Culture's Race to the Bottom

Carol Platt Liebau

7/27/2012 9:15:03 AM - Carol Platt Liebau
Peggy Noonan's piece, "The Dark Night Rises" -- discussing our entertainment culture and the Batman murders -- is worth a moment of your time.

Perhaps saddest of all is her admission that no one really thinks the culture can be changed for the better, and her observation that "Our culture, [parents] know, is our foe."  So true.  To prevent one's children from being exposed to images and content that will only hurt them -- mentally, psychologically, spiritually -- is a full-time job once they graduate past "Nick Jr." on TV.

Lefties (and some on the right) want political solutions, because they seem neat and can be imposed from above.  But limiting the Second Amendment isn't the answer, nor is limiting the First.   Government isn't the answer to what ails our culture.

John Adams wrote, "Our Constitution is meant for a moral and religious people.  It is unfit for any other."  That is true for our democratic republic; freedom cannot flourish unless people have other, internal mechanisms for controlling their behavior than the heavy hand of government (as I pointed out in Prude).

But the same is also true for capitalism and free enterprise -- which is nothing more than economic freedom, the right and proper analogue to the political freedom we cherish.  Unconstrained by any sense of morality -- and wholly untrained in any sort of systemic moral reasoning -- it is impossible for film makers to understand why it matters whether they expose the young and the vulnerable to a level of evil and sadistic brutality that would once have been unthinkable on-screen.  And without any society-wide moral consensus, it is impossible to explain to young people why it only cheapens and degrades them (mind and spirit) to be regularly exposed to content that distorts what life is about, and that risks making them more brutal, less compassionate and even less fully human.  The danger, of course, is that having been brought up on movies that do nothing but glorify and glamorize violence, any other fare is going to seem stale and boring (that's desensitization).

Just as our relationship with the government cannot be a healthy one without morals and religion, neither can our relationship with the market.   Those who profit from ugliness and violence will continue to purvey it, and those who are at least briefly stimulated and excited by it will continue to flock to it.

Perhaps someday there will be a backlash and things will change.  But the problem in a society where all morality is relative -- and morality has been conflated with the dreaded concept of "religion" and thus marginalized in our public life (when it isn't being openly persecuted) -- isn't just that there are people out there cheering us on as our culture races to the bottom.  It's that too many people don't even understand why it matters whether we all race to the bottom.

There's a collective action problem with making ugly movies unprofitable, especially  in a global economy.  It's not likely to happen.  But wouldn't it be wonderful if film makers started to realize the impact of their products -- and the responsibility it confers upon them?  Wouldn't it be good, and right, if they decided that they were going to drive audiences to theaters -- not because of shocking violence or appalling brutality -- but because of good storytelling and strong acting?

It happened, once upon a time.  Could it again?

All of us shudder at the thought that someone we loved could have been sitting in that Aurora theater.  The people who so assiduously try to keep morality and religion out of the public square love their children, too.  Even if they themselves choose to hold no religious faith, couldn't the left reconsider its hostility to the dissemination of faith and morals in our society?  After all, people they love will also have to live in the brave new world the violence- and sex-drenched youth culture has been creating.