In Search Of Darkness
Found Lots Of It
February 15, 2006
The other day I found myself trapped next to the lobotomy box in the house of a friend. The show was one of those dismal productions based on sexual innuendo, the sort that I would have found titillating when I was eleven. The format was not complex. Neither, I suspect, was the audience.
Several shapeless young couples sat together. The host asked them seriatim such questions as, “Other than your wife, who did you last take a shower with?” or “What part of your anatomy does your husband most like to kiss?” The studio audience invariably moaned, “Oooooooooooooooooh!” like third-graders who have heard a bad word. The couples themselves giggled with delicious embarrassment, also in the manner of dimwitted children.
I happily imagined sending them to some barely heard-of tribe in the Amazon Basin for use in human sacrifice. Almost human. Something involving army ants would have done nicely.
The sexual reference didn’t offend me. I have misspent more hours in third-world skin bars than those people had aggregate brain cells, which means at least three skin bars. I’ve seen raunchy sex shows to the point of boredom, and am not real shockable. Pornography doesn’t upset me. If I had to choose whether my kids watched Dory Does Dallas, or Oprah, I might go with Dory.
No, it was the infantilism, the snickering, low-IQ tastelessness of a class of people who have no class. These, with their childish prurience and slum-dweller’s aversion to civilized existence, now dominate American culture. Anyone who points out that they are crass finds himself attacked as elitist—which, since elitism simply means the view that the better is preferable to the worse, all people should be.
We are not supposed to use phrases like “the lower orders,” which is the best of reasons for using them. Yet the lower orders exist. Their members are not necessarily poor, and the poor are not necessarily members. Nor is the level of schooling a reliable indicator of loutdom. Nor is intelligence or race a particularly good marker. One may be a moral moron without being unable to tie one’s shoes. Rather the lower orders consist of people who think fart jokes uproarious.
How did we get here? Probably Henry Ford bears responsibility. He paid workers on his assembly lines a good wage. This was as culturally deplorable as it was economically admirable. Before, the unwashed had lacked the money to impose their tastes, or lack of them, on the society. The moneyed classes of the time may have been reprehensible or contemptible in various ways, but they minded their manners—if only because it set them apart from the lower orders, perhaps, yet it worked. The middle class likewise eschewed bathroom humor except in such venues as locker rooms, probably for the same reasons. Still, they knew what “distasteful” meant.
But as the peasantry and proletariat gained economic power, inevitably they also asserted dominance over the arts, or entertainment as the arts came to be under their sway, as well as schooling and the nature of acceptable discourse. If millions of people who can afford SUVs want scatological humor, television will accommodate them. Since all watch the same television, no class of people will escape the sex-and-sewage format. This happened. Today the cultivated can no longer insulate themselves from the rabble.
The fear of social inferiority always concerns the peasantariat: “You ain’t no gooder’n me.” Until the sudden florescence of pay packets occurred, the lower orders had either accepted that they were the lower orders, however resentfully, or tried to rise. They might learn to speak good English, read widely, and cultivate good manners. Or they might not. If they did, it was likely to work, since in America those who behave and speak like gentlefolk (another inadmissible word) will usually be accepted as such. In either case, they did not impose their barbarousness on others.
Ah, but with their new-found and enormous purchasing power, they discovered that they could do more than compel the production of skateboards, trashy television, and awful music. They could make boorish childishness and ignorance into actual virtues. And did. Thus wretched grammar is now a sign of “authenticity,” whatever that might mean, rather than of defective studies. Thus the solemnity with which rap “music” is taken. Briefly the sound of the black ghetto, it is now around the world the heraldic emblem of the angry unwashed. Thus the degradation of the schools: It is easier to declare oneself educated than to actually become so, and the half-literate now had the power to have themselves so declared.
With the debasement of society came a simultaneous, though not necessarily related, extension of childhood and adolescence. In the remote prehistorical past, which for most today means anything before 1900, the young assumed responsibility early. It wasn’t a moral question, but a practical one. If the plowing didn’t get done, the family didn’t eat. By the age of eighteen, a boy was likely to carry a man’s burdens.
Today, no. Now a combination of the enstupidation of the schools, the inflation of grades, and the threat of class-action suits by the parents of failing students means that an adolescent can graduate without assuming any burden whatsoever. Indeed escaping schooling is easier than finding it. Countless colleges will accept almost anyone and graduate almost anyone. Chores do not exist. Sex and drugs are everywhere available. Few things have obvious consequences.
The result is a cocoon of childhood that stretches on almost as long as one wants it to. I encounter adults in their mid-twenties who cannot be relied upon to show up at an appointed time, who do not read, who judge a professor by whether he makes the material “fun,” who have no idea where they want to go in life. It is not grownup behavior.
I wonder whether a democracy can ever prosper without declining fast into tasteless decadence. Half of the population is of intelligence below the average, this being the nature of a symmetric distribution. Another goodly number aren’t much better. Once they discover that together they can both sanctify and very nearly require bad behavior and low tastes, will they not do so? With control of the media goes control of the culture. Such is the power of the market.
Thus staged television shows in which fat couples shriek obscenities at each other over discovered infidelities, adipose couplings of no significance yet so absorbing to an audience both puerile and uncouth—but, I suppose, authentic.