The Diminishing Returns of Explicitness


Washington.--The first sign of what could be a cultural revival for our society has been sighted. Like the swallows coming back to Capistrano in the spring, it is a welcome harbinger of a season that is long overdue.

In the middle of a New York Times review of Madonna's performance at Madison Square Garden, there was this from writer Jon Pareles: " 'The Girlie Show' recognizes the diminishing returns of explicitness." What an elegant, even profound phrase: "the diminishing returns of explicitness." Does this mean we have touched bottom at last and are ready to climb out of the pit?

OK, so Howard Stern's book, which ought to have been printed on toilet paper, debuts on Sunday at No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list. Storms often get in some last gusts before dissipating.

There are other indications that things may be changing as the fed-upness level increases, and people are less timid about calling evil and immorality by their right names. MTV has removed scenes of pyromania from its vulgar "Beavis and Butt-head" cartoon series after a child started a copy-cat fire and burned down his family's trailer, killing his sister. A better step would be to cancel the entire network as a threat to the moral environment.

Still, the clouds occasionally part and some light shines through. In a Pentagon report on the 1991 Tailhook convention in Las Vegas during which a number of women say they were subjected to sexual harassment, senior officers were faulted for failing to curb the "atmosphere of debauchery" that permeated the gathering. "Debauchery" is not a word we have heard lately, especially in a government report. An acknowledgment that debauchery exists, that it is recognizable and that it should not be tolerated offers some hope that perhaps the practices which define the word are no longer acceptable.

Jesse Jackson, having exhausted the political arena, is talking about a subject where his views could carry some weight. He is speaking in inner-city schools on a campaign "push for moral excellence." Mr. Jackson is telling young people to study three hours a night, respect the authority of parents and teachers and report to authorities the names of people who use or sell drugs and illegally possess guns.

A new group called Character Counts Coalition, co-chaired by the politically conservative actor Tom Selleck and the liberal former Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, wants to "improve the character of America's young people, based on six core ethical values: trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, justice and fairness, caring, civic virtue and citizenship." We used to teach these values and much more before some liberals successfully expunged them because such values were said to keep company with religion.

And, speaking of religion, the liberal columnist Anna Quindlen laments the loss of the notion of God: "We liberals must acknowledge this: that while the rights of the individual are precious, at some deep level individualism alone does not suffice. And the ability of the radical right to seize and exploit the terrain of the soul has been helped immeasurably by the failure of so many of the rest of us to even acknowledge the soul's existence."

Can I get an "Amen" for sister Anna?

This is precisely what the pope is getting at in his latest encyclical, which, like his messages in Denver earlier this year, is directed not just to Catholics but to all people. "The Splendor of Truth," the encyclical is called. It seeks to re-establish universal moral norms that are not up for grabs or subject to the changing results of an opinion poll. It asserts that Moses is to be preferred to Gallup and that the message in the Sermon on the Mount is superior to "the politics of meaning."

It has been a long time since liberals and conservatives spoke in one voice about the need for national renewal.

Perhaps this is the sign many of us have been waiting for. Perhaps we are finally waking up to the "diminishing returns of explicitness."

Cal Thomas is a syndicated columnist.

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