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. An added 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.
Whatever you think of what Toynbee and Murray would call the "proletarianization of the elites," one point is beyond dispute: The rich can afford moral lassitude more than the poor can. Hilton, heir to a hotel fortune, has life as simple as she wants it to be. Tiger Woods is surely a cad, but as a pure matter of economics, he can afford to be one.
The question is: can the rest of us afford to live in a society constantly auditioning to make an ass of itself on TV.