Thoughts about the coherence of culture arose yesterday as a subject of our morning conversation. Put another way, is there anything resembling consensus in this country or is it rather that multiple groups, with contradictory views, are competing for followers? It might be argued that “competing groups” are a rule and that a situation we see in 2015 was just as true in 1815 or in 1915. Furthermore one needs to be on guard. Chaotic times produce a kind of pervasive discomfort—and the feeling that today’s situation is both new and in a way permanent. Not so. Ours is not the only time when “the center cannot hold.”
Part of the problem with incoherent times is that such periods are matters of perception or feel. They don’t quite reach down to the ordinary levels of practical daily life. When they do, we’ve entered a Time of Troubles. The feel in the 1960s was one of broad consensus; now the feel is one of sharp polarization. But objective measurement of such a pair of suppositions is difficult. One just knows—but how does one know? Largely from the media.
In 1960, for example, the three television stations, ABC, CBS, and NBC, were not meaningfully different. Today there is Fox in addition, MSNBC attempting to balance Fox, and neither much interested in international matters. For that we have CNN—unless a train derails. In 1960 both the New York Times and Wall Street Journal were bland; both have developed clear ideological edges since. In 1960 radical right radio had not yet appeared; Rush Limbaugh was still 30 years away; now it is present. Once Congress regularly passed annual budgets; now it is in perpetual deadlock.
From the media, yes—because, in the neighborhood the rule is still to suppress any kind of controversy by simply not talking about polarizing subjects. Therefore the sound of deep conflicts necessarily comes from the media. Polls taken of public opinion are unreliable because, on hard subjects, people echo the blandest opinions, especially if their own gut feel is unpopular in the media. All disagreements are labeled “phobic” and no one wants to be labeled “phobic.” Reasoned opposition to many movements is not heard in an age of abbreviation and slogans. Thus even what little consensus seems to exist is in actuality questionable. Therefore it’s all just a feeling—but we also live in an age in which feelings rank higher than thought.