This Wicked Age


Wichita, Kansas -- Cicero's mournful complaint, "O tempora. O mores" -- "Oh, what times. Oh, what behavior" -- is a reminder that at least since the first century B.C. some people have thought they lived in the most sinful era of human history.

Even some periods now considered among humanity's most enlightened were seen quite differently by people who lived through them. The scholar Erasmus, for example, spoke of living in "the worst age of history." That time is now known as the Renaissance and is cited as a high point of Western civilization.

Some historical perspective is needed today as -- to hear some politicians and social critics -- the United States is committing moral suicide with its obsession on sex, violence and decadence in its cultural tastes. Sen. Bob Dole, for instance, recently blasted the entertainment industry for filling movie theaters, music stores and television programs with what he called "nightmares of depravity."

The complaint has been heard before. Observing his own age's version of songs like "Cop Killer" and movies like "Die Hard With a Vengeance," the Roman statesman Cicero said, "If we are forced, at every hour, to watch or listen to horrible events, this constant stream of ghastly impressions will deprive even the most delicate among us of all respect for humanity."

Cicero was writing at the height of Ancient Rome, when its legions dominated the world, its wealth was beyond that imagined by previous generations and its empire would survive another 500 years.

It was not Madonna or Time Warner Inc. that discovered sex as an entertainment. Lewdness has been a staple of Western literature -- from Ovid's tales of lustful gods to Boccaccio's accounts of licentious clergy to Ben Franklin's descriptions of the debauched pleasures of "ancien regime" France.

Americans horrified by today's tabloid newspapers and talk-TV shows recall Charles Dickens' remark in 1842 that the lurid and scandal-ridden American penny press was "pimping and pandering for all degrees of vicious taste, and gorging with coined lies the most voracious maw."

And you thought your Victorian great-grandparents spent their evenings reading Emerson's essay on self-reliance or painting water colors.

Despite all today's jeremiads about America's cultural decline -- a decline that, if history is to be believed, has been going on since the New England colonists put up the first May Pole -- the American people are probably as morally upright today as they ever have been.

True, that might not be saying much. It's impossible to find a time in America's past without ample examples of human excess and venality. It's also impossible to find a time in America's past lacking predictions that the country was on the road to moral ruin.

Yet the nation has survived legal prostitution, legal cocaine and virtually all forms of legal gambling, as well as immigrant street gangs that would make the Crips and Bloods seem like Boy Scouts, alcoholism that left gutters filled with lost souls, and high illegitimacy rates to which at least one 19th-century president contributed.

What is notable today is that fewer Americans have the same tolerance for moral hypocrisy shown by earlier generations. For all their alleged stuffiness and repressiveness, the Victorians gave themselves amazing latitude in personal conduct -- "Just don't scare the horses."

Today, many Americans -- and almost all politicians -- seem to be self-appointed guardians of other people's morals. Indeed, some moral zealots, who seem to be disproportionately middle-age, middle-class white males, reflect H.L. Mencken's definition of a Puritan as a person who fears that someone, somewhere might be having a good time.

Although human nature and its tendency toward decadence has been fairly stable throughout history, I would argue that in several important areas today's Americans are more moral than were earlier generations.

For instance, Americans today are noticeably less racist than were their grandparents. Wife beating, once considered almost a male prerogative, is now severely condemned by public opinion. People with mental illnesses are treated with compassion, rather than thrown into snake pits. Convicted criminals are more likely to receive their constitutional guarantee of humane incarceration. Even animals are less subject to abuse than in the past. And acceptance of differences in religion and lifestyles has never been greater.

In fact, many of today's foremost political and social problems grew from the unintended consequences of morally laudable motives. The desire to care for poor people led to an oppressive welfare state that encourages sloth and dependency. The wish for a secure retirement for the elderly led to inequities among the generations in Social Security and other government benefits. The goal of greater opportunity for all Americans created the abuses of affirmative action. The hope of boosting children's self-esteem contributed to a gutting of academic standards.

For all their human frailties and occasional succumbing to temptation, most Americans practice decent values and strive for a measure of virtue in their lives. The country isn't going to hell in a video cassette.

K? David Awbrey is editorial-page editor of the Wichita Eagle.


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