It's About Us

June 24, 1995|By ANDREW RATNER

The cover of Time magazine asked, ''Are music and movies killing America's soul?''

Bob Dole says ''yes.'' The polls show a lot of people agree. But the senator is as wrong as an ambitious politician can be.

Sure, there's plenty of garbage in the movies, on TV and CDs, even on the Internet. But the marketplace doesn't set values. It reflects them.

Goods and services don't survive in a free-enterprise system unless people want them. The needle of truth lost in the senator's moralistic haystack is that we should take a hard look at the messages the marketplace is spewing -- not so much for what they say to us, but for what they say about us. Plenty of seemingly innocent products of recent vintage tell more about us as a people than profane gangsta rap or gory movies.

The automobile lease is one that comes to mind -- created to fulfill our desire to drive a luxurious car even if we can't afford one.

How about adjustable-rate mortgages, also concocted so we can settle on a home nicer than we could afford at the moment? We need larger houses even though, as a whole, we're having smaller families, and we want them better decorated even though we spend less time in them. To help protect our real-estate investment, there's the ''homeowner association,'' which artificially supplies the peer pressure once known as ''neighborhood,'' only you didn't use have to sign on a dotted line.

There's the proliferation of plastic credit itself. And don't forget home-shopping networks, an Orwellian in truder of the consumer age that might have startled us had we seen it in a sci-fi movie 20 years ago. Today it seems perfectly normal.

And while Mr. Dole admonished the entertainment industry for forcing sexual imagery on us, would a society not interested in sex have created the Wonderbra? A billboard for a local mall says it best: Instant gratification. Minutes away.

Mr. Dole wants to make Hollywood the fall guy, which is considerate of him, but he should turn the harsh spotlight the other way. This isn't about Hollywood. It's about us.

In fact, the measurement that's grown so influential in politics, especially in the last few presidential races, is another mirror-image condemnation of ourselves: the character issue.

Where did society's character go?

Maybe it got flabby from a couple of decades of the good life. The baby-boom generation didn't merely hope that its standard of living exceeded that of its parents; it expected such betterment as a birthright. This year doesn't only mark 50 years since the end of World War II, but also the golden anniversary of American prosperity. The America that emerged from that pivotal VTC moment of the 20th century was bolder, more aggressive, more self-assured than the one that went in.

My parents and grandparents, who came of age in tougher times, didn't seem to possess such a sense that something was coming to them.

My wife's grandmother recalls being deathly scared about the closing costs on her and her husband's first home -- $99.

My late paternal grandfather, too, always seemed to harbor concern about economic security for us, assumedly because he'd seen his own career thrown off course by the Depression.

He'd studied to become an architect when there were few Jews in the field. After he requested the Jewish New Year off to worship, he was let go. The Depression hit; he never practiced architecture again. Yet amazingly to me, he was the least bitter man I've ever met.

There was an inner strength about my parents' and grandparents' age groups that seems corroded today. The old ordering of priorities -- family, faith, security, pursuing prosperity -- has all but been reversed. Families spend less time together. Careers have become more central -- and less forgiving. In the cracks of this weakened foundation thrive drug abuse, divorce and latchkey children.

On paper, this devolution makes no sense. Americans live in a much more affluent place than their ancestors. They're more educated, more traveled, more health-conscious. Yet we have mothers killing children. Deadbeat dads. Paranoid militias. Drug-addicted ballplayers winning mega-contracts and failed executives escaping on golden parachutes, with the average person falling farther behind. Job opportunities seem fewer for young people; age discrimination awaits them at the back end.

We would be lucky for it to be a bad movie.

Andrew Ratner is director of zoned editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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