This will be the first of four, inter-related posts examining the relationship between culture, technology, and political ‘visions.’

Cultural Fragmentation, Effort Shock, and The Karate Kid

If you subscribe to any National Review­-affiliated newsletters, you may have noticed that they have been making interesting observations on America’s culture and the implications for our politics.  For example, in the February 6th version of his “Morning Jolt,” Jim Geraghty discussed cultural fragmentation and the challenges it creates for political satire.  S.T. Karnick, the editor of this website, wrote to Geraghty in response, and Geraghty reprinted this portion of Sam’s thoughts in the February 8th Jolt:

My contention has long been that the American culture in fact conveys conservative values much more than most people realize. Two NR examples of this are here and here. I try to foster a greater understanding that what is most important is not the surface events/impressions of cultural products but the meanings they convey. It can require a bit of work to ferret out these meanings, and different people will draw differing conclusions about them, but it is necessary for a real understanding of the state of the culture.

Your observations about our fractured culture are spot-on. It is true that many cultural products are easily dismissed, and that the American culture has fragmented so thoroughly that the only yardstick people seem able to share is raw popularity. That is perverse, of course, but it also goes to my point above: unless conservatives look to the values purveyed by cultural products, instead of surface impressions, we cannot provide any sound alternative standard of judgment.

Writing in National Review, I characterized our current state as The Omniculture, noting that with ever-decreasing costs of production of cultural products, along with the loss of a shared set of values (which began in earnest immediately after World War II, not the 1960s), we have a schizophrenic culture that both reflects and reinforces a disturbed society. (Unfortunately, only the second part of the original two-part article is available at NRO.) In the Omniculture, I note, everything happens, and the same is true of present-day America. I do not see any way that this can be replaced with a common culture, but I do believe that we on the Right can be salt and light in encouraging those who produce good things and forthrightly but fairly criticizing what is not…

In the end, we on the Right must, above all, generate support for those in both popular and elite art forms who create works that expand the mind, elevate our concerns, and show the characteristics that increase human potential and those that limit it. This can be done through criticism, patronage, and consumer purchase. Our culture currently is superb at showing characteristics that limit human potential; the dearth I see is in products that show how great people can be. But merely complaining about it won’t change it, and without a culture that supports liberty and personal responsibility, it is exceedingly difficult to imagine how we can have a politics and society that do the same. This must be built from the ground up, over time, and with real money and real wisdom.

Obviously a lot of meat to chew on, but Geraghty chose to focus on Sam’s relatively minor claim that America’s culture contains a “dearth” of products that show people how great they can be.  Geraghty suggested the opposite is at least as likely, as the message that “everyone is special… persuades people that they have a lot more human potential than they actually have, or perhaps it’s that they get an unrealistic sense of what it will take to unlock their human potential.”  He then reprinted a provocative selection from an essay at the humor site, which argued that The Karate Kid ruined the world.

Every adult I know–or at least the ones who are depressed–continually suffers from something like sticker shock (that is, when you go shopping for something for the first time and are shocked to find it costs way, way more than you thought). Only it’s with effort. It’s Effort Shock.

We have a vague idea in our head of the “price” of certain accomplishments, how difficult it should be to get a degree, or succeed at a job, or stay in shape, or raise a kid, or build a house. And that vague idea is almost always catastrophically wrong.

Accomplishing worthwhile things isn’t just a little harder than people think; it’s 10 or 20 times harder. Like losing weight. You make yourself miserable for six months and find yourself down a whopping four pounds. Let yourself go at a single all-you-can-eat buffet and you’ve gained it all back…

America is full of frustrated, broken, baffled people because so many of us think, “If I work this hard, this many hours a week, I should have (a great job, a nice house, a nice car, etc). I don’t have that thing, therefore something has corrupted the system and kept me from getting what I deserve, and that something must be (the government, illegal immigrants, my wife, my boss, my bad luck, etc).”

I really think Effort Shock has been one of the major drivers of world events. Think about the whole economic collapse and the bad credit bubble. You can imagine millions of working types saying, “All right, I have NO free time. I work every day, all day. I come home and take care of the kids. We live in a tiny house, with two [lousy] cars. And we are still deeper in debt every single month.” So they borrow and buy on credit because they have this unspoken assumption that, [darnit], the universe will surely right itself at some point and the amount of money we should have been making all along (according to our level of effort) will come raining down. . . .

How have we gotten to adulthood and failed to realize this? Why would our expectations of the world be so off? I blame the montages. Five breezy minutes, from sucking at karate to being great at karate, from morbid obesity to trim, from geeky girl to prom queen, from terrible garage band to awesome rock band.

Now, we’re all familiar with the Five-Minute-Transformational montage, but The Karate Kid is a bad example of this syndrome.  Remember all the time Ralph Macchio spent painting his karate teacher’s fence, and waxing his car? (“Wax on, wax off!,” with a flourish of hand-swirling).  Those hours of mindless drudgery were not pointless, though, because Macchio was practicing basic karate movements that would become the foundation of more advanced moves.  Ralph Macchio did not suffer from a deficit of effort in The Karate Kid; in fact he displayed remarkable dedication to mastering a difficult and complex skill, which made the ultimate comeuppance of his adversaries at the end of the film so satisfying.

However, Cracked still makes an important point:  the entitlement mentality does seem to be depressingly common in today’s America.  People increasingly act as if they deserve whatever their hearts desire, and they should get it now.  This fundamentally childish attitude cannot be entirely attributed to government dependency, because it is not limited to people who depend on the government for support.  You can hear it from the “Occupy” movement, voters irrationally excited about receiving a free cell phone from Obama, the complaints of unemployed workers (including new college graduates) who can’t find jobs in their preferred field and, yes, homeowners still blaming “Wall Street” for the mortgages they signed but couldn’t afford to pay.  Once this mentality sets in, however, statism is sure to follow, because it’s a short step from believing you deserve a certain level of success and comfort from the world to demanding that someone in authority provide it.

Tomorrow:  Where does the entitlement mentality come from?