Like the Air We Breathe

Diana West is a columnist of wit, style and heart. It was a privilege to hear her deliver an informal talk during my visit to Washington, D.C.

West spoke about a recent column she had penned, which criticized Laura Bush’s White House Correspondent’s Dinner comedy routine as a culture-coarsening and unfortunate breach of good taste. The piece had elicited an avalanche of emails either taking issue with West’s opinion or heartily commending her for it.

The split in reader opinion reported by West wasn’t surprising, given the divergent reactions of the women surrounding me. One critique of West’s topic was particularly arresting. Why, asked one listener, in an age marked by the War on Terror and efforts to reform social security – truly “important” topics – are we wasting time discussing the First Lady’s speech to White House press correspondents?

That comment stands, without more, as the best explanation of how our culture continually spirals downward at an ever-increasing rate. Certainly, almost everyone would concede that the culture “matters” – but it is almost always a “second order” concern, rarely a more pressing immediate matter than one’s personal safety or economic well being. And so tastes and mores shift, often as we focus on more urgent topics, until the changes have become so embedded in our way of life that they aren’t even really up for discussion anymore.

Take World War II. Necessarily, the primary focus was placed on defeating the Axis powers – but afterwards, Americans were left with a culture that was forever changed. Some of the alterations, including a sense of greater understanding and camaraderie across class, racial and even geographic lines, were all to the good. Some, including a coarsening of behavior and language, weren’t. But all of them affected America deeply, and continued to do so long after Germany, Japan and Italy had been defeated, occupied and rebuilt. To take the example into the modern age, HillaryCare is dead – but the pantsuit is still with us.

The impact of cultural changes is as pervasive as it is long lasting. It’s tempting for many, especially on the right, to take a libertarian view of the culture. In an age when disapproving of anything is deemed to be terminally uncool, it’s all too easy to fall for the “don’t want your children exposed to that television program? Don’t let them watch it” line of argument. But its reasoning is terminally flawed. Even if one’s own children are forbidden to watch a particular television program, they will inevitably talk to and play with other children who are allowed both to watch it and to mimic its usages.

In the end, American culture is like air. We focus on it rarely, but we depend on it and its quality influences all of us, individually and collectively, more than we recognize. And when it’s polluted or corrupted, there’s no refuge for any of us.

Read Diana West’s column on Laura Bush, and disagree (or not). That’s America. But never, ever make the mistake of thinking that the topic is an unimportant one. Even an issue as “frivolous” as a First Lady’s speech may have cultural reverberations that echo down the years, long after the voices arguing about social security or the War on Terror have finally fallen silent.

[This piece originally appeared at The One Republic.]