01 September 2020

Culture as Play - from Shakespeare to "I Shot the Sheriff"

Baby boomers made Clapton's cover of Bob Marley's "I Shot the Sheriff" #1 in 1974. Now they’re offended that millennials are protesting police brutality.

Culture makes for weird politics.

William James was one of the first Americans to argue for multiculturalism. Like his brother Henry in England, William was a bestselling author (William wrote the nation’s first psychology textbook and helped to invent pragmatism). At Harvard, he helped to define the university that granted various degrees, each offering a different way to look at the world, a different specialty. He also thought the term multiverse made more sense than universe.

Clark Kerr, who helped to define and lead the University of California system, argued that it was better to think of California’s college and university system as a multiversity rather than a university. Not only would it grant such a wide variety of degrees and guide people through a variety of ways to think, but Californians would use their college system for a wide variety of reasons. Many, not one; multi, not uni.

The one sustainable solution to the question of culture is, of course, multiculturalism. Everyone goes to China Town or Little Italy for the food and some come back with their gods or philosophy. There is no one way to be an American any more than there is one American food.

It is as absurd to argue for one culture as it is to argue for one personality. Culture is a fabulous invention and to evoke it is to manipulate an audience. One of the reasons Shakespeare’s plays so captured Elizabethan England is because people were coming into the city in unprecedented numbers and the stage gave them a place to study and learn the roles society might expect them to fill. 

Shakespeare had a huge influence on culture – something we take seriously – and yet he defined culture through a marvelous invention we call the play.

About 20 years after Clapton's #1 hit, Ice T wrote "Cop Killer." It was wildly controversial but it got people’s attention. The album went gold and made Ice T a star. Ice T’s biggest role, the source of most of his entertainment income, did not come from music, though. It came from television. For 20 years he has played a detective on ... Law & Order. Ice T isn't really a cop killer and he's not really a cop. 

Culture is defined by people at play and what politicians have learned is that the easiest audience to play are voters.

When Trump tweets LAW & ORDER he - like Ice T - could be mocking it as the outlaw he loves to play, the president who has had 7 advisers (including his personal lawyer) arrested for felony charges, the man who defends a 17 year old killer or could – again like Ice T –actually be calling for a calming of the turmoil that so worries his older supporters. (You remember them, the ones who sing along with Clapton.) Like Ice T who plays outlaw or cop depending on which one pays the most, Trump plays outlaw or peacekeeper depending on which one gets him the most attention or votes. While Ice T and Trump are playing roles, their audience takes them seriously.

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