Chapter 4: How Culture Shapes Our Meanings

Mythmakers: Gospel, Culture and the Media
by William F. Fore

Chapter 4: How Culture Shapes Our Meanings

"Greed works."

-- Michael Douglass in the film Wall Street


The Spirit of Capitalism

The new technologies of electronic communication have taken on a central, dominant role in our culture. But why? Why have TV and radio and film achieved such success in our society? After all, technologies flourish only if they are useful in society.

For example, about the time color TV came on the market, General Electric also came out with the oven hoods that contained electric exhaust fans. For thirty years the electric oven hood has sold an average of less than a few hundred thousand units a year, while today almost every household in the United States and Canada owns at least one color TV set, and more than 5 million sets are sold annually.1 What made the difference? Simply that our North American culture could hardly function as we know it today without color TV, while the loss of the electric oven hood would scarcely be missed. In other words, the mass media did not simply impose themselves upon our culture: something in the culture itself needed what the mass media of communication could supply.

As I have studied the mass media and their effects for many year, I have come to believe that the formative power that made mass communication technology both possible and powerful was the development of industrial capitalism. Capitalism, in its industrialized form beginning about two hundred years ago, was something radically new in the history of the world. Growing over the previous two centuries out of the Renaissance and Reformation focus on the individual, and building momentum from new economic ventures, new markets and new industrialization, its fundamental values were pragmatism and technology. Its measure of success was efficiency. Its method was standardization. It asked only "does it work?" not "what, or whom, does it work for?"

In order for standardization to work, everything -- including people -- had to be fragmented, that is, divided into components that could be put together quickly, cheaply and with as little attention to individual differences as possible -- like in printing. This affected everything in our society, but especially the way we communicate. With standardization came fragmentation, separation. Cultural historian John Staudenmaier believes that capitalism tends to separate people's inner selves from their outward "persona," that is, the self they project to others. Finally, it tends to separate news and information from their context, so that we find it difficult to connect bits and pieces of information in ways that make sense to us. And it tends to separate those who shape public mass media messages from their audience, so that we cannot easily judge whether the writer or speaker is "real" or trustworthy. 2

Capitalism is not just an economic theory of infusing profits into businesses to produce more goods. It also brings with it an ideology, which Staudenmaier believes is essentially anti-human:

The frightening invention of capitalism is not the creation of artificial or new needs. The terrible invention is the concept that there is such a thing as purely physical or biological need. Other social systems had treated human beings as social entities, not biological machines. Only capitalism . . . conceived of human beings as raw material. 3

An interesting example of capitalism's determination to standardize people was the development, beginning in the 1830s, of the etiquette book. At that time waves of new immigrants were arriving in the cities of North America, and etiquette books emerged which taught these newcomers, who would become middle class citizens, how to avoid misbehaving in public. Society's leaders saw etiquette books as valuable management of an unruly underclass; its readers saw them as a valuable way to climb the social ladder. Here, for example, is advice from an 1889 book called "Success in Society":

Never look behind you in the street, or behave in any way so as to attract attention. Do not talk or laugh loudly out of doors, or swing your arms as you walk. If you should happen to meet someone you know, take care not to utter their names loudly. 4

Today's "etiquette manuals," such as House Beautiful, Woman's Day, Cosmopolitan, Playboy and Field and Stream, continue to tell us how to dress our selves and our homes, how to play and work, how to treat our children and friends, and above all, how to act in order to be a "success in society." Today's other "etiquette manual" is, of course, television.

A hundred and fifty years ago, the demands for conformity and standardization were most pressing in the area of industrial production. In 1815 the U.S. Ordinance Department standardized its weapons production, which set in motion a revolution in all production values. Not only was the Winchester repeating rifle a cheap and efficient way to subdue the Indian, but its interchangeable parts were the harbinger of new ways to produce and move goods of all kinds.

Consider, for example, how grain transportation changed radically during the 1860s. In St. Louis, following the old system, grain was bagged, loaded onto train cars, then off-loaded at the edge of town where the tracks ended, carried by wagon across the city, and then loaded onto river boats. By contrast, in Chicago a new design allowed the grain to be bulk loaded into cars because the company owned tracks all the way to the docks, where the grain was bulk loaded onto grain boats. Historian J. L. Larson points out that the Chicago system was far more efficient, but it also eliminated the ability of the small operators -- the loaders, the cart drivers and so on -- to negotiate their own contracts, and thus to maintain their livelihood:

If the Chicago system was a model of integration, speed, and efficiency, the St. Louis market preserved the integrity of each man's transaction and employed a host of small entrepreneurs at every turn -- real virtues in ante-bellum America. 5

The new capital-intensive standardized system in Chicago eliminated many of the variables -- human negotiations -- and increased profits much more rapidly. It was, in terms of the rapidly developing cultural value of efficiency, a very "successful" system, though hundreds of small operators lost their jobs.

Control of all components of society became an even more important for a profitable business climate as we moved into the twentieth century. Social scientists began to write about the importance of social management. For example, in 1889 sociologist Edward Alsworth Ross urged

the right persons [that is, social scientists] to undertake the study of moral influences . . . in the right spirit as a basis for the scientific control of the individual. 6

Ross warned that scientists who undertook this task must not reveal their scientific secrets, because "to betray the secrets of social ascendancy is to forearm the individual in his struggle with society." 7

Individual creativity tends to disrupt the smooth functioning of a large production system, and the investment of large amounts of capital in production requires procedures that will minimize risk and maximize profits. Thus Henry Ford could raise the capital necessary to produce the epitome of mass production system only after he designed an assembly line. First identical parts were manufactured; then they were assembled in sequence by identical workers who each attached only a single part, and who were otherwise completely isolated from the process. Ford's assembly line produced a car that could be purchased in only one style and in any color -- so long as it was black. It produced workers who contributed nothing creative to the production and who got no joy out of it, except for their paycheck at the end of the week.

Capitalism's Shaping of Communication

But industrial production and transportation were not the only parts of culture transformed by the spirit of capitalism. Communication was affected perhaps more than other aspect of society, because the new communication technologies were the key not only to production but also to the distribution and consumption of those products.

Consider the transformation of news. Before Morse's telegraph, almost all news was local. The town crier and the local newspaper writers lived among their audiences. When news came from out of town, it often was accompanied by visitors who, as they delivered a newspaper or magazine, could say "but I was there, and it was not like that, it was more like this."

Electronic communication quickly separated source from audience. Soon local newspapers were buying "news" written by anonymous writers in centralized agencies in the big cities. A small town paper in Iowa could get this newly created, purchased news almost as quickly as those in the cities -- but without personal contact. The system that wire made possible was largely a one-way system. The audience no longer was able to interact with the story writers and town criers were no more. The audience became totally passive.

Also, when "news" became a commodity, its content changed. There had to be news to sell every day, whether or not something newsworthy had happened. The newspaper had to be run as an efficient business, selling advertising and appealing to readers (who were now customers) every day. So news had to be interesting enough to persuade the local editor to purchase it on a regular basis, and entertainment value became more and more important. It had to be fast -- faster than the locals could get it elsewhere, or it was worthless. Thus news became transformed from the old story-telling format to an endless conveyor belt of disconnected items. Its priority was to interest as many readers as possible, and immediacy counted far more than accuracy or thoughtful background and perspective.

Radio began in the early 1920s and almost immediately became a commercial enterprise in the United States. While Canada had a mix of public and private radio, as early at 1929 "the majority of programmes heard [were] from sources outside of Canada", namely, the U.S.. 8 Radio took the immediacy of news one step further. Now the audience could "participate" in events "as they happened." But the impression of "being there" was actually based on events carefully selected for their ease of coverage, their universal appeal, and their simplicity. Radio provided an illusion of "knowing" about an event when in reality the audience was given no chance at all to question the situation, to participate in discussion, or to hear a wide diversity of opinions about it. In other words, listeners experienced fragmented communication -- little pieces of information supplied with very little context, background, or perspective. Just as the demands of production had fragmented people into interchangeable jobs and skills that fit the system, so the demands of communication to "reach" people in the mass further fragmented their understanding, yet without touching them in their wholeness as persons. Now even people's ideas were fragmented.

With the coming of television, people were further encouraged to meet the needs of capitalism: to consume without end, to use up, throw away and buy again; to repress individuality so as to not question the process which provided an endless stream of products; to seek the immediate and the sensational, changing the channel every few seconds if it did not provide immediate stimulation; and, above all, never to ask questions about the real meaning of the system itself.

Sylvester (Pat) Weaver, President of NBC-TV in the early 1950s, was one of the first to recognize the true nature of television. In 1955 he told a group of advertising executives that the automation in post-World War II factories required exactly what television could provide:

...the automated business needs a constant, dependable, unflucutating demand for its output. ... This and other solutions to steady demand mean a new kind of selling -- a complete change in emphasis -- educational selling to wean consumers from old habits.... That instrument - the greatest mutation in communications's greatest communications invention -- television. A medium that proved itself, from the first, to be also the most powerful, exciting, flexible of all advertising media. 9

Yes, television and the whole new commercial media environment was a great success, but what was the measure of "success?"

We have briefly sketched how our culture interacted with the new technologies during the last century and a half, producing a new culture based on the technologies. The technologies have "cultivated" the culture, and the culture has appropriated the technologies. To see how this acculturation process works and how the spirit of capitalism has succeeded in influencing our lives through communication, let us look at examples in two rather unlikely situations: an amusement park and the national space race.

Disneyland as Moral Educator

In August 1965, Nikita Khrushchev accepted an invitation from President Nixon to tour the United States. It was the first time a Russian head of state had been on U.S. soil. Khrushchev impressed the American public with his wit, warmth, humanness and nerve, but he also confounded everyone by his insistence that, above all, he wanted to visit Disneyland.

Since it opened in July 1955, Disneyland in Anaheim, California, and its later clone, Walt Disney World near Orlando, Florida, have been hosts to more Americans, and probably to more human beings, than any other single "event" in history. Each park boasts several "lands," scores of attractions, dozens of food facilities and more than fifty shops, employs three to seven thousand people depending on the season, and entertains about 10,000 people on an average day.

Why was the premier of the Union of Soviet Socialists Republics determined to see Disneyland? Because Disneyland is the American Dream, the American Way, and when one has been there, one has experienced a unique distillation of our values and our worldview. Disneyland is a gigantic sales machine of American culture. And as Walt Disney himself explained to Lloyd Shearer on a tour when Disneyland first opened in 1955, it sells just one product:

What I'm trying to sell here in Anaheim is what everyone wants, happiness. You can call it corn or cotton candy or escape, or anything you want. But to me I'm selling happiness.

Now, what's most conducive to happiness? Simply a pleasant experience in the company of happy, smiling, friendly people. ... If this park ever becomes successful, and everyone tells me it's gonna fall flat on its face, it won't be because we keep it clean and don't sell gum or because we provide great fun and games -- it will be because our personnel sincerely sell happiness. Hell! That's what we all want, isn't it? A little bit of happiness! 10 

Every major civilization envisions some kind of utopia that it feels constitutes the ideal life. The early Hebrews had the Garden of Eden. The Greeks had Plato's Republic, and early Christendom had Augustine's City of God. St. Francis, St. Dominic and St. Benedict proposed whole environments, monastic orders that attempted to express the ideal living condition. In early America several settlements, including as New Salem, the Shaker communities and the early Mormon towns, were based on views of the ideal life.

Today Disneyland performs the same function. Disneyland has become a kind of utopia, a vision of the ideal life for twentieth-century Americans, a place where pilgrims from every corner of the nation and world assemble, bringing the whole family, a place to which they often return, again and again, throughout their lifetime.

Disneyland is divided into several "lands," all accessible through Main Street, which provides an avenue of transition from the reality of traffic jams, smog and vast car parks to the fantasies of clean, orderly and non-threatening Adventureland, Tomorrowland, and Frontierland. But Main Street is itself fantasy, as Walt Disney explains:

It's not apparent at a casual glance that this street is only a scale model. We had every brick and shingle and gas lamp made seven-eighths size. This costs more, but made the street a toy, and the imagination can play more freely with a toy. Besides, people like to think their world is somehow more grown up than Papa's was. 11

Main Street leads to Tomorrowland, which boasts a vision of the future as envisioned by "America's foremost men of science and industry," according to Disney. 12 The exhibits are in fact provided by some of America's largest corporations -- General Electric, American Telephone and Telegraph, Monsanto and so on -- and generally extol the virtues of technological progress while familiarizing people with the latest gadgets developed by industry. The constantly repeated message is: "technology is good for you," and never mind the problems of environmental pollution, decaying inner cities, homeless thousands or poverty-stricken millions.

Fantasyland fulfills its name. It comes right out of Disney's film productions, a place where we meet animated "real-life" versions of goodness personified (Snow White, the third Little Pig, Dumbo, Pollyanna) and the essence of evil (the Wicked Queen, the Big Bad Wolf) -- and thus learn to divide the world into good and evil, watching goodness triumph with a smile and a song.

Frontierland is less childish. It is built around scenes of conquest -- -- conquest over the American frontier, the American Indian, and over nature itself. But the stories of Davy Crockett, forts and Indian attacks bear little resemblance to history and its real people. For example, culture analyst Michael Real notes that "mechanically reconstructed animals and plants in the Nature's Wonderland part of Frontierland stand out as an antithesis to the sensitivity to nature maintained in real life by Native Americans." 13

While from an individual perspective Disneyland offers pure fantasy, from a cultural perspective its mythmaking -- the stories and environmental settings -- provide powerful indoctrination. In any culture, the most dangerous communications are those that we do not take seriously. And if we add to the equation the great technical skill which Disneyland's managers focus on every aspect of our experience, we have awesome communication indeed. Michael Real evaluates the overall "message" of Disneyland:

Disney's ethical dramas seem to serve the "civil religion" of America, which combines the strains of the Puritan theocrats and the republican Founding Fathers. Disney presentations lack the "ultimacy" necessary to be considered religious. Nevertheless, to the rootless youth of southern California, Disney becomes an important reality-adjusting mechanism: the Disney universe offers a larger-than-life ground and source of beliefs about life and people and society. 14

Khrushchev was right to visit Disneyland. What better place could one go to understand American culture? And have fun at the same time?

Merchandising the Moon

Cultural myths and values are sold to us not through recreation alone; they also are sold through information. Perhaps the most significant, and most successful, information-selling process of the second half of our century was the selling of science and technology through the American space program.

"That's one small step for a man; one giant leap for mankind!" When Neil Armstrong uttered this epigram and implanted the first footprint on the moon in July 1969, the impression seen instantly by hundreds of millions of persons was unforgettable. But that event, while dramatic, only crowned twelve years of careful indoctrination managed by a remarkable marriage of two of the most powerful forces in American society: the military-industrial complex, which needed to generate a national fixation on the wonders of science and technology in order to sell the Congress and public on ever-greater expenditures; and the mass-media news and information complex, which needed the drama and scope of a race to the moon to capture the millions of viewers necessary to sell commercial time-slots to advertisers.

It was a marriage made, if not in heaven, then surely in the USA, because at the time these two institutions were uniquely American. Since the development of the atomic bomb and its deployment at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, the United States had held undisputed worldwide dominance in both military and industrial prowess. At the same time American advertising had grown into the single most powerful element of the burgeoning American production and consumption cycle.

It was only natural that these two giants should find common interests. In some ways the selling of technology, especially military technology, began with the dropping of the first atom bomb. We now know that in 1945 the creation of the image of the atomic bomb was as important to the decision makers as its actual military effect. That summer, with Germany already defeated and the cities of Japan in flames, the Target Committee appointed by President Truman discussed whether or not to drop the bomb. In recommending a "go" to the President they stressed "(1) obtaining the greatest psychological effect against Japan and (2) making the initial use sufficiently spectacular for the importance of the weapon to be internationally recognized when publicity on it was released." 15 Here the government was beginning to understand what the business community had long known: that it is just important to sell the image of the device as the device itself. If the metaphor is not too grisly a metaphor in this context, government was learning that when it comes to the marketplace, you sell the sizzle, not the steak.

In fact, selling the space race was not fundamentally different from selling next year's new automobile. The automobile industry had learned a great deal about selling during the first half of the century. When Henry Ford merchandized his Model T shortly after World War I, advertising was based on the assumption that the seller and buyer were equally accessible, equally knowledgeable, equally powerful. So Henry advertised the intrinsic quality of the product itself: his cars were relatively inexpensive, ran well, were easy to fix, and lasted a long time.

But as mass produced goods of all kinds continued to flood the market, advertising began to change. Its objective became how to motivate people to buy more and more of the impersonally produced, impersonally sold goods -- without losing the "personal" touch. In 1919 Henry was selling Fords in a society where 90 percent of the populace had never owned a car. But by 1923, he face a radically new situation: 90 percent of his potential buyers already owned a car. Yet the production-consumption cycle had to go on. The solution arrived in the person of Alfred P. Sloan, president of General Motors. Sloan recognized that advertising must take a radically new course. It must convince people to identify who they are with what they own, to be dissatisfied with what they have, and to believe that new is better. These were the essential new myths. If the public bought these myths, could be sold anything -- including a new car -- whether they needed it or not. Thus GM products, using the new advertising approach, made great strides during the late 20s and early 30s simply by changing the styling, adding push-buttons for windshield wipers and ventilation, and giving the public a choice of colors and chrome trim.

In addition, advertising learned to deal with the fantasy life of its audience. To stay with the automobile illustration, cars no longer were merchandized as transportation machines but were sold primarily as extensions of the self -- symbols of power, of sexual drive, of freedom, and status. However, the machine aspect was still important, and advertising for next year's models was filled with encouragement about horsepower, power transmissions, overdrive, and other quasi-technical jargon -- all designed to convince the potential owner that he (and most auto ads of the period were blatantly sexist) was in charge of something powerful, something amenable to his will and control. They sold the sizzle, not the steak.

The conquest of space simply built upon these bedrock principles of the emerging advertising industry. The mythmakers went to work. The space ship was itself an example of man (sic) conquering the new frontier -- space itself. The astronauts (a word coined for the occasion, and richly evocative of the sailors and adventurers of Greek myths) were candidated and chosen amidst a blaze of publicity. Out of all five hundred or so military pilots in the entire United States, only a few dozen were selected for the final tests, and of those only the famous Seven were chosen. All were white, from middle-American small towns, and had typical "American" families. We soon got to know John Glenn, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong better than most of the people living on our block, thanks to non-stop television coverage of their lives, families, training, and successes and problems. Advertising well understood the importance of personalizing the product, and the space race was no exception.

Present, too, was the emphasis upon manned flight. While the USSR's space program depended much more on automated flight, the U.S. program emphasized control by humans -- even though in reality all John Glenn could do was peer through a tiny window during most of his flight, while computers and ground signals managed the actual controls. The space program also depended upon another automobile innovation: the unveiling. Where new car models had been carefully concealed to hype consumer interest and then unveiled in a blaze of lights (or in carefully staged "spy" photos), the latest rockets, boosters, and command capsules were unveiled at Cape Kennedy amid even greater blazes of light and hype.

Finally, NASA knew the importance of education along with ballyhoo, and a huge Space Center was erected at Cape Kennedy (just a few miles from Disney World) where families could see a super-wide-screen movie celebrating the technological marvels of the space program, tour actual rockets and historic space capsules, and on occasion even see a blast-off of one of the many space launches. Added to this, of course, were millions of copies of various readers made available to public schools for the edification of children, and Sunday supplements with the same information, adult-style, for their parents. The message of the selling of the moon was simply that technology is the most powerful force in human affairs, and that the United States is "ahead in the space race." The importance of Americans accepting this mythology can scarcely be underestimated. It was the engine that moved Congress to allocate enormous sums to maintain the wealth and power of the military-industrial complex. It motivated a change in public school curriculum during the 1950s and beyond toward science, mathematics and engineering at the expense of history, communication skills and the liberal arts. It supplied the mythology that fed a magical belief in the ultimate power of science, or rather, of scientism and technology, which to many people amounted to the same thing.

Culture changes as people try to orient themselves in their world and to explain to themselves "what's going on." It changes even more under the influence of a strong ideology. For most nations in the Western world in our time, the prevailing economic ideology is capitalism. But capitalism influences far more than economics; it profoundly influences the total culture. Our culture, and its communication modes have changed more during the last century and a half than in any other period in cultural history. In this time of advanced capitalism the mass media sells etiquette books, interchangeable jobs, packaged news, and everything from automobiles to satellites -- all to meet the demands of technologies and worldviews that work best with standardization and conformity.

We have hinted at some of the values and worldviews embedded within this culture in which we find ourselves. Let us explore these more directly, and see how they compare and contrast with the values and worldview of people who call themselves Christian -- those who try to relate to the values and worldview of the gospel.


1. U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, "Census of Manufacturers, Preliminary Report Industry Series," MC82-I-366-4(P) May 1984, p. 3.

2. John M. Staudenmaier, "The Influence of Communication Technologies on Modern American Culture: A Framework for Analysis," paper presented at the University of Dayton Conference on Religious Telecommunications, Dayton, OH, September 26, 1988, p. 4.

3. Michael Schudson, Advertising, The Uneasy Persuasion: its Dubious Impact on American Society (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1986), p. 143.

4. Lydia E. White, Success in Society (Boston: James H. Earle, 1889), p. 188, cited in John F. Kasson, "Civility and Rudeness: Urban Etiquette and the Bourgeois Social Order in Nineteenth-Century America," Prospects 9 (1984): 156, quoted in Staudenmaier, p. 6.

5. J.L. Larson, "A Systems Approach to the History of Technology: An American Railroad Example," a paper read at the annual meeting of the Society for the History of Technology, 1982, p. 17, quoted in Staudenmaier, p. 13.

6. A. Michael McMahon, "An American Courtship: Psychologists and Advertising Theory in the Progressive Era," American Studies 13 (1972): 6, quoted in Staudenmaier, p. 14.

7. Ibid.

8. Task Force, p. 7.

9. Weaver, Sylvester, "Selling in a New Era," speech to the Advertising Club of New Jersey, 24 May 1955, quoted in William Brody, "Operation Frontal Lobes Versus the Living Room Toy: the Battle Over Programme Control in Early Television," Media Culture and Society (Beverly Hills: Sage) Vol. 9 (1987), p. 353.

10. Lloyd Shearer, "How Disney Sells Happiness," Parade, March 26, 1972, p. 4, quoted in Michael R. Real, Mass-Mediated Culture (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1977), p. 51.

11. Richard Schickel, The Disney Version: The Life, Times, Art and Commerce of Walt Disney (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1968) p. 323.

12. Disneyland Souvenir, p. 25, as quoted in Real, Mass-Mediated Culture, 56.

13. Michael Real, Mass-mediated Culture (Englewood, NJ: Prentice-Hall 1977), pp. 46-89.

14. Michael Real, Mass-mediated Culture, p. 77.

15. Martin J. Sherwin, A World Destroyed: the Atom Bomb and the Grand Alliance (New York, 1977), p. 228.