Last month the dominatrixes of the Federal Communications Commission spanked CBS with a $550,000 fine for broadcasting Mr. Justin Timberlake and Ms. Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl halftime flash-dance routine. It was just one of many raunchy interludes during a remarkable broadcast that included horse-farting commercials, risqué impotency ads, and performances by the reliably vulgar Kid Rock, the crotch-clasping Nelly and a contingent of nubile strippers. Yet only the fleeting glimpse of Ms. Jackson’s teat warranted a fine. (To put the penalty in perspective, parent company Viacom’s 2003 operating income was $1.2 billion.)
Most viewers, doubtless well-oiled by half-time, didn’t blink an eye during the MTV-produced Raunch-Fest, so saturated are we with coarseness and vulgarity in our everyday lives, from morning breakfast zoos to late night with Jerry Springer. But a record number of outraged sports fans did lodge complaints (Mothers Against Half-Time Hooters?), which apparently forced the usually laissez faire FCC to stir its vast and ponderous bureaucratic bulk.
All of which put me in mind of a certain prophecy by that latter-day Nostradamus, the social critic Daniel Bell. Mr. Bell’s Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism foretold how capitalism and its cultural legacy would plant the seeds of its own destruction by creating a desire among successful people for personal gratification, a desire that weakens the work ethic that led to their success in the first place. A quarter century has passed since Bell’s prediction and the work ethic remains strong. Today’s professionals compete against one another over who can work the most unpaid overtime hours, take the fewest vacation days, or pack the most satellite communication devices off with them on their honeymoon. Indeed it is everything but the work ethic that seems bound for Gehenna. In particular our popular culture, which has gone way beyond simply mirroring normal teen-age rebellion and upper class slumming to an unprecedented mainstreaming of Raunch.
Mr. Bell seems to have confused free-market capitalism with Western-style democracy as the true instrument of our undoing. Okay, maybe undoing is a bit strong, but the anecdotal evidence does seem to suggest that secular Western-style democracy is giving a big push to our culture’s continuing freefall. The great irony is that the same principles that allowed the West its unprecedented wealth and freedoms — of speech, of the press, of religion — may very well be instigating its decline. Irony is usually good for a chuckle. So why isn’t any one laughing?
THE SYMPTOMS, IT MUST BE obvious, are all around us and especially pronounced in our popular culture: from the New York Times‘s Best Seller List featuring porn star Jenna Jameson’s How to Make Love Like a Porn Star (co-authored, naturally) to the BET Network’s misogynistic gangsta videos. And yet the antidote — a curb on our freedom to behave like drunken British soccer hooligans after a loss to Spain-is doubtless worse than the disease, depending on who administers that magic elixir.
Over the course of the last century as academia, the government and the justice system liberalized, America was transformed from a rather repressive society that banned booze and Sister Carrie to one whose most respected media gives glowing reviews to South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (“So gleefully vulgar, so eagerly offensive, it’s tough not to get down on all fours and beg for more” — Los Angeles Times). Certainly the court challenges that cleared the way for the publication of the last century’s two greatest novelists — James Joyce and D.H. Lawrence — were great moments in libertarian history, but they also opened the floodgates whereby virtually everything, no matter how indecent and awful, was celebrated and protected. American society long had been deeply anti-intellectual; now among the casualties of the new liberalism were modesty, shame, good manners, and common decency, leaving only various primitive forms of expression. It was a new curiosity pinpointed by Rabbi Daniel Lapin in his 1995 National Review essay “In Defense of Shame”:
“When we study social decay, the question is not what brought foul-mouthed louts to menace shoppers in our malls. Instead, the critical questions are these: Why was a visitor to a theater or department store in the 1950s surrounded by neatly dressed people who exuded politeness and consideration? Why, back then were our buses, parks, and other public places safe at all hours of the night? What made most young people marry and raise children responsibly? That was the miracle; what we see now is nature.”
Nature being the operative word. For the past five decades America has been steadily ridding itself of 3,000 years of Western civilization and returning to a Rousseaunian “state of innocence.” Which is doubtless why such primitive accoutrements as tattoos and nose rings are so popular today. Such expression was impossible a hundred years ago when the common folks’ base instincts and passions were held in check by moral codes enforced by stern patriarchs, grim pastors, strict principals, no-nonsense cops, and nosy community watch groups. Now that such codes have been declared unconstitutional, sexist, or just too plain inhibiting it is getting more and more difficult to tell the zookeeper from the zoo animals, or to prevent middle class kids from aping the Drug Thug Culture of the ghetto. (You’ll note that the phenomenon doesn’t work both ways. Low and middle class blacks do not parrot the mannerisms of hillbillies.)
TOM WOLFE HAS SUGGESTED that the middle class has adopted Raunch culture out of fear — fear of being envied by the lower classes, a mindless dread brought on by the guilt of being born well off. It is a culpability peculiar to an egalitarian democratic society, especially a schizophrenic one where there are the conflicting pressures to achieve the American Dream through hard work and study coupled with extreme guilt when one does indeed succeed.
No doubt conservatives will continue to rail against the vulgarity and coarseness of modern life — but already Raunch is a large part of the cultural mainstream. The FCC may occasionally appease a few offended mothers’ groups by coquettishly slapping Howard Stern’s wrist, but the FCC has no control over what raunchy spectacles occur in our homes and public spaces. It is there that Raunch, like a scene cut from The Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, has slipped largely undetected into our everyday lives,
Since classical times there have been numerous moral reformations aimed at halting the slide into degeneracy, but without exception these have been enforced by strongmen like Augustine, Calvin, Cromwell, Wesley and the Ayatollah Khomeini, and occurred within societies with far fewer freedoms than we are used to. Besides modern Western-style democracies are notoriously reluctant to legislate morality, for one party’s definition of morality is likely another’s idea of bigotry. Nor will conservatives risk having the “morals” and “values” of liberals, old school feminists and New Victorians imposed during such a reformation.
Just as 40 years ago the idea of a wildly popular TV show called Sex in the City wherein single women discuss penis sizes would have been unimaginable, Americans cannot possibly imagine the Raunch culture of tomorrow. Though we are certainly free to try.