Reversing the decay

December 12, 2004|By Herbert London

THE LEAVE IT to Beaver Mom, the prototypical television parent in the 1960s, was a loyal spouse who could always be found at 3:30 p.m. serving milk and cookies to her kids who came home from school.

In television land, this wholesome woman has been transformed into a character from Desperate Housewives - women who are narcissistic, adulterous and generally oblivious to their children.

While television programming invariably reaches for the extreme, there is something revealing about the changed national cultural conditions in these two examples.

At the risk of hyperbole, it would appear that America is in the throes of a cultural revolution whose emphasis is on the abandonment of traditions. Words such as modesty, rectitude and discipline have been replaced by freedom, self-indulgence and license. Even taboos now have their rationalizers.

In the novel Kiss, the author tries to justify incest. Many rap artists (I use the word loosely) such as Snoop Dogg are intent on combining music and pornographic videos. In widely heralded films such as American Beauty, adult-teenage sexual relationships are depicted. Even at the Super Bowl - perhaps the major family event of the year - Janet Jackson reveals her breast during a "clothing mishap," a condition Frank Rich at The New York Times reflexively defends. The cultural air is replete with examples.

In fact, as William Buckley noted in a 2003 National Review article, pornography is now ubiquitous. It is found on billboards, on the sides of buses, in clothing brochures, in television ads. One car company ad intentionally relied on "key exchanges" with ambiguous lascivious glaring in order to promote its SUV.

This, of course, is only one dimension of the coarsening of culture. As a New York subway rider raised in an antediluvian era, I still give up my seat to an elder person. However, if I don't guard that seat till the very last second, a teenager will pounce on it. On several occasions, I've asked the adolescent to give up the seat, only to hear a burst of four-letter expletives.

It seems like there is scarcely a rap song that doesn't encourage the abuse of women. Women are regarded as prostitutes, there for the bemusement and delectation of predatory males.

The question that might be asked is how traditions can possibly be restored in this cultural wasteland. Admittedly, there is a Gresham's Law of culture in which the bad drives the good out of circulation. Nonetheless, there are opportunities for restoration when one considers the many media outlets that now exist.

Efforts should be made to create beachheads of civility in schools and in places of worship that ban cursing and demand courteous behavior. Despite some reservations I have about the conversion of books into films, the manner and courtship practices in the Jane Austen novels converted into movies could serve as models of appropriate behavior.

The Blackstone catalog has scores of audio books that can easily be converted into popular fare. Ian McClellan's Iliad is simply a breathtaking example of a classic tale made accessible and inviting.

Teachers who have been trained in a system of pedagogical relativism should be made to realize that existentialism is utterly at odds with laws and norms. Societies exist - as Aristotle noted - because we are all political animals seeking refuge and solace in a community of shared values.

Instead of offering what may be uplifting, the modern museum, with rare exception, provides a menu of the shocking, degrading and politically correct, and its myrmidons defend its shows as manifestations of "anti-art" or as a critique of bourgeois sensibility. Yet there are opportunities to initiate shows of artistic spirit and aesthetic brilliance in the hundreds of museums that exist in communities hungry for culture.

What can be done - in my judgment - is somewhere between retreat and resistance. I call it the "oasis strategy." In some respects, the oasis strategy recreates the approach of early 20th century Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci, whose radical minions marched through the cultural institutions until their numbers represented a critical mass.

Whenever there are openings, traditionalists should try to do the same thing - for example, to advance their agenda by "leavening" institutions now dominated by radicals.

There are many edifying cultural institutions that exist. But they must be cultivated and cherished as the response to cultural degradation.

Franz Kafka once wrote, "There is always hope, but not for us." It is a clever line, but untrue. Hope exists in the cultivation of our own little gardens, rejecting the demeaning and restoring the uplifting. It won't be easy, but it is better than caving in to the crudities of a culture in decay.

Herbert London, president of the Hudson Institute, is John M. Olin professor of humanities at New York University and author of Decade of Denial.

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