In 2000, Marshall Berman, writing, appropriately enough, in Dissent, bemoaned the lack of a vibrant critical culture in America, and longed for a way to connect the various strands of grassroots-level ferment—in politics, music, literature, etc. By “critical culture” he meant “one that struggles actively over how human beings should live and what our life means.” He was dismissive of the mainstream press’s ability to lead such a culture, but he also had no answer for who else might lead it. “One big problem for any critical culture to come is, how will its concerns and its ideas be transmitted and shared?” he wrote.
Nine years on, with blogs and social networks, Twitter and Facebook, we have the connectivity that Berman sought; but for that connectivity to be in service of a critical culture will require a committed arbiter—a leader—of the cultural conversation. Part of Berman’s critique was that “too many ideas, coming through too many channels” was a bigger problem than the banality of so much of what was produced each day by our mass media. “As communications technologies metastasize,” he wrote, “it will be even harder not to be flooded out.”
The spirit and strategies that drove OffTheBus will continue to evolve, and someone—or many someones—will eventually get it right. In that 1995 essay, Jim Carey suggested that “we must turn to the task of creating a public realm in which a free people can assemble, speak their minds, and then write or tape or otherwise record the extended conversation so that others, out of sight, might see it. If the established press wants to aid the process, so much the better. But if, in love with profits and tied to corporate interests, the press decides to sit out public life, we shall simply have to create a space for citizens and patriots by ourselves.”
We need the established press to not just aid this effort but to lead it. The marriage of all this connectivity with an activist mission of public-service journalism could cut through the layers of banality that clog not just the mainstream media but also the rest of our sprawling information environment. Such a marriage could organize and lead the kind of critical culture that Berman and Carey sought. It could begin to establish a public agenda that reflects the struggle over how America should live—over what America means—in this new century.