Being the greatest, as superlatives go, is better than being relatively good, but, like any vacuous term, might not do the intellectual labor good modifiers should. Identifying the best generation, for example, requires that we think through the terms and conditions under which different age groups live and have lived, the demands and triumphs of their epoch. Such comparison requires measuring the immeasurable. Some generations were forced to overcome tremendous challenges, at times one after another. Other generations were raised on mass media and commercial comforts, and they elect actors, bodybuilders, and reality television stars to public office. Nonetheless, each generation faces challenges, and the individual human remains the simple building block of every generation. Some can afford to be whimsical, experimental, or stupid, and some can’t. In this light, therefore, as we look back on the values of specific generations, why do we think that past people were better and certain times simpler?
The answer might be self-fulfilling: we’ve told ourselves that’s the case.
All nationalities and ethnicities have stereotypes: Americans are loud, opinionated, and ignorant; the French are snobs; the English are arrogant and pedantic. From a certain remove, we might notice that these stereotypes begin to look a bit similar; they indicate a perception of the unfamiliar, the other, and the boundaries created by perceiving difference without depth. Specific stereotypes, embodied as characters or symbols, act as a release of the tension of foreignness through humor. To be fair, most individuals, foreign and domestic, understand that people are people, therefore a mixed bag, and stereotypes, at best, are wry generalizations and, at worst, stigmatizing clichés. We can laugh because we’re not robots, but we also often blanche at the obtuseness. We certainly can, and perhaps should, accept others as they come, and learn a familiarity with that which was once so strange while changing and being changed in the process.
The video, in all its forms and formats, however, has distorted our relationships to the unfamiliar by giving the appearance of familiarity. Stereotypes, as a form of shorthand used to characterize without character development, to keep things moving within a fifty or ninety-minute format, provide opportunities to form opinions without the context to nuance those opinions. In other words, we believe what we see, whether or not what we see is purposefully shallow or unrelatable. More people have seen an episode of an American sitcom than have gotten to know an American, and they believe the representation.
Sitcoms, police procedurals, reality television, and movies depict a reality and lifestyle that, though foreign to most Americans’ experiences, is more familiar to foreigners than baseball or apple pie. Seeing is believing, and more Europeans have seen American Sniper and NCIS than will see the inside of an American home. This effect, interestingly enough, is not only a foreign experience. Americans think Europe and Asia through the Discovery Channel, The History Channel, foreign films, and American depictions in film and television. Only honest experience can teach that other places are only where other people live, differently but with a certain commonality, the mixture of which requires depth, time, and patience for understanding.
The effect of representation is not limited to space and proximity. Representation has corrupted our sense of time, as well. Many still living remember the fifties and sixties. They point out that they were there, when, of course, we’re dealing with time and not place. They experienced the way the world was, and it was better. Well, that statement is true in some ways. There’s no historical or objective evidence for better, but they experienced one slice of an infinite reality. They didn’t, however, experience reality as a whole, and their memory has shifted over time, been distorted by emotion and forgetfulness. They didn’t share their neighbor or their relative’s experiences. They have, on the other hand, shared popular culture with many of their neighbors and relatives.
Mary Tyler Moore and Dick Van Dyke’s twin beds have done more to shape perceptions of the early sixties than anyone’s memories ever will. Millions of people, children of all ages, have watched Mary and Dick climb into bed separately yet together. Millions have watched Andy Griffith take Ron Howard fishing, and a few (hopefully) are whistling the theme song as they read this. The past has become something we consume, and our biases about that past derive from the emotive nature of the media we consume for emotional purposes.
People the world over watch television for the same reasons: the emotional jolt, the quirky, charismatic characters, the beauty of the music and imagery, and the experience that good wins, without having to think about what it means for good to function in the world. We are what we eat, and the content of the culture we consume constitutes our minds. We recognize the greatest because we’ve seen it on television wearing a white hat and sleeping in a twin bed.