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Spring 2008 | Volume 31, Number 1 | Features

Hope and American Culture

Hip, hype, or hope? Understanding underlying tendencies in the culture we engage

By Bill Woodward, Professor of History in tacit collaboration with Phil Woodward ’05

The following analysis draws on earlier work presented as the 2005 Winifred Weter Faculty Award Lecture (pdf) (audio), augmented with songs from Phil Woodward’s recent CD –– songs intended as musical reflections on C.S. Lewis’ story The Great Divorce. Phil Woodward ‘05 is currently a doctoral student in philosophy at Indiana University.

America began as hope. That was the direction off the ends of the docks of Europe. The common European phrase novus mundus, the New World, became freighted with meanings: sometimes a narrowly individualized ambition, sometimes a broadly religious and inclusive humanitarianism, but always the confidence, to quote Abraham Lincoln, that we are the last best hope of earth.

Hope has many vocabularies. The American Dream. The pursuit of happiness. The Promise of American Life. Or the electrifying mantra of presidential candidate Barack Obama, who vaulted onto the national stage in 2004 with a speech proclaiming that “this country will reclaim its promise,” and now campaigns on the theme of “The Audacity of Hope.”

Deeply embedded in the American soul is an instinct that clings to possibilities, yearns for brighter tomorrows, sees horizons as the beginning of beyond, cherishes hope. Against all realistic readings of the past, Americans yearn for the new-and-improved, the possible over the probable, the promise instead of the here-and-now.

John Winthrop in 1630 preached a famous sermon to his fellow Puritan colonists about the “City on a Hill” they would build. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963 preached a famous sermon to his fellow Americans about a dream of freedom and equality. From our earliest founding to our most iconic vision, Americans have preached the promise.

But the American Dream is a poor substitute for the bedrock Christian virtue of hope. That’s the implied point of a great work of Christian literature, C.S. Lewis’ little fantasy, The Great Divorce. Accordingly, it infuses a recently released concept rock album by alumnus Phil Woodward, titled “Ghosts and Spirits,” whose songs profile Lewis’ characters.

Today I’m going to combine my own analysis with references to the book and the album to explain the culture we at SPU say we are engaging with Christ’s transforming gospel.

Promises unshackle tomorrow from yesterday, and breathe hope into today. But promises can lead to betrayal and frustration no less than fulfillment and improvement. And so it is in recent decades. Recent American experience manifests not just the persistence of the American Dream, but paradoxically an undercurrent of fear, of frustration, yes, even of betrayal and a simmering anger. From road rage to gangsta rap, from political talk-show venom to hate speech, our media and our social interchange seethe with resentments and thwarted dreams, impelled by a celebrity culture bent on selling instant solutions.

I want to trace with you the historical roots of this anger — or at least of one aspect of it. Then I want to call you back to today’s theme of Christian hope. Bold and authentic hope should be the stance of the Christian university toward the American promise, the Christian response to the American dream, the Christian antidote to hip and hype.

The Great Delusion (as interpreted in advertising)

One key dimension of the American Dream I call “the promise of entitlement.” To illustrate, let me recite some advertising slogans. (How many you recognize will reveal your age.)

You’ll wonder where the yellow went, when you brush your teeth with Pepsodent.

Come alive: you’re in the Pepsi generation.

You deserve a break today.

Plop, plop, fizz, fizz: Oh, what a relief it is!

Tastes great! Less filling!

Just do it

15 minutes can save you 15%

Advertising agencies have for nearly a century honed techniques of imprinting the output of American business on the cortex of American consumers. (Not coincidentally are product names called “brands,” recalling the fiery imprint on a steer’s flank.) As consumer goods proliferated in the 1920s, so did the advertising of those goods.

In marketing the American dream, the ad biz has preached a gospel that we deserve what is advertised. We live in an Age of Entitlement. Americans have come to believe they have earned the right not just to a lifestyle rich in material comforts, but also to protection from uncertainty and want, not just the pursuit of happiness, but also its guarantee. Advertisers accordingly reinforce those expectations: go for the gold, grab for the gusto, claim the open road before you.

The Ad Biz created a culture of hype. Hype can be directed two different ways. The first tactic appeals to greed, getting you to want something you don’t have. The second appeals to fear, getting you to try to protect yourself against something you might have, or be threatened by. Indeed if necessary the ad biz invents something new to worry about, which, as luck would have it, their product could fix. Lifebuoy Soap copywriters back in the Roaring Twenties revealed a hitherto unknown threat called B.O. (explained in fine print as “body odor”), then showed the girl reversing her humiliating danceless social life by bathing with Lifebuoy.

The messages subtly shifted over the decades, however. Many ads in the 1920s invited upward mobility: Buy this product and be like the Beautiful People. After the Second World War, the lure changed its tune. Now it was be like everybody else. But then came another switch. Rather suddenly, toward the end of the 1950s, it was don’t be like anyone else: be yourself, be different, be cool, be hip. (Or, at least, be just like everyone else who’s trying to be different.)

In short, the Ad Biz fostered a Culture of Hype — appealing to greed and fear. But the Ad Biz also created a Culture of Hip — pandering to pride.

In both cases it’s buying the stuff that gets you the style. But the ultimate appeal is to security: advertising subtly amplifies anxiety. You not only deserve to get what you want, you deserve to be protected from what you fear, like being uncool.

Here’s how it works. Ads preach that the antidote to anxiety, the key to entitlement, is control. The key to control is choice. The key to choice is an unlimited variety of things to buy, in order to keep up with the unending markers for being cool.

You deserve a break today: that’s the way the Ad Biz sells the Promise of Entitlement.

And it doesn’t work. You can’t escape from fear. Greed is never assuaged. Status is always unattained. So you are angry. You blame yourself. Or you blame the system. But you get mad! Security through consuming: That’s the Great Delusion of our culture.

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