August 4, 2012

Cultural Decay

Here are two items from The Weekly Standard published a few weeks apart but linked by the common theme of cultural decline in America. I'll be the first to say there isn't a single reason for decline in any culture unless the reason is that people simply stop caring about things but that seems too simple a target. Even if so I think the only way to attack the problem would be to point out the multiple instances whereby the lack of caring about one, two, or a hundred things leads to problems that combine to result in the decline we fear.

In a book review entitled The Pill Perplex, Jonathan V. Last does a terrific job at highlighting the primary themes addressed by Mary Eberstadt in her book Adam and Eve After the Pill. As Last writes it, "Eberstadt argues that the invention of the pill and near-mastery of contraception in the West during the 1960s caused a cascade of epochal consequences. Just to tally a few of the big-ticket items: It uncoupled sex from reproduction, caused people to have sex earlier and marry later, increased divorce, cohabitation, and illegitimacy, revolutionized the economic role of women, imploded the fertility rate, and set the modern welfare state on the course to insolvency. The sexual revolution unleashed by contraceptive sex, says Eberstadt, rivals the Communist revolution in terms of its influence on the world of the 20th century."

Last goes on to discuss Eberstadt's observation that the loss of social stigma previously attached to promiscuity, pornography, pedophilia (though later re-imposed), and other social activities arising from the sexual revolution was spurred and itself reinforced cultural relativism; to this I would add it also gave rise to moral relativism that plagues our society too.

Kate Havard's review of Herbert London's The Transformational Decade brings to light London's treatment of essentially the same theme (cultural decline) but addressed in a variety of essays where London "asserts that the cultural crisis started from the ground up, first in the collapse of morals in our ever-more-public private lives, and then to the realm of entertainment, a hypersexualized “cultural wasteland.” London suggests that the entertainment we watch bleeds over into the news we absorb, resulting in a newer, baser kind of politics." Interestingly, Havard points out London's previous work as the creator and first dean of the Gallatin School, within the New York University system, where he championed the cause of a common and broad, but classically-based, liberal education for students so that they would have a common cultural awareness and tradition to guide them later in life. As it happens, Gallatin veered from this after London's departure such that the school, like our society around it, has become a disjointed mix of independent interests and reference points who only common element is "what works for me".

Individual freedoms are a core component of America's foundation. The structure of rights and protections highlighted in our Declaration as being fundamentally violated then later enumerated in our Constitution so that they wouldn't be trampled upon again underlie what it means to be an American. Yet we often forget that these individual and quite personal freedoms were exercised within a common cultural identify framed by commonly accepted norms and expectations. Our problem today is that moral relativism, the steady drift from a core set of principles largely derived from a commonly held set of religious beliefs and values, and the rise of multiculturalism that dictates no one culture is superior, more important, or defining of America than any other have combined to cut our society lose from any anchor, setting it adrift in a sea of competing ideas, values, mores, and 'socially acceptable' activities.

We are seeing the consequences of this as a nation. I hope our citizenry wakes up to the danger and takes action to re-instill stigmas where appropriate and a cultural identity that prizes individual, social, and civic responsibility as a high virtue.

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