Saturday, January 28, 2006

HOWARD STERN AND THE WAR ON CIVILITY

“We played dildo golf. We played wheel of sex. We are the last of a dying breed. This is a big moment. We broke every rule known to radio and mankind. The government says, ‘Clean up your act.’ We say, ‘Never.’”

These were Howard Stern’s words as he said goodbye to the public airwaves and hello to the broadcasting possibilities of satellite communication. No longer bound by FCC rules about decency and the public interest, Stern is now free to plumb new depths of depravity for his fans—moving from flatulence, nudity, and pubescent discourse on mammalian emissions to really hardcore stuff—perhaps advanced bestiality and snuff sex.

To hear Stern denounce the regulatory restrictions under which he labored, one would think that former FCC Chairman Michael Powell was a reincarnation of Cotton Mather—if not Torquemada. In actual fact, the number of official no-nos are so few and so threadbare that a large part of the shock jock’s cachet arose from his ability to expose the absurdity of remaining rules. After all, why should one stop at seven unspeakable words when the principle of temperance in public discourse is mocked with every utterance that escapes Stern’s mouth—statements broadcast to millions of Americans whose moral imaginations have been shaped by the likes of Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese, and Roman Polanski.

Indeed, Stern’s only Mephistophelean virtue is that he illustrates, time and again, that our society isn’t really serious about the limits it sets on public communications. The pitiful restrictions we retain only foster the illusion that the pit of depravity into which we have leapt comes equipped with a plain of reasonable decadence that will, eventually, halt our decent into the abyss. Quite unintentionally, Stern has shown that broadcast prohibitions are window dressing. He has broken them all—proudly and profitably.

Now Stern must search for new taboos to violate in order to perpetuate the popular myth that there is something praiseworthy about someone who will say anything and do anything that doesn’t land him in prison, in the hospital, in the morgue, or—and this last point stands above the rest—in a cheap apartment without an audience. Since Stern doesn’t have Powell to kick around anymore, he must violate broader cultural norms in order to demonstrate for the paying public his disdain for civilized boundaries. Cannibalism and incest are topics that may be ripe for exploitation by the “King of all Media.” It should be worth noting whether Stern’s fans will balk at such “courageous” iconoclasm.

Aficionados of urbane decadence have long spoken about the process whereby counter-cultural activities become mainstream. They note that it took a while before an un-hip society finally accepted Elvis’ twisting hips, just as it took a few decades before Hugh Hefner could plausibly present himself (on Larry King) as an enlightened reformer of “sexual-social mores.” The unspoken premise behind all these observations has been that mainstream behavior is morally inconsequential.

Now Stern is receiving the same treatment. Recently, a TV ad began airing in which a husband fawns over his wife’s telecommunication gift to him—a device that provides access to Stern’s satellite feed. Add to this commercial the amount of smiley-face news coverage that was given to Stern’s career move, and the conclusion is unavoidable: Howard is mainstream--no big deal.

On the other hand, it should be obvious to any thoughtful person that mainstream behavior isn’t always innocuous. Slavery is a clear case in point. It is also obvious to all but a few bi-coastal celebrities that a society devoid of rules is a world where life, in Thomas Hobbes’ famous words, becomes “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

The na├»ve faith exhibited by Stern’s fans, who equate fraternity pranks with the obliteration of civilized boundaries, will be severely tested when their boy has to market delinquency without the aid of an official fall guy. Envelope-pushing won’t seem so jolly if listeners begin to sense that their imagined safety net is incompatible with Stern’s universal moral solvent. The “war of all against all” isn’t an entertaining prospect—not even for the severely depraved.

One can hope that Stern is the last of a dying breed. As things stand now, however, he is only the most conspicuous representative of a culture on the precipice of self-destruction.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

WILL AMERICA SURVIVE?

As another year begins, a grim question haunts me: Will America survive?

I read the contemptuous remarks of jihadist critics and cringe. The cogency of barbs directed toward a decadent culture seems palpable. The burning of thousands of autos in France by “disaffected youths” presages the future of a culture dedicated to the proposition that life is a random development within a universe destined for oblivion.

The only thought that prevents despair is my recognition that two countries exist side by side within this nation. And the answer to the question about survival depends on which of the two ultimately prevails.

On the one hand, there is the America that believes its rights to life and liberty are gifts of a benevolent Creator—an America that embraces the motto “In God We Trust” not as a creed to be forced on non-believers but as a humble affirmation of goodness that transcends the vagaries of human ambition and weakness.

There is the America where family life is revered and wedding vows are taken with due solemnity. In this America children are cherished as blessings to whom parents owe their best efforts and from whom they receive the reward of enduring affection.

There is the America that proclaims the equality of all its citizens before the law based on the belief that each person bears a divine imprint. In this society individuals are judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

There is the America of honest labor, diligence, and industry—the country whose bounty rests on the pillars of self-control, law, education, and institutions that inspire in workers the confidence that they will receive the due fruits of their labor.

There is America the grateful, America the generous, America the sacrificial—the nation that produces brave men and women in uniform and proudly salutes them. This America flies the flag with respect and bears the heavy burdens that must be borne to insure the survival and success of liberty.

On the other hand, there is the America whose creed revolves around the popular anthem “Do your own thing.” This country exports to the world countless scenes of soulless sensuality. In this America life is reduced to a frenzied pursuit of glittering trinkets and serial highs that end, ideally, in a quick and painless dissolution of sentience.

In this America government is viewed as the black-robed guarantor of the right to be as nasty as you wanna be—as the champion of those who wish to be offensive, but not to be offended. This is the America that views vulgarity as a sign of sophistication—that takes pride in flaunting its depravity and in showing contempt for traditional virtues.

This is the America where innocence is derided and children are reduced to an exploitable demographic—the America where selfishness is equated with rationality and patriotism is mocked as the folly of chumps. This is the America where women who parent their own kids are viewed as losers or traitors to their sex.

In this America well over a million fetuses are aborted every year, and an Ivy League professor speaks glibly of killing defective newborns. In this America hip parents smile smugly as corporate pimps transform their daughters into miniature streetwalkers and their sons into baggy-pant gangsta dudes.

This is the America that calls moral emptiness “tolerance” and uses the word “trust” to describe parental neglect. In this America moral fervor is expended on fashionable causes that don’t inconvenience laidback lifestyles—not on the development of character. .

This is the America of Tinseltown and Madison Avenue—of easy sex, entertainment, and ennui. This is the America that blames a few corporate and political scapegoats for self-inflicted wounds and touts entitlements as the cure-all drug for a late-night congregation that worships its gut and reviles righteousness.

The latter America, I am confident, will not survive and does not deserve to survive. 300 years of toil and principled sacrifice have not been endured for the sake of a society that sings debauched hymns to the gods of self-indulgence. The only question is whether that moribund society will drag the other America along with it into the dustbin of history.