Batavick: The need for cultural change

My wife and I just finished watching “11.22.63,” a miniseries based on the Stephen King novel of the same name. The riveting story involves time travel and raises the intriguing question of what would have happened to history if someone had been sent back from the present to prevent President John F. Kennedy’s assassination? We were both 18 when this climactic event occurred and have vivid memories of it and the times.

One of the things we most enjoyed was the series’ fine attention to the details of 1960s life — its music, finned cars, proper adult dress code (men wore fedoras or homburgs and some women sported white gloves), and food that was humdrum by today’s exotic standards. There’s even a story thread about how tough things were for black folks, especially in Texas.


But what really caught our attention were people’s levels of politeness and their lack of crude language. The series protagonist from the present was censored whenever he’d use “hell” and “damn” and those other four-letter expressions that we’ve now come to accept as commonplace and part of our native jargon. Sure people “cursed” back then and the words have Anglo-Saxon origins, but it wasn’t proper to do so in mixed company, especially among the white middle class.

This got me thinking. What’s happened to our society in the last 50-plus years? I know social conventions evolve, but how did we get to this time and place where public figures use foul language and the media freely quotes them; where song lyrics have gone from “double meanings” to outright obscenities; where Super Bowl half-time entertainers match the costumes and gyrations of 1960s strip clubs; and where many of our kids’ amusements, from video games to action movies, are drenched in blood, thanks to the firepower of automatic weapons. Marketers even use the descriptor “first-person shooter” for those games that model the most violent events of our times.

Of course, if I knew the answers to the above, I’d be hard at work on my best-seller that explains it all. However, I did run across a speech by Amy L. Wax, a University of Pennsylvania law professor that provides some helpful insights.

Wax and Larry Alexander of the University of San Diego Law School co-authored an op-ed last August for the Philadelphia Inquirer. In it they provided a list of what Wax later called “behavioral norms” that were “almost universally endorsed between the end of World War II and the mid-1960s.” They are:

“Get married before you have children and strive to stay married for their sake. Get the education you need for gainful employment, work hard, and avoid idleness. Go the extra mile for your employer or client. Be a patriot, ready to serve the country. Be neighborly, civic-minded, and charitable. Avoid coarse language in public. Be respectful of authority. Eschew substance abuse and crime.”

The authors maintained that these norms were “a major contributor to the productivity, educational gains, and social coherence of that period.”

The professors also listed “the anti-‘acting white’ rap culture of inner-city blacks,” “a modern obsession with race” that would disappoint Martin Luther King Jr., and “anti-assimilation attitudes among some Hispanic immigrants” as major contributors to our national malaise.

It should surprise few that Wax and Alexander reaped a whirlwind of criticism, especially from the students and faculty at Penn. They accused the two professors of racism, boosting “white cultural superiority” and constructing “a wished-for (but never actual) golden age of hard work, pluck and respect.” This is daft political correctness.

I don’t believe that the culture of my youth was a golden age and would never want to return to the racial and sexual discrimination then rampant, but neither do I believe that the behavioral norms of those times are only applicable to whites. Our strong, black middle class puts the lie to that.

The societal rot in our inner cities is traceable, in part, to lingering institutional racism. A recent NPR investigation revealed systematic racial discrimination in the loan practices of our largest banks. But other issues have fractured once traditional mores: the disintegration of the nuclear family, the near-absence of strong and vocal minority leaders, a lack of respect for education and authority, and the formidable nexus of joblessness, drugs and crime.

These are not black, white or Hispanic problems. They impact all of us and we can’t exploit a rip in the space time continuum to import yesterday’s values. But we can adjust our trajectory by electing leaders who will strive to change national priorities. A first step is to create a federal budget that reflects what we value most. Better schools and job training bring us closer to the mark than do $13 billion aircraft carriers. Past history can’t be changed, but we hazard the judgment of future history if we stay the course.