The only Oscar nominated movie which I saw was "Crash." When I saw it I hardly thought of it as an Oscar winner but certainly felt that it was an excellent movie. Post award commentary refers to "Crash" as a movie about racism. That misses the entire point of this movie. Racism is nothing new. What "Crash" is about is the segmentation of society. In "Crash" racism is a surface issue. If there is racism in LA then everyone there is a racist. The movie stereotypes white cops, Koreans, Iranians and blacks. The people in "Crash" are clueless about race. They are clueless because they understand only those in the segment of society in which they have chosen to live. Korean grocers are referred to as "Chinamen." They do not understand that the Iranian is not an Arab. The black cop is having a fling with his Latina partner but cannot remember what country her relatives are from. Ludacris acts like a college student complaining how white folks are looking at him as if he is a criminal and then whips out a gun and does a carjacking. No one trusts anyone outside their segment. Rodney King's "Can't we just get along?" question is answered vociferously with a resounding "No! And by the way, Rodney, we really don't want to all get along!"
"Crash" is not simply about racism. It is about the effects of segmentation - the deliberate choice of folks to isolate themselves from all but a small part of society with whom they feel comfortable. The homicide cop (David Cheadle) nails the concept. "It's the sense of touch. In any real city, you walk, you know? You brush past people, people bump into you. In L.A., nobody touches you. We're always behind this metal and glass. I think we miss that touch so much, that we crash into each other, just so we can feel something." Some of our modern technology is segmenting. Cars isolate us from those nearby. Cell phones make people walk down the block inattentive to those physically proximate while they talk to someone far away. Ditto instant messaging. With these technologies not only can we ignore fellow citizens in other neighborhoods but we can ignore coworkers in the same room and people we are standing next to. Technology has made segmentation easier.
For me this is not a story just about L.A. but relevant to America in general. We are a "segmented society." This is a notion spelled out in Robert Wiebe's 1975 book The Segmented Society: An Introduction to the Meaning of America. The segmentation of society is most noticeable regarding politics. You can live in a community where Rush Limbaugh is regarded a the dispenser of the truth. You can live in a community where Michael Moore is regarded as a sage. You can visit left wing web site. You can visit right wing web sites. These processes serve to reinforce one's beliefs. If you want to believe that Bush lost the 2000 election I am sure that there are 100 web sites chock full of material.
I imagine that the best place to witness that is talk radio but I must confess that I never listen to talk radio. But I know that Rush Limbaugh can go on for 1,000 hours about what is wrong with the Clintons and that Al Franken can talk for 1,000 hours about what Bush should be impeached. I would imagine that neither of these gentlemen are saying anything new they are merely "preaching to the choir." For me, these programs are disingenuous versions of the programs which one can listen to after baseball games where fans call in and rally their support for their team. Maybe I am strange but I am much more interested in hearing from people who disagree with me than people who agree. What can I learn from someone who agrees with me?
One thing I am familiar with is cable news. I stopped about 2 months ago because I could not take it any more but for over a year I watched Fox News Channel, CNN and MSNBC almost every day. Each of these 3 networks has its "segment" and reports the news in a manner so as to support the preconceived beliefs of that segment.
My point about the news is that the folks who run these networks know full-well what they are doing. The segmentation exists and they are merely trying to monetize it. Ratings = Income. No one understands segmentation better than advertisers.
The Internet has become a bizarre example of segmentation. I find this strange because the Internet should be a desegmenting force. It is an equal opportunity, equal access thing. But instead, if you hate Bush you visit Daily Kos and get your dose of Bush-bashing. You enter an alternate reality. Not really an alternate reality but a small subset of reality in which only certain opinions are tolerated. A site such as this exists not to openly discuss issues but to reinforce the notions of the members of the visiting segment. If you want the same thing on the right you can get your dose from Michelle Malkin. Maybe advertising on the Internet has necessitated segmentation.
Getting back to Wiebe, his important point was that segmentation has almost always been part of American society. The exception was the period from the 1940s' to the 1960's. There was largely a single popular culture with nationwide appeal then. Everyone loved Lucy. My own personal experience is that this acceptance of culture somehow ended the day that President John Kennedy was assassinated. In fact I would offer that the cohesive American cultural society lasted precisely from the day Pearl Harbor was attacked until the day Kennedy was shot. There was shock that this Southerner (LBJ) who was really from a different culture than Kennedy (to say the least) had come to power in such tragic circumstances. The war in Vietnam and the differing points of view in regard thereto afforded a gigantic opportunity for segmentation. The replacement of JFK with LBJ shocked the media. One could make the case that since that day the media has been out to get the president no matter whom he was.
The 1960s' encouraged segmentation: black power, hippies and the woman's movement. Instead of trying to all get along and think of ourselves as one group (Americans) we were encouraged to choose our segment. This segmentation has economic and political values. Blacks were taught that "black is beautiful." Hippies were convinced that getting stoned imbued them with a transcendent understanding that the average American lacked. Hippies were also revolting against the materialism which is so much a part of American society.
When I was young the only example like this was the association of Democrats with labor unions and Republicans and pro-business. We now see things such as Christian fundamentalism associated with conservative (Republican) politics. Being a guy who has lived in San Francisco since 1970 I have missed where this came from. One point about American Christian fundamentalism is that it is not a Pan-national thing such as Islam. It seeks only to extend its values across America.
I think that the segmentation American society has a simple and obvious cause. We are a nation of immigrants. In the early 20th Century Italian and Irish immigrants segmented themselves by choosing to live in certain neighborhoods in the cities. It felt safer to be around people who spoke the same language and could relate to the "old country." More recently we see Latin immigrants doing the same thing. "Crash" worked because the segmentation in LA is so blatant. Latinos, Koreans, blacks and whites all in their neighborhoods not quite trusting one another. The immigration of Mexicans into the US may be a different issue that these previous examples of immigration because, for some, it is a temporary thing - they go back and forth.
This segmentation is not merely about skin color or ancestry. There is economic segmentation. There arose a segment of what we call Progressives a group fueled by University intellectual elites and the professional middle class which was espousing an ideal that government had to protect the consuming public against the inherent evils of greedy capitalistic robber barons. This exploitation was well-exposed in the writings of Upton Sinclair and the photography of Lewis Hine. While exploitation of workers has become largely a thing of the past the same folks talk about it as if it were still 1930. Some have moved on and taken up the causes of ecology and most recently global warming. The underlying notions are noble if sometimes simplistic but they have been usurped by politicians. Politicians never seem to fail to take advantage of segmentation. Identify a problem and associate it with the guy you have to run against.
An example of segmentation which I have witnessed in San Francisco in the deliberate segmentation of the gay community. It is telling that folks who want to be accepted choose to cluster together in one particular area of one particular city. Clearly something about segmentation must work. Presumably gay people feel that life in San Francisco is easier for them than it was wherever they lived before. The point here is that this segmentation is deliberate. In fact. most segmentation is deliberate.
We preach the wonderful multicultural nature of American society but like the multicultural folks in "Crash" we then decide to voluntarily live in segmented sub-societies. These are determined by personal choices and maintained. The fact is that any of these places may be penetrated by anyone who chooses to live there. The only barrier is real estate prices. If conservatives don't like the fact that the S.F. Board of Supervisors voted to suggest to the California Congressional delegation that they impeach Bush let them move here and get elected. If liberals are worried about the 2008 election they should move to Florida or Ohio.
This notion of segmented society is many times more serious in nations such as Afghanistan or Iraq than it is here in the U.S. Strangely, while not recognizing the reality of segmentation here we have undertaken to establish something resembling democracies in two of the most segmented countries on the planet. Of course this was not an "out of the blue whim" but a reaction to a dramatic event here with little mind to the cultural difficulty of these tasks.
Here we openly discuss our differences, argue, vote and then argue some more but I do not think that we are in serious danger of a civil war among the segments. Better the battle be fought in cyberspace than at Gettysburg.
Segmentation has economic value. If folks chose to identify with a subset of society it makes it easier to decide how to market a product to them. Segmentation has political value. A politician can be given a punch list of what the constituents want to hear and parrot those values.
There are instances in which the rules of segmentation change. When you go to a baseball or football game you set aside the notions of segments which exist outside the stadium and we all root for our team. We do not care about the race, age or economic status of our fellow fans. We have a common agenda: root, root, root for the home team. The enemy segment is the other team and, sometimes, the umpires/officials. Segmentation can take on other aspects in sports. Sports Illustrated runs and excerpt from a book about Barry Bonds' steroid use and the players segment themselves against the media. Some fans are pro-Bonds some hate him. Rational thought is set aside and replaced with preconceptions. Stupidity rules the day. The common thread is, "Don't make me think. I am happy with my preconceived notions about this topic."
For now and in the near future segmentation will exist and have its embarrassingly awkward moments captured nearly perfectly by "Crash." For me there is one foolish thing about choosing to be segmented - it makes you ignorant. The irony is that only a simple guy like Rodney King would have asked the right question. Strange, very strange.
- Dick Lepre