Monday, June 29, 2009

A Nation of Prurient Puritans

Victor Davis Hanson is puzzled. The more I think about it, the more I think he is right. Link here.

Hanson is puzzled about a culture that works itself up into a moralistic lather about adultery at the same time that it is gushing adoration for a notorious pedophile.

We pride ourselves on being open and honest about sex. We talk about sex all the time. To the point that modesty is, for most of us, a fading memory.

The internet has provided more access to more porn than ever before in human history. No one is America really seems bothered by it.

So we are striving valiantly to overcome Puritan morality, while at the same time condemning confessed adulterers like Mark Sanford, John Edwards, Bill Clinton, and Elliot Spitzer.

Any time a public figure gets caught indulging some extracurricular sexual activities everyone rushes forth to condemn him.

It makes some sense that we hold our public figures, the pillars of our community, to a higher moral standard. They are supposed to be role models for all of us.

And celebrities, as Charles Barkley once said, are not role models.

And yet, however ill we think of adulterers, however much we condemn them for breaking their marriage vows, our opprobrium is mild when compared with the moral contempt we reserve for child molesters.

Except when the molester is a pop music icon.

Say what you will, but when we as a culture decided to glorify Michael Jackson we surely enabled his pedophilia.

If someone who dressed and comported himself like Michael Jackson was hanging around an elementary school trying to lure children to his playland, we would call the police.

And yet, when parents saw that it was the one and only Michael Jackson, they allowed their children to go off with him, to share his bed.

Reporting on a spontaneous demonstration of affection for Jackson in Union Square last Thursday evening, the New York Times reported: "Everyone there had watched him, sang with him, tried to dance with him, and yes, everyone was collectively aghast by much of his recent behavior. But he was 'ours.'"

Is there a better illustration of Hanson's point? If those people were all so aghast, why were they out there celebrating his life? I think that the reporter is correct when he says that people excuse Jackson because he was one of "ours."

But what does that mean? Have we become so thoroughly tribal that we are willing to excuse the behavior of anyone who is one of our own, who belongs to our tribe?

Some have tried to get out of the apparent contradiction by saying that it is really all about the hypocrisy. After all, Michael Jackson never tried to hide what he was. He never preached sexual abstinence or led a crusade against child molestation.

Here things get a bit sticky. Hypocrisy as it is used today has come to mean: not practicing what you preach. In truth, a person can commit a sin, know it as a sin, and denounce it as a sin...without being a hypocrite.

But that is the old version of hypocrisy. The new postmodern version tells us that if you believe in family values and commit adultery, then you are a hypocrite. But if you do not believe in family values and commit adultery, you are not a hypocrite.

If you enshrine this version of hypocrisy as the eighth deadly sin, you need but refrain from preaching moral virtue. Then you can do as you please. As long as your beliefs fit your actions, you are in good standing in an amoral world.

This is peculiar. It assumes that the best way to avoid being denounced as a hypocrite is to shut about about bad behavior.

Meantime, back to Hanson's question. Are we afflicted with a strange cultural dissonance? Or are we simply terrified of the genie that we have let out of the bottle.

As Hanson suggests, we have made a bet about sex. We as a culture have chosen to believe that if we think and talk about sex, if we become better informed about matters sexual, then we will have better sex lives.

And if we have better sex lives, we will have better relationships, better marriages, and better health.

We, as a culture, have wagered that exposing sex, thus, overcoming shame, will lead us to the Promised Land.

Why didn't anyone think of this before?

The problem is, more and more people are beginning to see that it is not all that easy. It looks like we are going to lose our bet.

Some are trying valiantly to put the genie back in the bottle. But most are doubling down.

They are telling us to increase our investment, expose more and more sex, excuse more and more bad behavior... until the moment when we have drained all of the fun out of sex.

It would indeed be a fitting denouement. And the only way to resolve the contradiction between prurience and Puritanism.

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