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Pop goes the culture

By Dr. Robert Owens
web posted January 11, 2010

Culture to a human is like water to a fish.  We move around in it constantly but we don't notice it very much.  Though unnoticed water can have profound effects on fish.  Too cold and they freeze.  Too hot and they boil.  Not enough oxygen and they suffocate.  Too polluted and they choke to death.  In a similar fashion the culture in which we move shapes us in many subtle ways.  If it's refined the world we perceive and the world we deal with is refined.  If it's crude the world is crude.  If it's toxic t the world is toxic.

An Icon in our 21st century whiz-bang gotta-have-it-now-twitter-me-when-you-get-in-line world is associated through the cultural tags we've recently embedded in our minds through computer screens and cell phones as stylized display figures representing the various functions or resources available on a particular piece of hardware.   However, in the jargon of Cultural History an Icon is an image or figure which represents someone or something regarded as embodying the essential characteristics of an era or group.

The first universally accepted icon in America for America was Miss Columbia.  In 1697, Samuel Sewall wrote a poem which suggested a good name for Brittan's American Colonies would be Columbina a feminized version of Columbus.  In 1775, Phillis Wheatley, a former slave, sent George Washington a poem invoking Miss Columbia as the spirit of the Revolution.  During the War of 1812, many political cartoons featured Miss Columbia and by the mid-nineteenth century she became the standard figure representing America.   She was popularized by Thomas Nast who also gave us other icons such as the Democrat donkey, the Republican elephant and the American Santa Clause. 

Uncles Sam knocked Miss Columbia off her pedestal.  Uncle Sam has his origins back in the early days of the Republic but the final version of Uncle Sam that most people are familiar with today comes from World War I.  In 1917 James Montgomery Flagg drew the famous "I Want You" recruiting poster and created the enduring image of Uncle Sam.

This is a brief history of the development of American national icons from the day Hancock wrote his name until the advent of technology-driven mass-media.  Since then we've alternated between embracing and fending off new Icons coming at an ever-accelerating pace.  Like Lucy in the Chocolate Factory we're dealing with these images so fast we've become overwhelmed, and culturally neutered like the Hawki in F Troop

Ever since Andy gave Barney a bullet, Mary Richards threw her hat in the air and the Jeffersons moved up-town we've been trying to manage the swirling images of America.  We can't decide whether we're the Brady Bunch or All in the Family.  Are we happy and contented knowing Eight is Enough or are we forever wallowing in the self-pity of Married With Children?  In a simpler time John Boy wished Mary Ellen goodnight with the affection of a brother, and the Fonz was a hood with heart. 

That Girl showed us women could be single, decent and successful now we get Sex in the City and Cougar Town.   Good guys used to wear white hats.  Elliot Ness always won.  Now Tony smiles as he drops off his neighbor's daughter from soccer practice then later shoots the girl's father in the back of the head without blinking an eye over a poker debt then comes back the next day to take the daughter to soccer practice.  It was just business.   Larry David endlessly curbs his enthusiasm by making up intricate rules to live by and then expecting everyone else to live by them.  The Office shows us how the corporate bureaucracy really works while Parks and Rec shows us how government would work if it was that honest or efficient while 30 Rock shows us how the Media thinks we think it works.

Entertainment is entertainment and news is news but once you see an image you can never un-see it.  The icons we fill ourselves with become the world we perceive.  We get to choose what we fill our minds with.  Is it positive or is it negative?  But the masters of media also get to choose what they promote to portray America.  Is it Columbia with flags waving leading us to freedom, Uncle Sam with a kindly face asking us to serve or is it dogs barking at hooded prisoners and people being water-boarded that our media moguls constantly ram down our throat.  Do they show the people delivering a Thanksgiving turkey or the homeless pushing a cart full of rags?

A picture is worth 10,000 words so we need to be aware of what images say to us and remember we can choose the movies we watch, the shows we follow and the things we read.  And reaching back to that culture as water analogy we've gone from a social compass that kept our ship afloat to whatever floats your boat from the Mayflower to the Love Boat and let's hope not the Titanic. ESR

Dr. Robert Owens teaches History, Political Science, and Religion for Southside Virginia Community College and History for the American Public University System. © 2010 Robert R. Owens





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