Politics & Media
Apr 23, 2012, 06:11AM

Bulletin: American Culture Has Evolved

But there will always be something to kvetch about. 

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The following sentence is a lament about American culture and character: “I’ve long thought that public dissatisfaction is about more than the economy, that it’s also about our culture, or rather the flat, brute, highly sexualized thing we call our culture.” The writer goes on to list deplorable incidents in the United States: a tourist in a big city is beaten up and no one helps the victim; juvenile delinquents loot retail stores at will; government employees are caught in embarrassing scandals; and a group of teachers in New York City, who can’t be fired because of union protection, are revealed as cretins.

Looking at the above, in a vacuum, a reader could be forgiven if he or she had no idea what year this was written, for condemnations about American culture, whether from newspaper columnists, cranky grandmothers or sermonizing clergymen, date back to the early 19th century. Maybe it’s the 1960s, when Kitty Genovese was murdered in New York City as pedestrians passed by; the casual sex, nudity and consumption of illegal drugs at Woodstock elicited cries of disgust from “The Greatest Generation”; and riots ruined great American cities. Or the 1970s, with Watergate exposing government corruption at the highest level, television shows like The Love Boat gained high ratings, “streaking” was a college fad and a “Disco Sucks” riot broke out at Chicago’s Comiskey Park.

However, as you might’ve guessed, this commentary is contemporary, an essay by Peggy Noonan that appeared on April 21 in The Wall Street Journal. It’s Noonan’s contention that the country’s generally sour mood isn’t just about the lousy economy that in this election year politicians of both parties are shamelessly exploiting for their own gain, but rather a “crisis of character,” epitomized by the ubiquity of YouTube and smartphones, the Secret Service scandal, “flash mobs” of kids stealing merchandise and, more generally, a slovenly, dumbed-down and indifferent populace. I’ve long admired Peggy Noonan, not only for her writing, but also for the dignity and graciousness she projected during the few occasions I had the pleasure to socialize with her. She’s what would’ve been called, to borrow a common phrase from a past era, a “classy lady.”

Yet aside from her sarcastic “thanks” to whoever popularized “casual Fridays,” about which she accurately says “[N]ow it’s casual everyday in America,” a point of agreement that probably reflects the fact that we’re both on wrong side of 50, I think she completely misses the mark in the column. As noted above, complaints about the state of American culture are a constant: my parents initially deplored the burst of popularity, post-British Invasion in 1964, of teenagers and young men growing long hair; they thought the mini-skirt was a sign of dangerous decadence. When my brother Doug was a freshman at college in 1965, the men were required to wear a jacket and tie at the dormitory dining hall; just two years later, that practice was abandoned. Earlier, critics lashed out at the devolution of American culture because of tabloid newspapers, the radio and television.

Noonan’s conclusion: “The leveling or deterioration of public behavior has got to be worrying people who have enough years on them to judge with some perspective. Something seems to be going terribly wrong. Maybe we have to stop and think about this.” I have thought about it and there’s a lot about American society today that makes me cranky: like walking down the street in any major city and seeing pedestrians with cell phones glued to their ears; erectile dysfunction or yeast infection prevention advertisements appearing on television at eight in the morning; and, in my own profession, the replacement of serious, well-researched journalism for the “scoops” offered on Twitter and the escalating (who, 25 years ago, would think this was even possible) glorification of celebrity. 

On the other hand, this really is mere kvetching, for the United States is, in most ways, a better country than when I was born in 1955. The obvious: an integrated society where racism and bigotry, while still prevalent, has dwindled to where it’s the exception rather than the rule. In 1972, my father, unaware, like most Americans, of dangerous eating habits and the impact of genetics on one’s health, died of a heart attack. This was a time when heart surgery was in its very infancy, and bypasses—routine today—were unheard of. Like other men and women in my age bracket, I lined up for sugar cubes in the early 1960s to prevent polio, and participated in air raid drills at elementary school. Before the computer/Internet age, I re-typed term papers and newspaper articles and used white-out; I did research at now-forgotten institutions called libraries. I don’t care for the profane taping of crime that shows up YouTube (such as the beating of a Baltimore tourist that Noonan describes), but I sure like seeing clips of, say, Nina Simone singing “Feelin’ Good” or a long-forgotten performance by the Hollies on the show Shindig.

After reading, and re-reading, Noonan’s column, I wondered what my 19-year-old son’s reaction would be. Surprisingly, at least to me, he said: “Great article. I think the comforts kids had from the 1980s onward—toys, candy, fast food, video games, television—combined with overly permissive and protective parenting and teaching, was counter-productive. And a government that asks nothing from citizens but their money. After 9/11, people were told not to think about it and go shopping like children.”

Perhaps this could be interpreted as a “the child is father of the man” moment, but I’ll stick to my own theory. After all, the constant in American society is the desire for employment, opportunity, and personal security. Popular culture, some of it ephemeral, some of it enduring, matters less to people than a sense of contentment. As for “character,” I’d prefer, no doubt like Peggy Noonan, that men and women didn’t dress like slobs at church and restaurants or yell obscenities at the ballpark, but let’s not kid ourselves: callous behavior wasn’t invented in the 21st century.  

  • Never understood your admiration of Peggy. I've always found her ivory perch to be blinding

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  • Racism is not the exception, it is the backbone of our country. No one pumps money into poor black neighborhoods to make their schools better, food healthier, and streets safer because they don't care. White supremacy is the unspoken rule. Minorities have more rights and freedoms than in 1955 but our culture views skinny, white, and pretty as the aesthetic standard.

  • Other than the local taxpayer, who is pumping money into rich white neighborhoods to make their schools better, food healthier, and streets safer? How is this racism if schools and safety are paid by locals taxes?

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  • White supremacy is not the "unspoken rule" in America. If that were so, there's no way Obama would've been elected. Also, you speak of "black neighborhoods" and then "minorities," which of course are comprised of more than just black people. Maybe you're right that skinny and pretty and (sometimes) white is an "aesthetic" standard, but I doubt the considerable taxes that I willingly pay as a citizen never reach the neighborhoods of minorities.

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  • This is always a mildly interesting, if frustrating, discussion; how much worse the world has allegedly gotten since our once golden youth. Agree that Noonan is a classy lady, which puts her in a very different class than, say, me, a conservative but also an old hippie who broke all her rules of manner in polite society. Nonetheless, I generally enjoy her constructions. But I wouldn't exactly equate flash mobs and wanton beatdowns of strangers with the "scandal" of men growing longish hair in the 60s as does Mr. Smith here. Yet I do agree that in many ways it's a better world. The average maximum life span has doubled since 1900, etc. Conversely, there were probably more deaths during wars in the 20th century than all previous centuries combined. And it's entirely possible the 21st will up that ante. But regardless, life is not a perfectible endeavor and while we have this notion of evolution of species, I can't see where we're evolving anywhere that's close to paradise on earth. Creatures still have to consume other creatures to survive, so where's evolution gotten us in four billion years in that bottom line sense? Were life a free all night buffet, I'd like a little more Big Rock Candy Mountain in my evolution: we live forever at our chosen perfect age; we're beautiful and talented; we don't have to work, but frolic in the sunlight provided by nostalgic ballads from the 60s. Like that. Short of that, evolution seems to be taking us in circles, rather than to some designated progressive destination in which we are rewarded for all our hard work and suffering as sentient beings. For the miracles of evolution, look at some of our more exotic species. Saw a photo of a deep sea seahorse recently. The most bizarre Rube Goldberg-as-god evolutionary construct ever. Where's that bit of progressive evolution heading? Isn't evolution really just a series of tragicomic dead ends with no purpose other than that of eating up time until the inevitable end of the universe, as our scientists are so fond of reminding us? There's a simple reason why humans continue to make the same mistakes over and over regardless of all the data we have collected from our endless source of past histories that went sour. It's our mortality. We pass and with our passing goes any chance of remembering correctly through direct experience how to handle this or that situation, and thereby correcting those things we could have handled better. Each new event is slightly different than its forerunner, making it impossible to correct through history alone, without personal experience of previous events. This is as true for society as it is for the individual, as cultures also pass. In The Strange Life of Ivan Osokin, by Peter Ouspensky a man nearing death pulls a Faust and sells his soul for another chance at life with the hope that this time, with his knowledge of all that's come before, he'll be easily able to correct his missteps. But as he approaches each experience from his previous life that he's sworn to correct and swears to redeem himself on this time, he gets caught up in the on-rush of the moment and before he knows it he's repeated his mistake exactly as he made it the first time. That's man's fate, trapped in a seemingly meaningless and repetitious cycle that churns on endlessly for reasons we're not privvy to (or worse and most likely, no reason at all). Life's ultimate gift to us, besides a few good moments in the sun, is that it isn't for forever.

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  • A wonderful synopsis of Nihilism, Tom. Same fatal flaw though. Perhaps the flaw arrives not from mortality, as you state, but perspective

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  • This article misses the cause of our malaise: the steady disappearance of opportunity. The author blithely talks about improvement in medical care -- but that's been going on for over a century (llok up Pasteur). He talks about how their is less racism and discrimination -- but there's been a steady improvement in race relations, from the abolition of slavery on The author talks about advances in technology -- but that too is very old (look up the printing press). The reality is that medical, political and technological advances have been the story of American history. But they've all been accompanied by a genuine opportunity to better your condition. I was born in 1968. I'd have had more economic opportunity had I been born in 1948. Kids born in 1988 have had less opportunity than me. What of those born in 2008?

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  • Re: last comment: It should have read "look up Pasteur" and "there is less racism". Sorry -- I'm looking after a newborn. No sleep.

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  • You have my full empathy on the newborn! That said, I was born in 69 and don't see how I would have had better opportunity had I been born 20 years earlier. Please explain. Not being difficult just trying to understand your position. Had I been born in 48 I might be dead from heart disease or something worse. I'd not have been able to take advantage of the computer revolution which has been a significant part in separating my company from others. The flow of information is quite different than it was then and those who are more adept at filtering through information overload would not have been as advataged. My ability to hire minorities and women who contribute a different perspective to business would have been severly hampered. In other words, my business/and I, have been able to prosper because we are better at adjusting to social mores and standards than most. Change creates opportunity and the past 50 years have seen more change than any other 50 year period in history. How is this worse for our generation?

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