Friday, December 01, 2006

Why Care about the Culture?

I was very struck by a long and thoughtful comment by an anonymous poster in response to a recent post on whether the movie Borat is funny or not. The poster took me to task for missing the film's revolting taste and perhaps outright obscenity:

'Borat' crosses the line between borderline humor and outright vomitous material. The fact that this film was a hit reflects just how low our entertainment standards have fallen.

My post focused almost exclusively on whether or not the movie was racist. But the commenter draws attention to a completely different problem – its grossness. For someone like me, of libertarian inclinations, this presents a difficulty. Those of us in that camp are naturally predisposed to defer to individual choice, even in matters of personal vice and cultural preferences. Sometimes the concern is that an outcry over such matters paves the road for state suppression of them, which is far worse. But in fairness, part of it among some libertarians is disdain for the schoolmarmishness of the mob. And so de gustibus non est disputandum.

I have a lot of sympathy for the poster, who is I think right to chastise me for focusing only on the trendier concern of racism rather than the older but equally profound question of taste. But given the logic above, why should someone who morally prioritizes individual freedom be concerned about lowbrow MTV videos, trashy movies, the deterioration of the family, and the other signs of what the traditionalist conservative would see as cultural decay that are all around us? I think a good argument can be made that we ought to be worried about it, apart from simple matters of taste -- i.e., that some material is in fact "vomitous."

Many opponents of globalization, criticize it for what they call the "race to the bottom" – the belief that competition among national governments for corporate factories will cause them to repeal protections for labor, so that wages and working conditions fall to the levels of the poorest societies. This is a belief that is utterly and completely refuted by even the most elementary glance at the data, but I think that "race to the bottom" is useful in thinking about why we might be concerned about the deterioration of the culture.

Think about cultural constraints – what is good taste and what isn't – as a series of retaining walls, designed to protect us from the consequences of what we see in our art. Behind the innermost wall is a toxic pool from which the rest of us wish to be protected. Whenever one wall is breached, perhaps because a groundbreakingly naughty artist has shocked the proper people, the water behind it naturally floods all the land until the next wall farther out. But now, the artist who wants to shock finds that the old barrier is gone. He must then breach the next wall, pushing the water out even further. The things an artist must do to shock become ever more shocking, forcing the culture ever further down. Whereas in the globalization case corporations must compete for scarce workers, and so ultimately competition promotes a race to the top rather than to the bottom, in the cultural case the margin of competition is how "transgressive" the artwork is – how much it can shock and cut against existing sensibilities. (In certain artistic circles, to call a work "transgressive" is to give it the highest praise available.)

In a famous episode, Elvis Presley was shown only from the waist up on the Ed Sullivan show, because network censors were concerned about the effects of showing his swiveling hips, already then a notorious part of his act. Those censors are mocked now as a quaint relic of a bygone era, as rock 'n roll has conquered the world. But Elvis's hips became the New York Dolls, which became Snoop Dogg, which became the Sex Pistols urinating on the audience and Norwegian rainforest-protection advocates having public sex on stage. And so too the music itself went from Beethoven to Broadway to Sinatra to the Beatles to to tally-up-the-bitches-and-hos hip-hop spngs. So too in literature, so too in film, and so too more or less in every artistic form. And in each generation, there is a lamentation for the cleaner culture of that generation's youth – the parents of the baby boomers thought that the Beatles were loud, long-haired and revolting, and the boomers themselves loved the Beatles and thought that punk rock and rap were appalling.

But why should we care? Because the cultural breakwaters are there for a reason, often a reason discovered only over centuries of painful learning. Each generation of children takes its cues about what's permissible and what's rebellious from what they see in the culture around them. And so perhaps it is no surprise that as the culture has deteriorated, so too implied restraints on individual behavior have fallen by the wayside as well. Family structure throughout the West (with the conspicuous exception of Japan, if you consider that a Western country) is falling apart, and not without consequence. Children raised in single-parent families do far worse on a variety of social indicators across a variety of societies – they end up in jail more, they end up on the dole more, they end up being single parents themselves more. Once the cultural restraints are off, individuals, often too young to know better, run off the rails completely. Theodore Dalrymple provides a trivial but revealing episode that reveals the connection between what the entertainers say and what the culture does:

Watching a British comedy from the mid-1950s recently, I grasped the speed and completeness of that change. In the film was a scene in which the outraged working-class father of a pregnant teenage daughter demanded that the middle-class boy who had made love to her must now marry her. The present-day audience giggled helplessly at this absurdly old-fashioned demand, which only 45 years previously would still have seemed perfectly normal, indeed unarguable. Such naïveté is not for us in our superior, enlightened state, however, and we prove our sophistication by finding it ridiculous.

But who, one might ask, had the deeper and subtler moral understanding of human relations: the audience of the mid-1950s or that of today? To the 1950s audience it would have been unnecessary to point out that, once a child had been conceived, the father owed a duty not only to the child, but to the mother; that his own wishes in the matter were not paramount, let alone all-important, and that he was not simply an individual but a member of a society whose expectations he had to meet if he were to retain its respect; and that a sense of moral obligation toward a woman was not inimical to a satisfying relationship with her but a precondition of it. To the present-day audience, by contrast, the only considerations in such a situation would be the individual inclinations of the parties involved, floating free of all moral or social constraints. In the modern view, unbridled personal freedom is the only good to be pursued; any obstacle to it is a problem to be overcome.

(Although it makes references mostly to British culture, people interested in more reading on the topic of cultural decay would do well to read this other essay by Dalrymple.)

While diagnosing the problem is easy, discovering what to do about it is harder. Since the cultural race to the bottom feeds on official disapproval, it is hard to see what's the government could do about it. Indeed, Charles Murray, in his short and very readable libertarian manifesto, argues that only a fully free society can restore virtue. In a society without a welfare system but with full property rights, the drug user and the irresponsible young man who knocks up girls left and right minds that he has a hard time getting a job or an apartment, because employers and landlords are free to hire and rent as they please. And the consequences of socially costly behavior are borne mostly by the person engaging in it. But that kind of society is a long way away, if we’re ever likely to see it again. In the meantime, the only weapon those like my anonymous correspondent who wish to defend the culture have left is shame. They should speak out loud, and speak out proud.


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