December 16, 2009

How Low Can We Go?

Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Jonah Goldberg:

The Los Angeles Times reported the other day that the reality-show industry is suddenly having a crisis of conscience about its impact on the culture. That’s nice to hear, but it’s not nearly enough.

British historian Arnold Toynbee argued that civilizations thrive when the lower classes aspire to be like the upper classes, and they decay when the upper classes try to be like the lower classes. Looked at through this prism, it’s hard not to see America in a prolonged period of decay.

It’s not all bad news, to be sure. The elite minority’s general acceptance of racial and sexual equality as important values has been a moral triumph. But not without costs. As part of this transformation, society has embraced what social scientist Charles Murray calls “ecumenical niceness.” A core tenet of ecumenical niceness is that harsh judgments of the underclass — or people with underclass values — are forbidden. A corollary: People with old-fashioned notions of decency are fair game.

Long before the rise of reality shows, ecumenical niceness created a moral vacuum. Out-of-wedlock birth was once a great shame; now it’s something of a happy lifestyle choice. The cavalier use of profanity was once crude; now it’s increasingly conversational. Self-discipline was once a virtue; now self-expression is king.

Reality-show culture has thrived in that moral vacuum, accelerating the decay and helping to create a society in which celebrity is the new nobility. One senses that Richard Heene thought — maybe still thinks — that the way to make his kids proud of him was to land a reality show. Paris Hilton, famous for being famous thanks in part to a “reality” sex tape released days before her 2003 reality show The Simple Life, is now a cultural icon of no redeeming value whatsoever.

Goldberg goes on to make the point that when people like Tiger Woods and Paris Hilton behave like trash, they can get away with it because they have the financial resources to cushion the impact. Whereas the average person is much more likely to suffer tangible harm as a result of such behavior. (This is, in fact, the old "Murphy Brown" argument.)

What's the way out of this? What reverses the trend? At what point will "celebrity" give way to a healthier system of values?

Frankly, I think we've probably got too far down the "bread and circuses" road for society to correct itself internally. People - the people who ought to know better - are too fat and happy, too complaisant to see any particular reason for change. I greatly fear that they only will when confronted with some kind of catastrophe - war, revolution, plague, the rise of the machines, a killer comet - that will force them to do so.

UPDATE: Speaking of eternal catastrophes, here's something to spoil your day: Turns out the Yellowstone Caldera is a whooooooole lot bigger than anyone thought before. If (as my brother is wont to worry) that thing ever goes, then society's troubles will be over because we'll all be dead.

Posted by Robert at December 16, 2009 10:10 AM | TrackBack

What's "MTV"?

I know there used to be a channel with that name that showed music videos. Why did that go off the air?

Posted by: rbj at December 16, 2009 03:05 PM
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