Friday, June 10, 2005

It's the culture, stupid! But what to do about it?

There's a fine piece on parents and the culture wars by Mark Schmitt over at TPM Cafe, some of it based on his personal experience working for Bill Bradley in the mid-'90s. Schmitt's four main points:

  • "First, this is one of those issues about which the only reasonable reaction is an ambivalent one, and it's fair to assume that many of those who say they're concerned about culture in this way have a similarly ambivalent or complex reaction."
  • "Second, be careful about assuming that this is an area where there's a lot of opportunity for left-right alliances... [Y]ou can quickly find yourself in bed with people who seem to be talking about the same thing, but whose real gripe is with the positive portrayal of gay people, single parents and sexually active single people in the media."
  • "Third, avoid 'policy literalism.' Just because people in polls say, "I'm concerned about sex and violence in the media," that doesn't mean that the only plausible response is to propose a law that would somehow limit sex and violence in the media."
  • "Fourth, there may be an opportunity here for a broader shift in the debate about the market and government."

Where do I stand on this? Back in the early-'90s, when I was at Tufts, I found myself submerged in the culture wars, largely as an op-ed columnist for The Tufts Daily (my column was also called The Reaction). Then, my target was the academic left, which was very much in the ascendancy on college campuses across America. Tufts may not have been the most radical college in America, but it seemed to me that it had largely given in to political correctness, deconstruction, relativism, the dismantling of the traditional curriculum in favour of superficial interdisciplinary pursuits, and a rejection of the Great Books as educational tools. No, I didn't call for the return of Greek and Latin, but I objected to what I saw as a hijacking of higher education by an academic left more concerned about social engineering and its radical political agenda than with liberal education. Absolutism is the enemy of liberal education, and, back then, absolutism was very much a phenomenon of the left.

I still stand by what I wrote back then, but, clearly, the absolutism has shifted to the right. And now that I'm away from the cultural hotbed of an American college campus, I find myself defending a liberal culture -- liberty supported by education -- against the absolutism of the right. This makes me something of a cultural libertarian, I suppose, and in this respect I'm very much in agreement with Schmitt. I do worry about the so-called coarsening of the culture, and, though not yet a parent, I do worry about the exposure of children to what is at times an awfully vulgar culture. But this, to me, requires responsible parenting, education that prepares young people for an increasingly complex cultural environment, and a recognition that, in many cases, the world of adulthood should be closed to children. The great cultural critic Neil Postman once wrote about the disappearance of childhood, that is, the breakdown of the necessary divide between childhood and adulthood, and he was, as usual, right on the mark. But what we don't need is censorship. There need to be barriers to prevent children from accessing what is specifically "adult" culture, such as pornography or even certain mainstream movies, but adults, in my view, should be able to access such adult content freely and without fear of recrimination.

But, let's face it, even my cultural libertarianism has its limits. This is the problem that plagues all liberals. We want liberty, not licence, but where is the line between the two? Liberty at its limits, after all, resembles licence, and the two ultimately become one and the same. For example, I support the legality of pornography for adults, but clearly I don't support all pornography: some crosses the line, the moral line that I set somewhere out on the fringes, but my line might not be your line and I may find myself in disagreement even with accepted communal standards, which are themselves constantly in flux. So what to do? Perhaps the answer is not the draw some firm legal line between acceptable and unacceptable "culture," but rather simply to acknowledge that the issue is complex and that absolutism will get us nowhere.

Ultimately, the rule of law must prevail, and that means the usual interplay between different branches of government, with different interests balanced against one another and transient public opinion set against constitutional safeguards. And this means that different communities will have somewhat different standards of what constitutes appropriate culture. As long as individual liberty is protected, and as long as public policy does not descend into the quagmire of censorship, I'm not sure that's such a bad thing.

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  • As usual, Michael, you have presented the issues in a thoughtful, reasonable manner. I responded to Mark's post on The Decembrist but I suspect I will be dismissed as a reactionary.

    I think culture is a legitimate public policy concern, at least as it pertains to things such as the public airways. I think society has every right to establish reasonable limits on what goes out over public airwaves. No one has an absolute right to watch whatever.

    At the same time, religious fundamentalists want to censor essentially anything that deviates from the the nuclear family, sex only within marriage by heterosexuals narrative. That's not reasonable. My god, when they tried to keep "Saving Private Ryan" off the air, what does that say?

    But the culture is toxic. Thirteen year old girls flaunt their sexuality with their clothing. Bumper stickers use the most crude language. As a parent, I have to protect my child against the worst elements. A lot of liberals are saying, it's a matter of parents not having enough time, unrestrained market, etc. That may be true, but there is also a personal element. The sixties played an important role in bringing the culture to the state it's in. It's self-proclaimed "liberation" from all taboos, restraints, sense of shame or modesty created the predicate conditions--the free market then took it it the logical end, which was using sex and violence to sell.

    Frankly, I don't know how to translate this into public policy terms. I don't want to go back to the fifties, where TV couples slept in separate beds. And I certainly don't want the conservatives to use "culture" as an excuse to demonize gay people.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:17 PM  

  • Well, Marc, that's the way it goes. Neither one of the extremes knows what to do with moderates, and so they end up on the receiving end of some nasty epithets. But I've generally found that The Decembrist's readers (of which you and I are two) are quite open to discussion and debate, as is Mark himself.

    There's no doubt that there's a problem with Saving Private Ryan arouses such a response from the "family"-oriented right. Of course, what we're really talking there are a few well-organized groups that have perfected the art of the mass mail. I'm sure that the vast majority of Americans, including conservatives, would agree with us that Saving Private Ryan, to take but one example, should not be censored.

    But it is true -- and this is one of Mark's points -- that the real target of those groups is homosexuality. They may couch their bigotry in the language of "family" and "decency," but it's obvious what's really going on.

    On the other side, though, it's true that parts of our culture are extraordinarily vulgar, and you bring a perspective that I just don't have: that of a parent. I look around and I see young girls dressing like prostitutes and I see young boys playing violent, sexually-charged video games. There's clearly a problem there, and, to me, that's where education comes in. But I share you view that individual responsibility is perhaps the primary bulwark against these excesses, and certainly the key to protecting our children from a culture that, in many ways, debases them.

    I'm not sure how it's all translated into policy terms either, but, as I said in my original post, I think the important thing is to be having this very discussion in an open and frank manner. Above all, we need to avoid the absolutism of the right, which would suppress individual liberty, and the absolutism of the left, which would prevent a serious consideration of the vulgarization of the culture.

    By Blogger Michael J.W. Stickings, at 6:43 PM  

  • Wow, so it's looks like we've found some common ground here.

    I wouldn't say that I'm "emotionally" on the side of the cultural conservatives, but I see their point, and I, too, worry about a culture that seems to be sinking ever further into the quagmire of vulgarity. On this, I think it's valuable to hear Marc's take as a father (which I'm not) and yours as an inner-city high school teacher.

    The problem obviously transcends race, class, and gender, but it is noticeably serious in the black community. I'll let you speak to that, however, given your experience. All I could do is offer generalizations, and generalizing about race, ethnicity, and culture is always a dangerous thing to do. Suffice it to say that all communities need to look more seriously at what plagues them, and this means, in part, assuming responsibility for a degrading culture that fosters violence and sexuality, often combined, among young people.

    I agree, too, that this is where Democrats need to be. They've more or less ceded the "values" discussion to the right (some of which encourages bigotry, but not all). Indeed, the left as become increasingly libertarian (and irresponsible) in its view of culture, as Marc argues above. I am something of a cultural libertarian myself (well, a liberal who supports a free and open culture), but "liberation" of the kind dreamed up by the '60s left is merely an ideal that is largely unrealizable. Besides, the problem is that children are being exposed to this vulgarity (and are growing up without the proper education to be able to handle it), not that adults have access to it. Liberation is fine, but liberty of that magnitude requires a level of repsonsibility that the left often ignores.

    By Blogger Michael J.W. Stickings, at 10:54 AM  

  • I'm with you on this, Nate. And your experience in the inner-city obviously provides you with a perspective that I lack.

    The problem, of course, is how to accomplish the ends of "self-reliance, education, and family values" through government involvement. I'm liberal enough to support government programs that aim to alleviate social inequities and injustices, but I'm also conservative enough to know that throwing money at a problem doesn't usually work. What we need, I think, is a totally new paradigm to address the problems of urban America (and other parts of America, too), but that means thinking beyond the accepted paradigms of American post-New Deal liberalism in a non-partisan way. Is that going to happen anytime soon? No.

    By Blogger Michael J.W. Stickings, at 1:55 AM  

  • I feel quite strongly that many of the problems America faces are able to be solved by our culture. It seems that we always jump to using public policy to change things. Maybe the war on drugs would not need to be as intense if the community could just come together and cohesively reject drug abuse. Maybe industries would be more reluctant to outsource overseas if people committed themselves to boycotting these industries. Public outrage seems to work when it comes to the environment. Oil companies are constantly selling themselves as "green." Why can't we simply choose to join together against TV networks who show lewd content? Why not decry hip hop artists who encourage criminal behavior for what they are? I am a libertarian, but I do not support libertinism. Our society fails because we do not realize or are simply indifferent to the power we hold in our own behaviors. There was a time when having a child out of wedlock was considered to be immoral and improper. The erosion of this notion easily leads to as many problems as the crack boom and the outsourcing of high paying skilled manufacturing jobs in working class communities. Many of these become welfare class communities.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:45 PM  

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