In the opening scene of Sex, Lies, and Video-Tapes Andie MacDowell ponders for her psychiatrist the fate of a trash-filled barge cruising the high seas in search of a friendly port-of-call--a mental voyage that steers her thoughts away from a troubled marriage. In similar fashion the new electronic decalogue focuses attention on large political issues and thus allows people to ignore problems closer to home.
This new ethic puts the ego right where it wants to be--center stage. It is an ethic that demands virtually nothing of the individual and transforms matters of moral import into either personal choices or political causes. It is an ethic that turns on its head the notion that morality primarily concerns personal obligations toward others. It is an ethic that becomes tongue-tied when asked to produce a single non-political imperative that might inconvenience the practitioner--an ethic whose most significant personal prohibitions forbid self-hatred and the “imposition” of values. In other words, a person is commanded to “like himself,” no matter what, and to make sure that he doesn’t disturb the serenity of individuals whose actions would warrant censure in a morally serious culture.
A clear example of this shift from the personal to the political can been seen on an old PBS series entitled Ethics in America. These programs, aired initially in 1989, encouraged journalists, government officials, and other professionals to tussle with their consciences and an adversarial moderator while addressing various hypothetical situations. The first in this series, Do Unto Others, featured such luminaries as Justice Antonia Scalia, C. Everett Koop, and journalist Linda Ellerbe. During this program Ms. Ellerbe refused time and again to make onerous moral demands on persons involved in personal malfeasance. Concerning a young man who, with his friends, cheated on a college entrance exam, Ms. Ellerbe stated, “No, I don't believe you should turn in the other students.” About telling her friend, Carol, that her husband was cheating on her, she commented, “Are you certain she has a right to know? There's a right to innocence.” Concerning the same unfaithful man's affair with a 15-year-old girl, she observed: “This is tough. . . . I wish I had the answer to this. I don't.”
Finally, however, Ms. Ellerbe's moral juices were stimulated when she decried the judgments other panelists were making on a man panhandling for booze. Indignant at last, Ms. Ellerbe said, “The man needs a drink. . . . I would also give money to defeat the policies of the government that wants to use our money for defense weapons instead of funding houses for these people. . . . It's not up to me to judge how the man is going to spend the money any more than it is to judge how the man got there . . . if I've got fifty cents he can have it.” In Ms. Ellerbe's moral universe, cheating, lying, and adultery are nothing to get very upset about, and moral judgments directed toward individuals are verboten. But political matters constitute an arena in which nuclear rhetoric is permitted and moral judgment comes easy as pie.
According to this popular perspective--as rock, rap, and heavy metal songs declare unremittingly--world problems, as well as my own personal problems, are basically “their” fault. If I behave immorally, it's nobody else's business. But if there's blame to be borne, society and government must take the rap. Politicians and moralistic adults are the only appropriate targets for judgment--not me, my friends, or immoral individuals. This point of view is so pervasive that it is difficult to find any rock or teen-directed pop songs in which singers scrutinize their own actions or take moral responsibility upon themselves. Jimmy Buffet's “Margaritaville” was the only pathetic example I and a class of high school seniors could think of.
Under the canons of this new electronic ethic, moral stature comes cheaply. One need only attend concerts in support of media-approved causes and wear a ribbon. The trouble involved pales in comparison with the feeling of moral superiority it brings. After all, it's not like anyone is expected to give up anything or to suffer. As Van Halen's video, Right Now, suggests, it's always some old dude's fault.