Why We’re Gaga for Gaga

by Susan McWilliams on February 18, 2011 · 55 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Culture, High & Low

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Claremont, CA.  Everybody is talking about what Lady Gaga wore to the Grammy Awards this week. These days, everybody is always talking about what Lady Gaga wore, trying to parse her popularity through fashion.

But the Gaga phenomenon goes beyond what meets the eye (or “meats” the eye, if you care to recall her getup at last year’s Video Music Awards). For all the unpredictability of her outfits, there is one thing that has been quite predictable about her work: Gaga’s constant equation of love with violence and humiliation.

Lady Gaga is the chanteuse of what she calls “bad romance.” Her lyrics return again and again to the idea that “love is revenge.” For Gaga, “I’m in love” means “I’m gonna punch him in his face.” She sings that “it’s not how big” he is that matters, but “how mean” he can be. “I like it rough,” she says. Her much-vaunted videos take this essentially sadistic theme even farther. More than one of them involve Gaga murdering her lover, and the “Haus of Gaga” is revealed to be a place where sex equals chains and coffins and corpses.

The more I bop along to Lady Gaga, the more I am convinced that the dominance of this theme in her work helps to explain her dominance in this cultural moment. Her constant equation of sex with humiliation explains her presumptive position as the iconic blonde of this American decade.

But before we can understand that connection, we need to linger for a few more seconds with the woman who called herself, quite credibly, “the iconic blonde” of the decade behind us. I’m talking, of course, about Paris Hilton.

How time flies! It’s hard to believe that it’s been more than ten years – that a whole decade has passed – since we first saw Miss Hilton’s vagina. I can still remember where I was when it happened to me. A friend e-mailed me a photo of Paris, with her naughty bits exposed, along with a note that read: “Now we’ve definitely seen enough of Paris Hilton!”

Little did my friend know, and little did I know, and little did any of us know, that there was more – much more – of Miss Hilton to see. We didn’t know that in the coming decade, we’d become almost bored by constant exposure to Paris’ nether regions. We didn’t know that up-the-skirt shots of young female celebrities – Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears, and even an underage Miley Cyrus would become our daily feast. We didn’t know that those young women – and others – would spend the decade cornered by paparazzi, videotaped by their boyfriends during sex for purposes of extortion, and called a whore by literally millions of people who’ve never met them. (I’m not exaggerating; if you Google “Britney Spears” and “whore,” you get more than 15 million hits.)

We didn’t know, in other words, that the 2000s would be the decade in which being a sex symbol did not mean that you would be serenaded and venerated, but that you would be degraded and humiliated. Being well-known for being sexy became, in American culture, a guarantee that Perez-with-a-z Hilton would take your picture and draw his trademark fake semen all over your face. (Cute, right? I am pretty sure that I will not have any hope for this republic as long as Perez-with-a-z Hilton continues to thrive in it.) Be sexy, and be disgraced.

As went Paris and Perez during the 2000s, so went we all. The proliferation of camera-ready cellular phones, digital photography, and the Internet meant that anyone’s private passions could become fodder for public persecution. The sad story of Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers freshman who committed suicide after his roommate taped a romantic tryst, testifies to the way in which sex, in the last decade, became inseparable from the possibility of public humiliation.

Keep in mind that this was the decade of Lady Gaga’s adolescence. And consider:

Psychologists tell us that if a person’s early and adolescent ideas about sex are tied up with the idea of humiliation, that person is likely to become a sadist. According to the clinical definition, a sadist someone who isn’t just into hurting people for the sake of hurting people (as you might guess from popular depictions of sadism). Rather, a sadist is someone who has come to believe that the central dynamic of sex is to humiliate or be humiliated, to dominate or be dominated. And given his or her perception of that choice, the sadist chooses to humiliate, to dominate.

What’s true at the individual level often has its parallel at the cultural level. So if we acknowledge that the last decade is one in which Americans’ idea of sexiness has been all jumbled up with the idea of humiliation, we should expect there to be an emergent sadistic streak in the culture – that is, that as a culture we have learned to operate on the premise that you either humiliate or be humiliated, you either hurt others or be hurt yourself.

And indeed, as we would expect: the sadistic voice is strong among us. This is the voice that in our self-help books tells people that dating is about the choice of ruling or being ruled (forget about a more egalitarian vision), the voice in our politics that says it’s “them or us” (whoever the “them” and “us” might be). It’s Sarah Palin saying, essentially, “drill or be drilled.” Remember that line in Talladega Nights – where Will Farrell’s dad tells him, “if you’re not first, you’re last”? It’s so hilarious because in the movie we recognize it as so absurd. But it’s exactly the message that, as everyone Lady Gaga’s age well knows, American parents are now repeating over and over again to their kids. If you don’t dominate other kids – at the SATs, at your violin recitals, in your community-service resume – you will be dominated. And you won’t get into college, or you won’t get a job, or whatever.

It is of course to that sadistic streak that Lady Gaga’s music and videos speak. She is the hero of the sadistic fantasy: the poisoner of boyfriends, the torturer of prisoners, the girl who becomes your paparazzi, the woman who’s “bluffin’ with her muffin.” In her music and videos, love and sex are a battle in which its kill or be killed, and Gaga is always the one who does the killing. Even in her interviews, she speaks in the clearest of sadistic terms. “They can’t scare me,” she told one interviewer, “if I scare them first.”

In general, sadism is a post-traumatic condition, and so perhaps it is no wonder that the author Chris Hedges, in his recent book Empire of Illusion, calls a “post-traumatic” culture. Why post-traumatic? Well, the 2000s were a decade in which the nation encountered new and unexpected terrors – and I’m not thinking primarily of the attacks of September 11, 2001, and all their fallout.

I’m thinking of the fact that the 2000s were a decade where we suffered the trauma of learning that all our highly vaunted new technologies – cell phones, Internet, digital whatevers – did not mean that we had created conditions for a new age of democratic human flourishing, as we had imagined. (I remember going to an event in Manhattan, back in 1999, and how everyone there – with the exception of the Nation author Jon Leonard – honestly and fervently believed that the Internet was going to mean the end of big money in politics, the end of big business, and the rise of a new egalitarian, more loving, age. Doesn’t that sound awfully quaint now?) Those technologies liberated us in some ways, to be sure, but they also brought new kinds of terror into our lives, from the possibility that we could easily drunk-text our ex-boyfriends or drunk-e-mail our colleagues, to the possibility that our kids could be targeted by predators while sitting in the living room, to the possibility that your very “identity” could be “stolen” in one way or another. Even before the recent economic collapse, it was a decade defined by its everyday terrors, terrors unprecedented in recent cultural memory.

Into this traumatized culture stepped Lady Gaga, who not only channeled the emergent cultural belief that it’s all about “kill or be killed” – but also channeled that belief into catchy songs and pretty stories in which she is always the killer. Through her, we live the sadistic fantasy of hurting before we are hurt, beating before we are beaten.

She’s our post-Paris, post-traumatic poster child, the idol of our latter-day tribe. Gaga’s not that different from any of us really, no matter what she wears, not the singularly pathological figure that some have made her out to be, but a means for figuring the almost pathological costume that hangs over us all.

{ 55 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar thedinosaur February 18, 2011 at 1:44 pm

Miss Williams,

You should be concerned that you understand Lady Gaga so well; it is a mark of your own decadence. That is not a hurled invective but my own critical perception. She deliberately reflects our debased culture. That is an achievement of sorts to be sure, but not worth the praise you accord her. It should worry you that you see yourself in the morror she holds up. I hope your thoughts and sentiments here are not indicative of the future of FPR. If so, I guess this old dinosaur will crawl (beaten) back to his cave.

avatar porchdweller February 18, 2011 at 2:26 pm

Thank you for this column, esp by an FPR woman writer. I have never been interested in Gaga, but had to learn who she was because of MSM focus on her, just as with Hilton. And your analysis linking humiliation and sadism with our culture – I would go farther. The attitude if “it’s just your tough luck” towards those of us who lost our jobs in the downturn and the unconcern for the least among us come out of that fascination with humiliation and sadism as well – something at which you hint, but don’t state, but with which I am more intimately familiar than I ever dreamed of being. I think of the reputed conversation between a teacher in Indiana and Governor Daniels at the statehouse, in which Daniels informed the teacher, “you’re paid too much! Your salary is higher than that of the people (taxpayers) who pay you!” No mention of course about how much Eli Lilly executives, attorneys, or accountants are paid, or the tax benefits they enjoy. That’s a form of sadism as well – we won, you didn’t, deal with it – the response of the economic elite in conservative Red America.

avatar CMLisaY February 18, 2011 at 3:28 pm

Interesting take on Gaga. As a former private high school teacher that still keeps in contact with her students, I was happy to hear how many were “annoyed” with Gaga at the Grammy Awards telecast. I don’t think Gaga’s “decade” will last. She got 2 years and should be happy with that. I think the post-traumatic “kill or be killed” mentality can also be traced to a fascination with really violent video games. I remember the urgings of Tipper Gore decades ago to put classifications on music and video games—which only made them more desirable in the eyes of those supposedly too young to play.

avatar D.W. Sabin February 18, 2011 at 4:13 pm

If this essay is an example of Williams extolling her subject and revealing her “decadence”, I’d hate to see one where she is excoriating her subject.

Aside from the shock value lyrics and videos , the cockeyed cornpone dada, cornpone because it lacks the sardonic humor of professional DaDa….this momentary fascination with GaGa is just another manifestation of the shockaholism of the age. Deadened by the onslaught, suspicious of the perverse outcome of 30 years of American popular feminism , the public likes these little bits of banal shock, like rubbernecking at a roadside collision. Put a snappy beat to it and another distraction has its day.

avatar Anonymous February 18, 2011 at 4:42 pm

“… this momentary fascination with GaGa is just another manifestation of the shockaholism of the age.”

As oppsed to which age? The age of public executions in the town square? The age of tarring and feathering? Lynchings? Arctic explorer Elisha Kent Kane, the most famous man of his era, had a funeral procession that went on for 2,000 miles, well past the moment of ripening. After his death, his mistress, a disgraced spiritualist who bilked very famous people out of their money, published a complete volume of their love letters in hopes of shaming the Kane family in sharing his estate. Later, one of Elisha Kent Kane’s nephews made headlines by removing his own appendix, amputating his own finger and defending his son in a salacious murder trial.

The Kennedys? Grover Cleveland? Pilgrims in stockades? William Wallace?

A pop singer who wears a dress made of ham might not be your cup of tea. But that seems like pretty small beer in the long and (in my view happy) fascination with shocking things.

In other words, as always… it was always thus.

avatar Iuhui February 18, 2011 at 4:47 pm

The answer, as always, is Christian love.

avatar thedinosaur February 18, 2011 at 6:25 pm

Dear Miss McWilliams,

Please accept my humble apology for getting your name wrong in my last posting (I only just noticed it). It was not the intentional affront of an opponent, but the all but inevitable result of aging. In short, I nodded.

By the way, I re-read your article and now believe it to be more critical than I gave you credit for. I can’t help but ask though, when even on reading it a second time: Why bother to understand Lady Gaga? The difference between you and I (besides a generation) is that you “bop along” to her music and I am trying to shut it out. You (justly and reasonably) try to see the real person behind the grotesque mask she wears; but I can’t get beyond the grotesquery, precisely because she so clearly reflects the ever encroaching decadence of our culture (for which she is so richly compensated for her trouble). The problem I have with treating Lady Gaga as, say, Dr. Johnson regarded Shakespeare, an artistic genius, however out-of-the mold, or as any critic might treat any satiric artist who, however eccentrically, exposes the foibles of his times, is that Lady Gaga is herself, whatever she is behind the mask, a creature of that which she reflects. She does not so much “hold up a mirror to nature” as she is (by design) herself the mirror — a ghastly composite of much of what is horrific in our cultural life. I see now that I was wrong to contemn your interest in her, but it remains a bit distressing that someone of your intelligence and education should be entertained by her. It is not my wish here to seem pious but I can’t help but think of the words of St.Paul: “whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report: if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.”

avatar Samuel February 18, 2011 at 8:47 pm

I’m really not convinced that so many who argue “sadly, it was always thus,” truly believe in those words. We’ve watched too many good men and women slide tragically into the self-destructive abyss of alcoholism, prostitution, self-mutilation, suicide. The very utterance may well imply the accusation that the naif who assumes otherwise has surely experienced some perceptive or moral decadence themselves. We don’t need an agreeable definition of that ever-betraying term “culture” to be quite sure that a demotic body can go the way of an individual one.

It’s a very hopeless claim because if things were never better or worse than they are today, we have good reason to believe things will never be better or worse either. Benignly, we complacently wait for redemption to swoop down upon us. Malignantly, we say F* it, I might as well ‘get mine’ in the meantime — things are, after all, as bad as they’re going to get already.

More to the character of FPR, any such assertion demands the embrace of a world-view which favors generalities and abstractions over local peculiarities and stories. The world is far too diffused and variable to have reliable measurements taken from it. We cannot look at its history and make claims like this without looking like fools to the wise. We can look at our regions, at the towns we live in, and start to see the vulnerability, as well as the potential, to suffer decadence or to rise above it. If general claims can be made, let these observations do the making. It’s my humble opinion that there is and has been far more at stake in our cultures than this “things were always thus” idea suggests.

avatar Anonymous February 18, 2011 at 9:34 pm

I agree that it makes sense to deal in particulars. Which is why complaints about the “shockaholism of the age” ring so strangely to me. I lament that my daughter will be bombarded with images that make her tend to wear ever shorter skirts. And I suppose we have been so throroughly desensitized to a glimpse of leg that this was inevitable. Is it preferable to a culture that leans towards burkas? That depends, I think, on whether you are a young man on the prowl or a father in full-on defense mode. A young woman or a grandmother. Etc.

But yes. Of course things change. But all things change. In my father’s younger days, and among certain members of his generation still, there was nothing quite as funny as a nigger joke. So even THE GREATEST GENERATION had its foibles. (And in my mind that’s a more serious foible than a propensity towards wearing lunch meat.) Their culture desensitized them (and vice versa) to the power of those words, and encouraged those words. People thought little of pelting Hank Greenberg with batteries, slurs and a host of other such things because he was Jewish. But of course the current generation, for all it’s mini-skirts and meat-dresses, is far MORE sensitive to such cultural ills. So in a certain sense, we are far EASIER to shock.

Now, concerns about racism can quickly devolve into PC groupthink, just as a “freedom of speech” can quickly turn into a complete disregard for decorum. And the cultural mandates for the “proper” length of a hemline–and the means of enforcing such mandates–are prone to excess on both ends of the leg.

Which is all to say, yes. Let’s do look at the specifics of the culture. Let’s not take a look at someone like GaGa and declare that this speaks about “the AGE” and the attributes thereof, as if all such things lean in the same direction at all times.

Is the current moment a little racier than it once was? Sure. Is it a little less racist? Probably. Is that a good trade? How does it interact with other trends and developments? To sit around and grouse about “kids these days” hardly seems like a thorough analysis of these questions.

“Things were always thus” is nothing more and nothing less than the realization that there is such a thing as human nature. Being a good person is hard. It always has been. All cultures and all times put their own hurdles in the way.

Are we more prone to shocking ourselves than we used to be? I don’t know. But I do know that my father was alive when the last public hanging happened in America.

http://www.npr.org/programs/morning/features/2001/apr/010430.execution.html

He had that. Kids these days have Jersey Shore.

Which culture is sicker?

avatar stephen February 18, 2011 at 11:21 pm

St. Paul surely did not advocate us of being ignorant of the culture around us! Even if you believe the artistic content of Gaga is without value (i would agree with you here), Gaga is of immense importance as a cultural artifact. Christians should attempt to understand the culture around them, so that they can properly love it. Unfortunately, for this generation, that means one might need to take a look at Gaga, what she says, and why or how that could be attractive to millions. And how, if that is attractive, could one speak the truth to such people. Pieces like the one here are steps in the right direction. Or perhaps you would prefer to simply cast dispersions upon those youth in and outside of the church who have been immersed in the horribly evil sexual culture disseminated in our country, and have developed the corresponding maladies. Not everyone should be a cultural critic, nor should one spend too much time imbibing the drivel produced in popular culture, but to say that no one should be doing it is wrong.

avatar thedinosaur February 19, 2011 at 4:28 pm

I doubt that any cultural artifact as ephemeral as are entertainers like Lady Gaga can have “immense importance”, but I agree that the critic is obliged to understand the thing he criticises. There is, nonetheless, a profound difference between understanding one’s culture and embracing it. The one can be enriching; the other, soul-destroying.

avatar James Isaac Crabtree February 19, 2011 at 7:30 pm

Yes, but the “how” of Christian love can often be the proverbial sword and shield. Our struggle is not against flesh and blood but certainly in my own life the commandment of love toward my children, for instance, is to keep such toxic waste as Gaga out of their lives while they form their notions about the world. It necessitates that I give them the taste for good, for truth, for beauty, and a distaste for wickedness. It even, I think, necessitates that I teach them to distrust our culture as one that generally opposes the Way of Life.

avatar Rob G February 20, 2011 at 4:02 am

~~”Things were always thus” is nothing more and nothing less than the realization that there is such a thing as human nature~~

Human nature doesn’t change, but cultural acceptance of various (fallen) manifestations of it certainly does. The notion that because we no longer have public hangings we’re less violent is simply not true. We more than make up for it in the violence we see on TV and in movies, even in sports (watch any ‘universal fighting’ recently?) Any progress we’re making in certain areas — race, for instance — are simple small backflows in the ever-increasing tide towards decadence. Is it really some great and wondrous thing that we no longer say “nigger” (at least if you’re white) but we manage to fit the “F-word” once or twice into every sentence? You may call this a trade-off, but I insist that such a trade-off is neither profitable nor necessary. We do not have to take the bad with the good, despite the fact that there are forces, cultural, political, and otherwise, that desperately want us to do so.

No, people aren’t inherently “worse” then they were in the past, but society’s acceptance of decadence certainly is. Otherwise porn wouldn’t be a multi-billion dollar industry and our popular entertainment wouldn’t be loaded with sex, violence and vulgarity.

avatar Anonymous February 20, 2011 at 4:22 am

“Is it really some great and wondrous thing that we no longer say “nigger” (at least if you’re white) but we manage to fit the “F-word” once or twice into every sentence?”

Yes. I am surprised that anyone anywhere would answer otherwise.

It is completely, absolutely great and wondrous. And absolute credit to our age. Kids these days idolize a ham-wearing singer. Kids those days tossed batteries at Hank Greenberg, and were not permitted to cheer for Jackie Robinson, and in huge swaths of America were not permitted to date a person of the opposite race or even eat lunch with them in a public place.

Kids these days watch reality TV for yucks, and they occasionally use crass language. Kids those days went to the public square to see people hanged.

And today is the decadent culture? I don’t see it as even close. Remotely. And for heaven’s sake, I hope beyond hope that if my kid picks a bad word to use twince per sentence, it’s the F one and not the N one.

avatar Samuel February 20, 2011 at 8:07 am

Some dear friends of mine are struggling with a young high-school aged daughter who has recently attempted to kill herself, despite being popular, and despite having been raised in a very cohesive, attentive, and loving household environment. Shedding some light on why she did it: one of her friends from school who came to visit her in the hospital sat down on the bed directly in front of the girl’s parents and said, with a sly smirk on her face, “That’s so cool dude, that’s exactly how I did it last year.”

I won’t elaborate on this ordeal, because it is not mine to share. But when you suggest that “kids these days watch reality TV for yucks, and they occasionally use crass language…”, try not to forget that there is an epidemic sweeping through the West right now where the newly elevated “first principles” of drama, attention, and sensationalism, have so alienated intelligent, well-to-do, and beautiful adolescents from reality that they are swallowing bottles of pills because their friends did it — because “they” survived it, because “they” got a unique kind of attention from it. This is one of many emergent past-times amongst our adolescents which are rearing their faces at alarmingly ebullient rates.

avatar JS February 20, 2011 at 1:04 pm

It’s traditionally thought that constant exposure to graphic violence and hardcore pornography and a view that all human relationships is just mutual exploitation was “a bad thing.” Since this generation is fed a steady diet of all of these things from a young age I guess we’ll find out how bad.

avatar Anonymous February 20, 2011 at 2:26 pm

Is there a direct link between teen suicide and reality TV? Perhaps so. So let’s look at the suicide rate for young people from 1990 on, 1990 being two years before The Real World premiered on MTV. And let’s attribute any change to the prevalence of such television shows.

If we do that… thank goodness for reality TV, because the suicide rate for young people is less now than it was in 1990.

http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0779940.html

Teen suicide is tragic. I worry about it a lot. I have five kids who will eventually be teenagers, facing all the things they face. But if we look at real numbers, suicide is hardly an “emergent past-time.” If anything, it’s LESS popular than it was when reality TV came on the scene. Perhaps one of the reasons you are more aware of it when a teen does commit suicide is the emergence of better communucation technology.

Is the drop in teen suicides a direct result of reality TV? Of course it’s not. But it’s no more preposterous than assuming any future INCREASE is due to such things either.

If you had a time machine and you could go back in time and raise kids in any era, which era would you pick? I would pick right now, regardless. But let’s complicate things. Yes, you can pick the era. But you can’t pick your race, you can’t pick the sex of your kids, etc.

2011 wins hands down. Yes, girls today face real pressures. They can also become doctors and lawyers. They can vote. They get good dental care. I have no desire to transport us back to the way things were. Did we lose some things along the way? Sure. But in the larger scheme of things, Snooki is pretty minimal as far as scourges go.

avatar dave February 20, 2011 at 4:58 pm

I enjoyed the essay. Reminded me a a couple of things, Kristen Stewart, I think is her name – the actress in the recent Twilight films. She got into trouble for comparing the attention she received for being a star to being raped. And then there was an article about sex, from several years ago, written by Deborah M. Roffman, something along the lines of the sexual revolution is over, and sex has lost.
One points to the way our culture hyper-sexualizes women, violently turning their every day lives into entertainment, and the other to the consequences of isolating sexuality from the context of relationship and paternity – something Berry has touched upon, at least in a lecture I heard once, if not in a collection of essays.
I thought Ga-Ga’s choice of a meat dress was clever, actually. What was once called performance art.
My one quibble with the essay is whether Ga-Ga is commenting on society or celebrity. She strikes me as being able to differentiate, and her act, her appearances, may be more of a comment on celebrity status rather than a more general critique on society.

But in the FPR forum, the question for me is how we remind ourselves to attend to the rebuilding of the context so obviously stripped away from the young lady wearing meat. Her response is not the only one available. My two cents.

avatar JonF February 20, 2011 at 10:47 pm

Re: The notion that because we no longer have public hangings we’re less violent is simply not true.

If you expand public hangings to include all the casual, public and quite acceptable violence and cruelty that once reigned in society, then it is indeed true that we are less violent, much less violent and cruel today. In the not so distant past, torture was an accepted tool of jurisprudence, and the more gruesome the execution the better– the guillotine after all was invented as a humane tool of death. Men beat their wives, parents beat their children, masters beat apprentices and slaves, and everyone beat animals. The punishments we deplore in Islamic Shari’a today had their equivalents in most European law codes. Ye, we have violent entertainments and games– but those things are not real– No, they are not.

Re: Is it really some great and wondrous thing that we no longer say “nigger” (at least if you’re white) but we manage to fit the “F-word” once or twice into every sentence?

Personally, I’d rather hear neither word, except on the rarest occasion when they might actually be called for. But: the one word is a deliberate slur against other human beings, the other an oboxious vulgarism directed at no one in particular.

Re: No, people aren’t inherently “worse” then they were in the past, but society’s acceptance of decadence certainly is.

Careful. The past simply had other forms of decadence. The well-to-do used opium while the poor drowned themselves in Gin Lane. For most of history prostitution was legal and accepted. Indeed, men who could afford mistresses were not socially sanctioned for keeping them, and in some cases parading them about before an adoring public. Insane asylums were visited by proper ladies and gentlemen looking for amusement. Oxford dons collected and exchanged photos of naked children.

avatar Rob G February 21, 2011 at 10:23 am

“If you had a time machine and you could go back in time and raise kids in any era, which era would you pick?”

Not a valid question. It assumes that one must take the bad with the good in each culture, as if rampant pornography is just something we have to deal with since we have modern dentistry.

“we have violent entertainments and games– but those things are not real– No, they are not.”

True, but after spending many generations trying to move away from such violence, in both sport and “real life,” I find it rather significant that we are moving back towards it in a lot of ways.

“the one word is a deliberate slur against other human beings, the other an oboxious vulgarism directed at no one in particular”

As a cheap vulgarism reflecting the lack of value society places on human sexuality, in effect it’s a slur against everyone.

“Careful. The past simply had other forms of decadence”

Of course it did. But modern advertising, mass entertainment and communication has enabled the filth to spread in a way it couldn’t in previous generations. Really, just open your eyes. It is EVERYWHERE in a way that it wasn’t a mere 25 years ago. Not only is it everywhere in terms of sheer quantitative ubiquity, but it is everywhere in terms of its acceptance in the culture.

“It’s traditionally thought that constant exposure to graphic violence and hardcore pornography and a view that all human relationships is just mutual exploitation was ‘a bad thing.’

Apparently some folks think these things are fine nowadays, since we’re nice to black people and girls can now be doctors. My take on it is that we should be able to reject, so to speak, the N word and the F word simultaneously. The progress of a culture in one aspect in no way necessitates its coarsening in another, and it’s a huge error to accept the coarsening as some sort of trade-off.

avatar D.W. Sabin February 21, 2011 at 12:13 pm

To paraphrase one of its dissectors, Reports of the death of racism are exaggerated.

The nervous and jerky abuse of spectacle by this technologically over-fed age is not however. People once attended a hanging, sure. Now however, while attending the hanging, they might tweet about it to a friend who could not make the event, review a youtube video on some band of merry drunks jumping off carport roofs and beating one another senseless with lawn chairs before then watching a news feed of the latest school shooting or perhaps another drone attack. Shock is one of the few reliable business generators we still have. Hence the banal nature of it today. Terror is a big business and our rich marketplace of shock junkies enjoy cradle to grave service. The only real difference between “then” and “now” is not that shock and tragedy itself is much more widespread but that so many can “enjoy” it so vicariously and with such unremitting ghoulish nonchalance.

I suppose it is a bit of progress however, that instead of watching a lurid and shapely Madonna writhe on her bed on stage and fantasize about getting it good, her scrawny heir in Sex-Shock must dress up in cold cuts or latex because the costume needs to do the heavy lifting for lack of physiological accoutrements so to speak. Still, one has to admire the moxie and marketing skill as just not anyone can dress up in a pastrami sandwich without the sauerkraut and bun and be yakked about to a far greater degree than some stoning in the outback.

avatar Sam M February 21, 2011 at 12:46 pm

Rob G says:

“Apparently some folks think these things are fine nowadays, since we’re nice to black people and girls can now be doctors.”

Apparent to whom? Who said that?

“My take on it is that we should be able to reject, so to speak, the N word and the F word simultaneously.”

We certainly can. And we certainly should. What you continue to ignore is the fact that I was responding to a very specific claim, being this:

“… this momentary fascination with GaGa is just another manifestation of the shockaholism of the age.”

Shockaholism? Sure. But “of the age?” Nonsense. This is nothing new. Which was my entire point. To sit around grousing about kids these days avoids doing any of the actual hard work of analysis. If I were to sit around and bemoan the state of school discipline (which I do!) it would seem pretty pointless to base my views on the complaint that boys these days refuse to stop fantasizing about naked girls. It was always thus.

Now, in raising your own kids, you don’t have to accept boorish behavior from your boys. But different eras pose different hurdles in making your boys behave themselves. Certain eras were more permissive of physical violence against women. Certain eras were rife with images that might inflame the passions in unproductive ways. I am willing to take a look at all of these environmental factors and pick my battles, which all parents have always had to do. And by and large, were I to choose an era, I would choose this one. That’s not to accept that my boys will behave the guys in Jersey Shore. To the contrary, these are battles I know I will have to fight. I just happen to think that I will have it easier than parents in 1970, 1950, 1860 and 1340.

“Not a valid question. It assumes that one must take the bad with the good in each culture.”

Again. I never said this. Rather, someone else pointed to the uniquely depraved state of affairs in 2011. I say rubbish. But if you happen to agree that 2011 is, in fact, uniquely depraved in this fashion, and that the tradeoffs we have made were bad tradeoffs, and that you would prefer to be fighting a different set of battles with your kids, I think it’s a fair qustion to ask: Which battles? Which era? Which time was most conducive to raising good, honest, productive children with a sense of decorum?

You seem pretty certain that “now” is not the answer to this question. OK then. Which time was better, taking the entire culture into account? Again, I am not saying that you would go to that time and just coast, allowing your kids to just have at it. Instead, you would have to go to that era and accept it, good and bad. Environments are a terrible hassle that way. So… 1940 didn’t have the Internet. Good for 1940! But it had other problems. So looking at it across the board, was 1940 a better time to raise kids?

avatar Rob G February 21, 2011 at 2:56 pm

“So looking at it across the board, was 1940 a better time to raise kids?”

In some ways no, in other ways, most definitely.

I grew up in the mid 60s/early 70s. To a great extent, a childhood then was still a childhood; kids weren’t pushed into adulthood prematurely like they are today. Sex ed in elementary school, adult language and behavior on mainstream TV, widespread vulgarity in pop music, pictures of scantily-clad (or in some cases, unclad) women everywhere you look, the constant use of vulgar language in public, etc.

IMO, the culture today is mostly shite, and I feel sorry for the kids, including my own, that are forced to grow up in the sewage.

avatar Rob G February 21, 2011 at 3:21 pm

In short, I think the “sexual revolution” of the 60s was an unmitigated disaster for our culture, and under no circumstances will I make peace with it.

avatar Sam M February 21, 2011 at 4:08 pm

I won’t make peace with it either, but I will do my best to recognize that some things have improved. Yes, there is a great deal of vulgarity. But other kinds of vulgarities have decreased, and that is real progress. I don’t pretend that racism is dead, but at least its practitioners are forced to carry on behind closed doors, or face some kind of stigma. This seems like the flipside of the sexual revolution. You used to be able to toss batteries and slurs at Hank Greenberg. Now, not so much. But you are allowed to use a park bench to engage in any number of practices that were once reserved for the bedroom.

A perfect world? No. And nobody needs to “accept” it. But the culture appears to have made a trade-off. In my mind, at least using those two examples, it was a good trade. I would rather share my home with teenagers who text too much and wear skirts that are too short than share it with people who refuse to cheer for Jackie Robinson or use the services of a female cardiologist.

So I guess I just take issue with your last point about the sexual revolution being an “unmitigated” disaster. I happen to think that for all the trouble it brought, there are many, many developments that mitigate a lot of that damage.

avatar Samuel February 21, 2011 at 6:46 pm

I won’t throw myself back into the debate here. It’s one that’s been going on for ages and, though I have much faith in my fellow Porchers, I have serious doubts that we will arrive at any acceptable agreement anytime soon. I myself am not so confident as others in the constancy of our condition. We are fallen to the utmost, but our embrace of the dross is negotiable.

Anyhow, if you’ve got a membership to Harper’s Magazine, there’s an interesting article there by Benjamin DeMott, “Battling the Hard Man: notes on addiction to the pornography of violence.” http://www.harpers.org/archive/2007/08/0081632

It, sadly, does not answer the question either, but I found it a nonetheless interesting read on the matter.

avatar Rob G February 21, 2011 at 7:22 pm

“I would rather share my home with teenagers who text too much and wear skirts that are too short than share it with people who refuse to cheer for Jackie Robinson or use the services of a female cardiologist.”

I wish I could say that short skirts and texting were our biggest problems, but I’m somewhat more concerned about things like porn, HPV and abortion.

avatar JonF February 22, 2011 at 8:53 pm

Re: Not a valid question. It assumes that one must take the bad with the good in each culture, as if rampant pornography is just something we have to deal with since we have modern dentistry

Like it or not that’s the way the world works: You do have to take it for it is. None of us have “God” appended to our names; we cannot create worlds to our own specifications.

Re: True, but after spending many generations trying to move away from such violence, in both sport and “real life,” I find it rather significant that we are moving back towards it in a lot of ways.

I actually wonder if something in us (not necessarily a healthy something) requires a given degree of violence. Every age has had it after all. If it’s virtual rather than real I would say that is an improvement. Better only electrons are “harmed” than fesh-and-blood creatures.

Re: As a cheap vulgarism reflecting the lack of value society places on human sexuality, in effect it’s a slur against everyone.

You know, the “f word is actually a good old Anglo-Saxonism. The Hippies didn’t invent it in the 60s. It’s been resounding in the lower storeys of the English language for an exceedingly long time.

Re: But modern advertising, mass entertainment and communication has enabled the filth to spread in a way it couldn’t in previous generations.

Nonsense. Once upon a time every town of sufficient size had its bawdy house– you don’t have to go very far back to find such houses of ill repute perfectly legal businesses even. And I can guarantee that nothing that people do today didn’t happen back then. Sure, Belle Watling could only draw on the good folk of Atlanta for her clientele. But I doubt she much lacked for customers.

avatar Sam M February 22, 2011 at 11:16 pm

“you don’t have to go very far back to find such houses of ill repute perfectly legal businesses even.”

Ever been to Fell’s Point in Baltimore? When I moved there in the mid-1990s, there was a really creepy porn theater called the APex, just sitting there next to the bus stops and flower shops and all the rest.

Now all the perverts can just get the porn at home, and the Apex is a public eyesore no more.

Is the culture more crass or less crass because of that development?

avatar Joezilla February 23, 2011 at 2:12 am

Hello,

I agree with what “The Dinosaur” said up top. The cultural critique is intriguing, and perhaps accurate–BUT (and correct me if I’m wrong, of course) you seem to imply that you listen to Lady Gaga’s music. If that is the case, how do you not see this critique as somewhat hypocritical? If you think Gaga’s an exemplar of our sado-sexual culture, why do you support her by accepting her product? I am disappointed when I learn of others who share my moral stances on issues, but then support “art” that flies in the face of those principles. The young generation (mine) is tragically guilty of this hypocrisy. I say this not to make you feel bad, but in the hope that you will consider more deeply the type of media you consume, and what message that sends to your peers and to society.

Peace,
Joezilla

avatar Samuel February 23, 2011 at 4:01 am

“Is the culture more crass or less crass because of that development?”

Well, I would say it depends on whether you are most concerned about the appearance of your community, or about the actual state of it.

avatar Rob G February 23, 2011 at 6:31 am

Never mind. I guess that all the people writing about the hyper-sexualization of the culture and the trend towards increasing violence (Judith Reisman, Anthony Esolen, Wendell Berry, etc.) are just old fuddy-duddies, and that Kinsey, Heffner and Guccione really aren’t so bad after all. They’ve always been with us, you know — it’s just that they’re slightly more out in the open now.

Never mind that you can’t turn on the TV or walk into a grocery store or shopping mall without seeing an image of a woman in her underwear (or less) or that 12 year olds are texting naked pictures of themselves to each other and getting instructions from older girls on how to give good blowjobs or that our kids go to school dressed like retards and whores and can barely speak an intelligent sentence, or one that doesn’t include the word “like” a half-dozen times.

Everything is rosy! We have anesthesia and chlorinated water! Our divorce rate is over 50%, illegitimacy, pornography and abortion are rampant, kids graduate without being able to read or do basic math, but goddam! — look at all the STUFF we have!

Sigh.

“I would say it depends on whether you are most concerned about the appearance of your community, or about the actual state of it.”

Hear, hear.

avatar Sam M February 23, 2011 at 7:20 am

“They’ve always been with us, you know — it’s just that they’re slightly more out in the open now.”

Then:

“I would say it depends on whether you are most concerned about the appearance of your community, or about the actual state of it.”

Wait. Which is it? Either human nature is human nature and the concern is really about appearances. Or people really are worse. You can’t have it both ways.

Is the appearance of culture changing? Or are people fundamentally different? In the case of the Apex theater, the response appears to be, “O, the humanity! People are the same, and these improvements are merely cosmetic!”

In other cases, you appear to be saying, “O, the humanity! People are jus tlike they always were, but culture is highlighting the worst of it rather than hiding it!”

avatar Rob G February 23, 2011 at 8:35 am

“Either human nature is human nature and the concern is really about appearances. Or people really are worse. You can’t have it both ways.”

Human nature as nature doesn’t change. And culture is highlighting the worst of it. But your error in posing this false dilemma is to assume that culture reflects appearances only. Culture is more than a mere appearance; it can act as a either a check on or an enabler for behavior. The question is, does the current culture tend to inhibit or to promote the acceptance of undesirable behaviors? People may not be any worse ontologically speaking, but their values and behavior may certainly be.

To put it another way, fallen human nature doesn’t change and will always manifest itself in society in undesirable ways. But will it do so with or without the help of the culture? Will culture serve as an enabler or an inhibitor?

avatar Rob G February 23, 2011 at 8:54 am

“I can guarantee that nothing that people do today didn’t happen back then.”

Which totally misses the point. I’m talking about ubiquity and availability. I’ve seen the changes just in my lifetime. Do you really think that it was as easy or as common to find, say, torture or coprophilic or animal porn twenty-five years ago as it is today? If you do, you’re living in a dreamland. Even straight hard-core porn (defined as porn which shows penetration) is much easier to access nowadays, and not just on the Net. Check your local convenience store, where it most definitely WAS NOT available 25 years ago.

avatar Bob February 23, 2011 at 10:05 am

It’s interesting that people in this discussion can find no agreement about how to compare different eras despite agreeing in their judgments about what is good and bad about those eras. One reason for this, I suspect, is that eras and cultures more generally are usually just too complex to be judged comparatively along a single dimension. Everyone here would agree, I take it, that we are all better off and better people than we were 50 years ago because racism, of certain varieties at least, has become unacceptable. We would all also agree, I think, that the norms and ideals of sexuality that our culture pumps out at us in mass media are, at least in many respects, worse than they have been. My suggestion is that the disagreement about whether this makes our own time better or worse overall isn’t accidental, but is the result of a pervasive fact about human goods, namely that they are many and heterogeneous. It’s not as though racial attitudes and sexual attitudes can be added and subtracted along a single quantitative scale, with liberty and (sortof) equality for non-whites scoring 10 points and the degrading impersonalization of sex scoring -7. The good isn’t a qualitatively simple pie that we can slice in different size pieces; it’s a multi-dimensional, multi-layered cake of several different flavors, stuffed with different sorts of fruit, covered with a variety of icings. The quantitative incommensurability of the good entails that we won’t be able to make straightforward comparative judgments of value between objects as complex as cultures. Or, at least, it means that any culture or era of which we can say that ours is definitely better on the whole was a deeply disordered one (or, if clearly better than ours, a golden age).

Of course, if we consider the question from certain more limited perspectives, our judgments will be easy. Would I prefer to raise girls in this culture, or in 5th century Athens? This one, certainly. Would I prefer to raise girls in this culture or in 19th century America? Well, there’s a lot to be said for being a progressive in the 19th century rather than a reactionary conservative in the 21st!

In short, I think we should reject the supposition that we can meaningfully compare eras and cultures in toto. Once we narrow our sights, the judgments become easier.

avatar Sam M February 23, 2011 at 10:24 am

“The question is, does the current culture tend to inhibit or to promote the acceptance of undesirable behaviors?”

Yes. That is the question. Which is why I brought up the question of the Apex Theater. It’s not as simple as saying “we are awash in the stuff.” In some ways it is more prevalent. In some ways less. All of which requires a pretty complex analysis that goes beyond “O, the humanity” or complaining about the shockaholism of the age.

I think most chambers of commerce and most community members WOULD be shocked, far more shocked than they would have been in 1970, to see a dedicated pornography theater built in a major commercial district of a major American city. Go to a place like Silver Spring, MD, where they built all this stuff I am sure you would hate. Chain restaurants. Chain retailers. But guess what that culture, as decadent and as consumerist as it is, would NEVER allow?

The Apex Theater.

As decadent as this culture is, I have never been to a party in my entire adult life and seen a man hit a woman. I have never seen someone refused from a bar or restaurant or a school on racial grounds.

This is not to say that racism or domestic abuse are gone, any more than the disappearance of the Apex means that lust has been stamped out. But as you said yourself:

“I’m talking about ubiquity and availability.”

You also said:

“Human nature as nature doesn’t change. And culture is highlighting the worst of it.”

Again, you are being very selective here. Is the culture higlighting the worst of some things? Yes. But it cuts both ways. You hate porn. That’s more available. Cuture bad! But people also have more access to Christian music. To information about Opus Dei. To travel that can take them to rallies that support (insert your pet cause here).

Culture is interconnected. You can’t have progress on ANY front without unraveling a few strings and making some things worse. Should we just accept that? No. We should rail against the evils that comes with it. But careful analysis requires a broad view of things as well as an understanding of the minute details.

The culture of 1900 supported some wondeful things. It also highlighted some truly vicious and horrible things. Some things got better while some got worse.

In my mind, the things that got better outweigh the bad. In fact, I don’t think it’s even close.

avatar Rob G February 23, 2011 at 11:14 am

“In my mind, the things that got better outweigh the bad. In fact, I don’t think it’s even close”

This is the sort of “all things being equal” comparison that I reject. As Bob said above it’s not really possible to compare cultures/eras like that. But it seems to me that despite notable progress in some areas, the bigger picture shows a culture in decline. While it is great that minorities have made great strides w/r/t civil and human rights, I’m hesitant to break into applause for our progress when the humanity of the entire race is being eroded at the same time. Blacks can now sit at the front of the bus, but it’s small consolation when the bus is heading for a cliff.

avatar D.W. Sabin February 25, 2011 at 10:09 am

The real issue is not so much that we are intrinsically more decadent or violent now than when some French-prompted Huron descended upon Deerfield, Massachusetts to kill wantonly before dragging some of its occupants off into the north after ravaging the place. The real issue is that with our seeming “modernity” and encompassing comfort, that we stubbornly retain our habitual fascination with violence and “shock value” in all its tawdry forms. This, and the fact that the tawdry no longer skulks about the margins, it is the principle and starring role in a Voyeuristic Popular Culture of Insatiable Want.

It is part and parcel of the official state of victimhood propagated by the modern State. Keep the lambs on edge so the wolves are afforded an efficient plucking. Distraction is working wonders.

avatar Rob G February 25, 2011 at 10:14 am

Or, to put it another way, instead of bread and circuses we are now given McDonalds and porn.

avatar Albert February 25, 2011 at 12:57 pm

I find the idea repugnant that one must take the world as is or reject it completely. It’s a depressing failure of imagination to believe one must choose between racial equality and chastity because that’s how the modern culture would have it; I reject the choice as false and its implicit despair as banal and destructive.

avatar Sam M February 25, 2011 at 1:08 pm

“But it seems to me that despite notable progress in some areas, the bigger picture shows a culture in decline.”

This is obviously the fundamental point of disagreement. Were an alien to descend upon my roof and demand that I take them anywhere in time to show the the absolute apex of our culture, I would tell them to put the time machine away. “This is as good as it has ever been, all things considered,” I would say.

I honestly can’t imagine a better time or place. I know a lot of people have a yearning for the agrarian life of yore. Some might even prefer the glory days of industry. Or the glories of Periclean Athens.

I’d bypass them all for 2011 in Dubuque.

I know that might not be a popular opinion. And perhaps I am insufficiently scandalized by reality TV. But if you really want to see me put on my blinders, get this… I am guessing 2021 will be better still.

My oldest kids will be 16 at the time. My youngest will be 10. So we shall see.

avatar Rob G February 25, 2011 at 2:02 pm

‘The real issue is that with our seeming “modernity” and encompassing comfort, that we stubbornly retain our habitual fascination with violence and “shock value” in all its tawdry forms. This, and the fact that the tawdry no longer skulks about the margins, it is the principle and starring role in a Voyeuristic Popular Culture of Insatiable Want.’

Quite so. And I see no indication that either thing will abate. The more satisfied and comfortable we become, the greater the increase of the sordid.

(As I type this, there is a radio ad running for a local “gentlemen’s club,” featuring a “XXX star,” the “adult entertainment star of the year,” and the “popular porn star Bridget the Midget.” This is on my local sports talk station. Used to be, and not all that long ago, that there was a certain element of shame or embarassment associated with porn and strip clubs, and an advert like that would not be run on a regular daytime radio show. My daughter is 19 now, but I can’t imagine having a young child nowadays hear that and ask, “Daddy, what’s a porn star?”)

avatar Sam M February 25, 2011 at 4:05 pm

“This, and the fact that the tawdry no longer skulks about the margins…”

But other things HAVE been forced to skulk at the margins. And in the scheme of things, tawdriness is pretty low on my list of complaints about humanity. So on halloween we have more girls in “slutty nun” costumes and fewer frat boys in blackface. Is it distressing to hear, “Daddy, what’s a porn star?” I guess. But I think it’s an easier question to answer than “Daddy, why won’t you let mom work outside the house?” Or, “Dad, why can’t mom vote?” Or any of the other uncomfortable questions a person of my disposition might have been asked by his daughter 30 years ago. Or 60. Or 100.

I know you can’t imagine the porn star question and how you would have answered it. I similarly can’t even fathom how people answered those other questions in previous generations.

Unmitigated progress? No. But it’s not an unmitigated decline, either.

The advent of fun-size candy bars for halloweeners is an unmitigated disaster, however.

avatar anita February 25, 2011 at 6:16 pm

Excellent article! As a young person I find this theory on the Gaga phenomena to be both refreshing and relevant in light of the praise and general shock that she receives as a performer. Most of my friends absolutely love Lady Gaga, and although I do enjoy dancing to her music at social events I’ve yet to purchase any of her music. I’d always assumed that her popularity came simply from her fearlessness and f.u. attitude (which has always worked for popstars). In general I never contemplate pop culture’s reasoning, or lyrics, as it depresses me to no end. The “sadism is a post-traumatic condition” concept was well put, and I believe that pop followers are a traumatized bunch, which is why we value fearlessenss. We’re always afraid of social trauma, and are learning to enjoy and deal with it.
In the meantime I enjoy my front porch, and my grandmothers who live next door.

avatar Rob G February 25, 2011 at 11:33 pm

Sam, I’m afraid we don’t have much to talk about if you think that the hypersexualizing of our kids at ever-younger ages, a concerted effort to destroy the very notion of moral innocence, is of less importance than the fact that we’ve moved beyond minstrel shows.

avatar D.W. Sabin February 26, 2011 at 9:55 am

This last Halftime Farce during the recent Superbowl should disabuse any sane person of the notion that we might have moved beyond Minstrel shows.

With a 40% voter turnout and dropping, perhaps the more frequent question being asked in these halcyon days is “why isn’t mommy voting?”.

Relativism certainly is a fun diversion.”slutty nun” Halloween costumes? Wow.

avatar GingerMan February 26, 2011 at 1:49 pm

@Bob said…

The quantitative incommensurability of the good entails that we won’t be able to make straightforward comparative judgments of value between objects as complex as cultures. Or, at least, it means that any culture or era of which we can say that ours is definitely better on the whole was a deeply disordered one (or, if clearly better than ours, a golden age).
[snip]
In short, I think we should reject the supposition that we can meaningfully compare eras and cultures in toto. Once we narrow our sights, the judgments become easier.

I think this is exactly correct and is why I agree with those above who object to the totalizing sky-is-falling rhetoric used above. One can speak about the objections to the public standards surrounding sexuality, but to talk of the “culture” degrading writ large is a step too far, unless you are willing to address the trade-offs that others mention above.

For instance, @Rob G said…

As Bob said above it’s not really possible to compare cultures/eras like that. But it seems to me that despite notable progress in some areas, the bigger picture shows a culture in decline. While it is great that minorities have made great strides w/r/t civil and human rights, I’m hesitant to break into applause for our progress when the humanity of the entire race is being eroded at the same time.

You’re talking out of both sides of your mouth. It is not possible to compare cultures, but then you make the comparison in the very next sentence.

It’s this sort of overwrought totalizing claims of cultural decline (in effect reading culture as seemingly singularly consisting of changes in sexual mores) that are not justified.

@Sam M said…

Culture is interconnected. You can’t have progress on ANY front without unraveling a few strings and making some things worse. Should we just accept that? No. We should rail against the evils that comes with it.

This is quite right. He’s saying explicitly that one need not throw up ones hands and simply accept changes we find objectionable, but that often the same changes that are driving the objectionable outcomes also bring tremendous goods with them as well.

The problem with defining such problems as a function of “culture” is that the analytical frame becomes one simply of moral “decline and fall.” As many have noted, I am doubtful that human nature is all that malleable, while agreeing that circumstances can either promote better or worse behaviors.

The “pornification” of culture that is being railed against is a function of culture now being mass, as in mass communications. Yes, access to explicit material is more ubiquitous than ever before, but so is access to almost every other kind of information. It is impossible to compare our “culture” directly with prior ones on purely moral terms since the capacity for this culture to act as it does was largely unavailable just a couple generations ago.

The great improvements in human knowledge, connectivity and productivity availed by modern communications are of some considerable merit and cannot be so easily dismissed simply because some portion of it is distasteful, vulgar or even immoral.

Ochlophobist speaks (at length) on a similar point:

“In order to spare you one of my diatribes against the culture of television I will say that the form of the media really does not matter, so long as it is mass. In the early part of the twentieth century women’s magazines did much to change the social norms of sex inside and outside of marriage, which complemented the new technology of the automobile, which in turn easily allowed courting youngsters to go out on dates where premarital sex was altogether possible. But for this popular scenario to occur media had to pave the way for future technologies to take young persons to a sexual life divorced from the bonds of community, and the development of the now überpopular isolationist romanticism. As social historians have made clear, the real sexual revolution occurred in the United States in the 1880′s. We simply had to wait for modern technologies and modern (un)civic arrangements to make possible the sexual revolution on full scale. The sexual revolution became triumphant in the late 1960′s only because then most people had access to TV’s, radios, cars, and private places in which to engage in whatever sexual activity they desired, and enough superfluous income to purchase a Beatles LP and a condom.”

Read more: http://ochlophobist.blogspot.com/2007/01/ochlophobic-workers-of-world-unite-part.html

In short, the reason that I, for one, find these laments against “culture” grating is that it fails to address itself to the specific point of contention (usually related to sexuality) and instead rails in broad generalizations about the “culture” writ large without acknowledging the very real trade-offs between the current culture and other apparently superior ones that have preceded ours.

If you truly want to argue about “culture” then take the argument en toto, as Rod Dreher does here:

If it’s a matter of agreeing with Andrew Sullivan that the Sixties (which is to say, the social revolution that broke open in the Sixties, but which has been ongoing since then) made possible a greater increase in personal satisfaction, and even legitimate happiness, then I do agree with him. Certainly there can be no greater example of the gains made in virtue via the repudiation of immoral and unjust legal barriers to full black citizenship. Similarly, women are treated more fairly now, and though some of you will doubt me, I agree that the world is a better place for gay folks than it once was. It would be foolish to view the Sixties as nothing but darkness, in the same way that it’s hard to deny that many good things came out of the Enlightenment.

The question, though, is not whether the Sixties (or the Enlightenment) were good or bad, but whether on balance the Sixties (or the Enlightenment) were good or bad. I answer in the negative.

Read more: http://blog.beliefnet.com/crunchycon/2009/02/virtue-and-happiness.html#ixzz1F5ithlxX

Now, *that* is an argument against current “culture” when one pines for a Pre-Enlightenment ideal. Obviously, I don’t agree, but it is a point worth arguing over at least, as Rod is willing to reject the bad AND the good.

- GingerMan

avatar Rob G February 28, 2011 at 9:43 am

“You’re talking out of both sides of your mouth. It is not possible to compare cultures, but then you make the comparison in the very next sentence”

Perhaps I didn’t make myself clear enough. To me an analogy might be the comparison of trends vs. snapshots. Comparing snapshots of cultures is not particularly helpful, if even possible. But I think you can certainly compare the ways that cultures trend.

~~the reason that I, for one, find these laments against “culture” grating is that it fails to address itself to the specific point of contention (usually related to sexuality) and instead rails in broad generalizations about the “culture” writ large without acknowledging the very real trade-offs between the current culture and other apparently superior ones that have preceded ours.~~

I mentioned the trade-odds specifically at least twice above. What I object to is the idea that acceptance of the trade-offs is necessary. That reflects a “progressive” or Whig view of history which I do not accept. As one commenter puts it on Rod’s thread, I don’t see why we shouldn’t accept what good came out of the Enlightenment and the 60′s while striving to sort out the chaff and curb the excesses. I can praise modern dentistry to the skies while railing against the sordidness of pop culture, correct? And I’d have to say that the latter is much more of an indicator of the direction of the culture en toto than the former is.

I agree with Rod and I don’t believe the sky is falling — what we are confronting seems to be less precipitous, more of a long, slow decline. As someone once said, not a bang but a whimper. We are facing the descent into a totalizing corporate/managerial state which will be perfectly happy to let us bonk whoever we want, whenever we want, provided we give it 60% of our income and control over the remainder of our lives.

avatar Rob G February 28, 2011 at 10:23 am

~~Relativism certainly is a fun diversion.”slutty nun” Halloween costumes? Wow~~

Yes, it strikes me as quite odd that some folks think that we can compartmentalize sexual matters and make them just one other facet of the overall culture, as opposed to their being inherently wrapped up with human nature as such, and thus an unavoidable marker of cultural health.

http://www.firstthings.com/article/2011/02/blurring-sexual-boundaries

avatar Tony February 28, 2011 at 11:42 am

Given the many indications of the breakdown of the black community (abortion, illegitimacy, crime & incarceration, etc.), I’m surprised so many people are willing to use race as the basis for their argument about all the progress we’ve made.

Ms. McWilliams’ essay reminds me of one written by Mary Eberstadt a few years back, making a connection between divorce and the nihilistic & misogynist lyrics of Eminem and others of his ilk. Although – maybe I’m just misreading – somehow Ms. McWilliams doesn’t seem all that much troubled by Lady Gaga. (By the way, do you really consider someone who emails you Paris Hilton porn to be a ‘friend’?)

avatar Albert March 1, 2011 at 11:50 am

Tony’s point about racial progress is interesting; the exaltation of progress against racism seems to depend on a very limited sense of what constitutes progress. It’s as if we define progress over and against the past rather than with respect to a notion of the common good, so as long as our failures aren’t the choice failures of the past, we can congratulate ourselves while excusing, minimizing or indulging our own moral lapses as not as bad as those scapegoats.

avatar JonF March 3, 2011 at 8:48 pm

Re: Well, there’s a lot to be said for being a progressive in the 19th century rather than a reactionary conservative in the 21st!

In the 19th century there was a non-trivial possibility you would be burying one or more of your children before they were full-grown. That alone should weigh quite heavily in favor of today.

avatar Tony March 4, 2011 at 11:06 am

And in the 21st century there is a non-trivial possibility that if you’re a child, your parents will legally have you killed before you’re even born. As well as a non-trivial possibility that if you are born, you will be raised by only one of them. Both possibilities being much higher if you’re black.

Fortunately, there is less possibility of growing up to “bop along” to Lady Gaga, she having in all likelihood outlived her fifteen minutes of fame and been replaced by the next pop sensation.

avatar Sarah Trump March 10, 2011 at 4:28 pm

I don’t know GaGa very well but think I stumbled over a video of her with Beance (forgive spelling) posing with “sexy” colored guns. These social trends you talk about may be more orchestrated product placement/propaganda/brainwashing from the military industrial complex & Co than something arising spontaneously from “the people”.

It seems to me a that in contrast to the 60′s, pop music today is as much the home invading tool of the corporate sociopath as hollywood, creating another generation of cannon fodder who think they’re the pinnacle of emancipation.

Just a thought.

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