Monday, December 21, 2009

"I'm Scared, Ain't You Boys Scared?"

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers--"Spike (live)" (mp3)

"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? "

In her latest Wall Street Journal op-ed piece, "The Adam Lambert Problem," former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan makes the argument that, yes, we as Americans have been beaten down by the economy and health care, but that what has really worn us out has been the cultural assault on us and our children. The springboard to her position is a recent poll that shows that 55% of Americans think that America is going in the wrong direction and very few (27%) think that their children's lives will be better than their own.

Noonan hauls out the usual suspect--televison. She characterizes it as a medium focused on graphic violence, highly sexualized behavior, and "cultural messages that...may be destructive." In short, using the language of a culturally conservative friend, she says that the "cultural left" has no right to inflict its "cultural sensibilities" on the rest of us. And the most recent, most awful example of this is Adam Lambert.

May we first take a couple of moments and dismiss the overgeneralizations that she relies on? First, I accept (I have to) that a majority of Americans think we have lost our way, but what I refuse to accept, especially in such a pluralistic society, is the notion that all of those dissatisfied Americans are dissatisfied about the same things in the same way. It's ridiculous. While you may think that we are not religious enough, I happen to think that we let religion impact far too many aspects of our way of life. Or witness the current health care reform struggle where both the far left and the far right are dissatisfied, but for exactly opposite reasons.

Noonan also pulls out her broad brush in her attempt to paint our cultural woes, whatever they may be, on the "cultural left." Does anyone really need a reminder that it is the Fox networks, owned by arch-conservative Rupert Murdoch, that present the most graphically violent and sexual shows on television? From 24 to Family Guy, from The Shield to Damages, it is the Fox networks that push the boundaries on channels that are very accessible to children. If there is blame, spread it across the political spectrum, Peggy, and include the network you regularly appear on!

I didn't see Adam Lambert's performance. Based on the way Noonan analyzes it from a distance, neither did she. She sounds outraged by something she heard somewhere else. I, of course, did hear about the gay kiss that took place, that Barbara Walters chastised him for. And it's that gay kiss that has lingered in the American discourse. It seems that each gay moment on television breaks a new boundary and has to be parsed and dissected in the court of public opinion. Lambert's performance does not sound like something I wish I had seen. Nor does it sound like quality television. But Noonan's idea that the assaults of the Adam Lamberts are shocking our children and unraveling our moral fiber seems off the mark.

What's more harmful to our country--a simulated sex act during a musical number (which has been around on television since Elvis 50 years ago or so) or a government whose two sides cannot reconcile on anything? We are complacent while the Chinese are motivated. Is that because we are lying around waiting for Adam Lambert to come ravage us? We are the great nation of equality, and yet we still lack gender, race, and sexual orientation equality. Do we blame television for that? I doubt it. Not when television and movies portray artificial worlds where women, minorities, and gays are all more empowered than they are in real life.

As for Ms. Noonan's questions highlighted above, despite her clear implication that the proper answers to all of those questions are negative, I must heartily disagree. As someone who has taught the same-aged children in the same private school now for nearly 27 years, I see the same tendencies toward human decency and self-interest that I have always seen in teenagers. Which is to say that from where I'm sitting, we're hanging in there pretty well. If today's students are indeed more selfish in their desires and more coarse in their ambitions than their earlier counterparts, the fault lies not with television, but with their helicopter parents, who have coached their children to focus on resume-building and gamesmanship.

Alex Keaton from Family Ties may have predated such a phenomenon, but he is hardly to blame for it.

Has Noonan forgotten that her own heyday, the Reagan years, are inextricably linked with the "Me" Generation? Was that a more moral time? And, caught up in her nostalgia for the good old days when we treated each other more sensitively, i.e. 50 years ago, has she forgotten that 50 years ago, segregation was legal? Perhaps we did say "Excuse me" more as a request to the other white people gathered around our white water fountains, bathrooms, and bus seats back then. I don't know.

No, to me, the real problem is the kind of cultural hysteria that Ms. Noonan perpetrates. Something is bad wrong; therefore something must be blamed. And that something should be something that is outside of the good, mainstream "us." That her latest something is a performer who is openly-gay makes her argument even more insidious. I will agree with her that Lambert's argument that he should be able to act as perversely on television as women do seems a bit thin, but to single him out as the one, distinct inspiration for her societal analysis is the worst kind of scapegoating.

But it certainly saves us from having to look deeper, doesn't it?

Tom Petty's song came off of Napster, back in the "good old days."


Tockstar said...

Awesome post. I think I'll share this one and bring BOTG even more fame and riches. :)

Billy said...

Fifty years ago, we were also much more polite and respectful with our women so long as they cooked our dinner well, mended our clothes properly, and shut the hell up unless first spoken to.

Yes, life for the stupid white male will never again see a peak like the era of Mad Men season 1.

jed said...

i've often thought about the Fox dichotomy (sp?). i also wonder if the reaction to "religion" itself wears us out as well. with 24 hour "alerts" and such coming at us nonstop from both the left and the right, it seems the tail is wagging the dog. it wears me out and i have had to unplug. it that wrong?

Jason said...

Outstanding post Bob. You touched on a lot of great issues.

Thomas said...

Thanks for taking Peggy Noonan to task. Her occasional appearances on Sunday news shows are painful both to watch and listen to. The op-ed you referred to in your post indicates one reason why perhaps she was a speechwriter for Reagan, but other than that, I do not see how she rose to such a weighty position.

Thom Anon said...

Just scanning Hype Machine for a live version of Spike, and lo and behold BOTG pops up.

Love this cut and that whole TP & The Heartbreakers Live Box is rock solid.

Though I'm still not entirely clear on Spike's dramatic arc, i.e. why he goes into the Cyprus Lounge gets heckled and then leaves again. I mean, what the Hell did he expect?