One of things that I’m sure frustrates plain old ordinary, non-factionalized conservatives is the ability of said cosmopolitan writers and pundits to complain about the vulgarities of popular culture or even the culture at large and bring up once again said Culture Wars, but not propose any kind of policies or actions to do something about it.
Peggy Noonan is usually good for a column like this and so she was at it again recently in the Wall Street Journal saying that Americans’ discontent couldn’t possibly just be about being unemployed or foreclosed from one’s home. No, that would be too simple and too commerical. Instead, morality must play a role too:
“I’d like to see a poll on this. Yes or no: Have we become a more vulgar country? Are we coarser than, say, 50 years ago? Do we talk more about sensitivity and treat others less sensitively? Do you think standards of public behavior are rising or falling? Is there something called the American Character, and do you think it has, the past half-century, improved or degenerated? If the latter, what are the implications of this? Do you sense, as you look around you, that each year we have less or more of the glue that holds a great nation together? Is there less courtesy in America now than when you were a child, or more? Bonus question: Is “Excuse me” a request or a command?
So much always roils us in America, and so much always will. But maybe as 2010 begins and the ’00s recede, we should think more about the non-economic issues that leave us uneasy, and that need our attention. Not everything in America comes down to money. Not everything ever did.”
Not to say that Noonan is wrong about this. One can find such comments in any Right publication regardless of faction. But what prompted this column had to do with apparently lewd and tasteless performance by one Adam Lambert at the American Music Awards back in November which was broadcast live on ABC.
“I don’t mean to make too much of it. In the great scheme of things a creepy musical act doesn’t matter much. But increasingly people feel at the mercy of the Adam Lamberts, who of course view themselves, when criticized, as victims of prudery and closed-mindedness. America is not prudish or closed-minded, it is exhausted. It cannot be exaggerated, how much Americans feel besieged by the culture of their own country, and to what lengths they have to go to protect their children from it.”
Okay, again nothing too out of the ordinary in this either. But then what does Ms. Noonan proscribe we do about such offensive acts on TV? Do we sick the FCC on ABC and fine them heavily? Suspend a few local TV station licenses? Outright censorship of such programming? Hey, it may be against the First Amendment but at least it’s policy proposal and nowhere in Noonan’s column does one find any kind of detailed proposals to lift the siege of popular culture upon average Americans.
There’s no question politically the Right has benefited from speaking out about culture and crime and values in political terms as a means of organizing voters who feel “besieged” as Noonan said. But ultimately such rhetoric eventually becomes talking points and the voters expect results. What do you intend to do about naughty language, sexually explicit content or graphic violence in the media? Other than a few tweaks here and there (sicking the Justice Department on pornographers for example, playing with the tax code in order to benefit married couples or banning homosexual marriage), the Right, when in power, hasn’t done a whole lot. This is because of a political paralysis that ultimately affects policy: What one wishes government to do to clean up the culture runs smack dab in the conservative ethos of limiting big government’s involvement in citizen’s lives. An honest right-wing Social Democrat could make an argument for heavy FCC policing of prime time network content to regulating the content of the internet. But most right-wing politicians don’t approach their “big-government conservatism” with any degree of honesty. Opportunism is more like it.
If one has heard echoes of Ms. Noonan before one can go all the way back to the time between 1992-94 with Bill Bennett’s Index of Leading Cultural Indicators to many columns written at that time about the nation’ growing courseness of culture (Gee, I wonder what they would think of it now?). There was Dan Quayle pean to “family values”. David Frum detailed the obsessions many conservatives had (especially a good deal of neocons) had about behavior in Dead Right and how one could fashion government aid programs like welfare based on the behavior of the recepients. And then there was the chapter of how the 1992 GOP National Convention in Houston was a study in the cynical manipulation of voter’s honest concerns about values to try and revive a dead campaign. That was 17 years ago and other than indignation at Bill Clinton’s White House Love Nest there has been little heard on subject since (a failed impeachment can do that to you). Most on the Right have spent the last decade trying to put God on the side of the PNAC. But the current lack of such wonkary leaves those on the right with little constructive to say. Indeed, the aforementioned Democrat probably did more for morality on a policy level than any recent Republican has. Why didn’t America’s parents use their Bill Clinton provided V-Chips the block out the AMA on the flat screen TVs?
If you accept the inevitable that popular culture will continue to push envelopes in order to break through the media clutter (and make money of course), then perhaps a better strategy than continued whining about what others watch, read or listen is encouraging the masses to reach for something better to watch, read or listen to, or at least get the idea in their minds they are not slaves to celebrity or junk. This may be a push towards traditional music, or religion or the Classics or a push towards the highbrow in general. It may very well be a push towards agrarianism and a “back to the land” sort of movement that would involve a significant shift in values as one might expect leaving the gated community for a farm on the Plains. It may very well be a movement that celebrates what is small and decentralized. Maybe I’m crazy, but it’s has to be a better solution than trying to create an alternative culture that apes popular culture that only manages to produce bad movies (An American Carol), bad music (Stryper anyone?) and ghostwritten books by radio talk-show hosts, pundits and politicians. Or the Prayer of Jabez.
For all the genuine concerns that those on the Right may very well have about culture in general, isn’t it strange that so few of its leading lights in the media have ideas about alternatives? Would it not be better to declare defeat in Culture Wars and simply move on to other juicy topics (foreign policy, government spending) and leave morality to the preacher like it was before 1970s if the only thing one can say is how victimized everyone is by TV shows and movies they willingly watch, books they buy and music they listen to? Who wants to be told constantly their free will isn’t free when they have the means to do something about it?