NEW YORK CITY -- The late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan caught the decline of the culture two decades ago, observing that we're "defining deviancy down" -- lowering the bar for what was once considered deviant behavior, giving a pass to things society once scorned.
Not much has changed over 20 years. The senator was talking mostly about criminal behavior, but it applies now to just about everything. Raunchy, obscene and scatological subjects, once taboo, are the stuff of prime time.
Adolescents are leading adults, and by the nose. Poop jokes, butt humor, middle-finger salutes are not only the stuff of Broadway, they're getting awards for wit and cleverness. "The Book of Mormon," a musical by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the celebrated authors of television's "South Park," leads the numbers for the Tony nominations, the most prestigious prize in the theater.
This is the triumph of potty-mouth, passing-gas, "I have maggots in my scrotum" kind of humor that will leave you rolling in the aisles if you're on the eve of puberty. Or in an expensive seat on Broadway.
What could be funnier than satirical ditties sung by "primitive" Africans blaming the Christian God for everything from AIDS to female genital mutilation? These "heathens" are only slightly more naive than the chorus of Mormon missionaries out to convert them, made up of repressed queens who are trying to learn how to swish-off, rather than switch-off, their libidos. Stuff-shirted missionaries sing a catchy tune, "Shut it Off," with flicking wrists and girlish blushes about restraining homosexual desire. The audience loves it.
"Could Broadway field an all-male chorus that didn't seem gay?" asks Kevin Williamson wryly in the New Criterion, suggesting this isn't quite groundbreaking satire. "That would be a far, far greater technical challenge."
Indeed. But it's politically indiscreet, if not politically incorrect, to say so. "The Book of Mormon" is currently hailed as the greatest musical since "The Producers," which ridiculed theatrical taste with a chorus of showgirls in thigh-high black leather boots, dancing Busby Berkeley style, singing "Springtime for Hitler." But no one's protesting here, not even Mitt Romney, the most prominent Mormon; this "safe satire" doesn't mention polygamy, the television soap opera "Big Love" or even Romneycare.
The oh-so-au courant cultural critics, fawning with admiration, demonstrate just how far they've come in appreciating the adolescent sensibility that has co-opted the culture of the elites.