more interested in the commercials.

The American monoculture. Could it be any more dead? Perhaps this deep down, is what we’re mourning every time the last vestiges of a common people and culture slip away. And setting aside that analysis, it appears even more certain that this is what we’re trying to find again as this century begins to come into shape and form. A post-American world need not be a post-American country, culture, and people too. 

Troy M. Olson is an Army Veteran, a lawyer by training, and the co-author (with Gavin Wax) of the upcoming book ‘The Emerging Populist Majority.’ He is the Sergeant-at-Arms of the New York Young Republican Club and co-founder of the Veterans Caucus. He lives in New York City with his wife and son. Follow him on Twitter and Substack at @TroyMOlson.


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