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Change in a debauched culture must come through capturing that culture, and subtly replacing the quest for sensualism with uplifting ideas such as honor, sacrifice, and civic virtue.

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Social Transformation and Culture: A Wilberforcian Revolution

Change in a debauched culture must come through capturing that culture, and subtly replacing the quest for sensualism with uplifting ideas such as honor, sacrifice, and civic virtue.

The great Russian social philosopher Pitirim Sorokin argued that when societies reach a sensate stage of historical evolution, it is inevitable that ideational impulses will percolate to the center of culture.  This cyclical interpretation of history is driven by forces in the stream of history, a kind of quasi-Marxist belief in historical inevitability.  While religious zeal often does emerge when sensual pleasures cannot satisfy the soul’s longing for transcendence, the questions that emerge are these:  What is the catalyst for change and how are ideational beliefs channeled into socially empowering ideas?

As I see it, the catalyst for social transformation is found in the culture, yes, even the debauched popular culture.  The consumption of popular culture represents a powerful medium for change if the message is transferred from the degrading sensate presentations to the uplifting ideational.  A lapse into the personal, into cultural narcissism, is a function of disbelief in the transcendent.  If there isn’t a God, anything is possible, noted Dostoyevsky, including the belief that people can be gods.  The restraints that God imposed on human behavior have been lifted by the belief that we can recreate the world in man’s image.  An existential light suggests there is no wrong except for the limitations we impose on ourselves.  Taboos are the  social conventions that arbitrarily restrain us from the lure of sensate pleasure.

From these assumptions, the institutions that once mediated between the individual and the state have been rendered weak and battered.  The family is in disarray, and even terms such as mother and father have been put through the cauldron of political correctness with terms such as parent one and parent two the substitutions.  Schools no longer teach social conventions when what counts is expression, the noise of recognition.  Churches are less religious centers and more social organizations, there to promote the latest fad emerging from the zeitgeist.  The Tocquevillian view that these mediating structures give America unique qualities seems anachronistic against the backdrop of present reality.

How then can the wave of sensualism be reversed?  I believe there is the distinct possibility for a Wilberforcian revolution, a moral turning based on the literal capture of popular culture (William Wilberforce and his colleagues did transform British social norms in the 19th century, including the abolition of slavery).  Suppose, for the sake of argument, films for television and movie consumption subtly adopted the stance of honor, courage, sacrifice, and civic virtue.  Suppose our heroes were not those who flouted the law, but those who defended freedom.  Suppose the dark and sinister lyrics of misogynistic rap music were replaced by romance and courtship.  Is it possible that a degraded culture that has had a profound effect on shaping public attitudes could be transmogrified into the vehicle for capturing the culture and serving as the vanguard of an ideational era?

For the United States to survive as a democratic republic, we must examine the endogenous threats, not merely the exogenous challenges.  In fact, our inability to withstand external threats is due in large part to our unwillingness to consider the cultural decay around us.  It certainly isn’t easy to envision the transformation I believe is necessary, especially when the models for youthful emulation sell debauchery and sensual pleasure at any price (e.g., the TV program “Skins”).  But there are Wilberforcians in our midst who understand the historical stakes and are willing to tease out of the American past the romance and excitement that led directly to the establishment of this exceptional nation.

If there is a cycle to history, catching this ideational wave will not only promote a desirable social outcome, it may even have commercial possibilities.  It isn’t coincidental that PG-rated films invariably do better at the box office than R-rated films.  America is poised for change, if only the channels of popular culture can be opened to consider that which is uplifting.  One can never be entirely sure of what the future holds, but reclaiming liberty, defending the republic, and appreciating the noteworthy in our history are goals worth realizing through the influence of cultural expression.

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Written By

Herbert London is president of the Hudson Institute and author of the book Decline and Revival in Higher Education (Transaction Publishers).

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