Is this the end of an era? Is Western Civilization on a collision course with extinction? In a media world that thrives on pessimism, it is hard to know. Yet there is the nagging feeling that the myrmidons of doom may be right.
How can one explain the fact that a prostitute who slept with the former governor of New York is rewarded with a newspaper column on love and sex? Why should a down-and-out British actor be given a role as a movie star after revealing that he slept with a world-famous mannequin? Is getting attention by wearing foolish-looking outfits or provocative gear the source of success in the music business? When did pornography become a legitimate business?
These are not merely questions filtered through tabloid perusal. They represent a shift in the public sensibility, a movement away from the bourgeois impulse, a shift of dramatic consequence.
One fine day, I know not when, the world moved from Ozzie and Harriet to Charlie Sheen, from sobriety to the drug-addled mind. It seems that the freedom secured through blood and treasure during World War II turned to license. “Anything Goes” is more than a Cole Porter tune. It is a Nietzchean call to test the limits of human existence.
Perhaps the roots of this challenge go back to the French Revolution when the “le deluge” was welcomed as a giant broom sweeping the past away. Jean Jacques Rousseau argued, “A little bit of agitation gives motivation to the soul, and what really makes the species prosper is not peace so much as freedom.” This, of course, was a self-serving comment, because Rousseau consumed the fumes of revolution. In my experience, people weigh the benefits of freedom and security or peace, giving up a little of one to create some timely balance with the other.
What we have at the moment is neither freedom nor peace, but chaos. Several years ago when there were riots in Los Angeles over the Rodney King case, Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun magazine, noted that “looting is the dominant way of life in America, and the hypocritical cries of outrage at what happened in Los Angeles were not wrong because the rioters were justified, but were wrong because they were classically racist: They selected and condemned one group for behavior of other groups that are not being equally condemned.”
So singling out the rioters is a “racist response” promoted by the fact that most of us know that we are complicit with the culture of looting. Here in undiluted form is cultural chaos theory. Presumably because “looting is the dominant way of life,” we are all complicit. The only thing wrong, of course, is that looters chose to abuse only one racial and ethnic group.
Lerner seemingly confirms the T.S. Eliot aphorism that “People who have stopped thinking make for a powerful force.” When people stop thinking, any thought is acceptable, including nonjudgmental thought. As a consequence, culture is in the odd position of not being criticized. Talent is relative, along with every other consideration. I’m reminded of Daniel Boorstin’s comment that “celebrity is someone who is known for being well-known.” Does Madonna have any discernible talent except for marketing herself as a talent? Does the Rev. Al Sharpton have anything of substance to say, except proclamations of racism and self-promotional advertisements?
Down the slippery slope we go, wondering whether recovery is possible. Tennyson, the eternal optimist, wrote, “Come my friends it is not too late to seek new worlds.” I hope he is right, but the worlds I see are drowning in chaos and the loss of limits. There isn’t direction and there are days when hope seems to evaporate. But then “Spring is here the world rejoices, nature comes and you hear her voices.” Sometimes the world turning isn’t so bad.
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