Is our culture really coarsening?


WE ROMANTICIZE and idealize the 1950s. How else to treat that deplorable decade?

The era of Father Knows Best and Ozzie and Harriet was also that of McCarthyism, of Jim Crow, of unspeakable kitsch in food, fashion, architecture and design. Music, too, was Guy Lombardo and Lawrence Welk until sweetly corrupting rock 'n' roll finally liberated mainstream audiences.

How many of us would want The Simpsons canceled in favor of a resurrected Leave it to Beaver?

For women during the '50s, careers didn't have glass ceilings; they had ceilings of high-tensile steel. As late as 1967, a woman runner was plucked from the still men-only Boston Marathon she had attempted to join.

Yet the notion persists that those days were solely sweet, serene and secure. Public discourse was civilized. God -- a wise and kindly old white man with a long white beard -- was not only in Heaven but at long last in the Pledge of Allegiance. Kids reciting that pledge, however, upon the command "Take cover!" dove under their desks, trembling in terror over nuclear annihilation. Did we believe our state-issue pressed-board tables would protect us from a hydrogen bomb?

Comedian Lenny Bruce was arrested, handcuffed and hauled off to jail for using language in a private grown-ups' club that Tony Soprano now speaks routinely to millions of TV viewers on a Sunday night. Does this demonstrate the coarsening of the culture?

In a word: no. In those days, as now and always, the older generation saw the culture as already debauched. They saw its destruction in the availability of over-the-counter literature such as Lolita. They heard it in the "jungle rhythms" of black artists such as Little Richard importuning white teenagers, "Let's ball tonight!" If video games and violent films threaten to destroy moral character today, 50 years ago it was comic books. Fantasy and horror comics were viewed as part and parcel of the communist conspiracy. Even early editions of Mad magazine were pulled from news racks across the land.

Today's movies are viewed as uniquely violent, but are they truly so? Conflict has resided at the center of dramatic expression since its earliest days. Oedipus kills his father, and you know what he does to his mother. Medea butchers her children and feeds them for dinner to their faithless, philandering father. By the end of Hamlet there are nine corpses onstage, some poisoned, some run through on swords. Richard III slays his nephews, boys 9 and 11.

Ugly, bloody dramatic confrontation was not invented a week ago last Thursday by a coven of Hollywood evildoers in a dark chamber at Paramount Pictures. Audiences continue to crave conflict. The movie theater is a gymnasium for the senses, a safe place to experience that violent aspect of the human condition so that it can harmlessly be purged. Rational discourse, consensus and intelligent agreement have their rightful place in our lives to be sure, but art ain't it.

Nobody wants to see The Village of the Happy, Nice People.

Children are properly set aside in the Constitution as a special class. They need to be protected from exposure to inappropriate material. That protection must flow, however, not from a faceless bureau but from parents who spend time with their kids and care about what they see and hear. In my house, we have one of those TVs that has a switch that lets you change channels. There's also a switch that lets you turn it off.

Americans who occasionally overhear a brutal, violent rap lyric, who inadvertently stumble across some unsolicited pornographic image, ought to rejoice because it tells them they live in a free society. They will never encounter such fare in Saudi Arabia or North Korea.

The First Amendment asserts that expression spoken, written or printed does not have to be rational, reasonable, evenhanded or polite. It merely has to be tolerated. Nobody has to protect your right to say, "Have a nice day," or, "The government is doing a great job." It's the stupid stuff, the jerky stuff, the provocative, the outrageous and the ugly stuff that requires protection.

Lighten up, America. Take a deep breath. Must the nation go crazy because a pop star mutters a curse word during the Grammys? Does the exposure of a woman's nipple, for a fraction of a second, from 1,000 yards away, warrant paroxysms of rage and government sanction? Why is it OK to expose a man's nipple? It hasn't always been so. Didn't men's bathing suits, early in the last century, also have tops? Did the acceptance of public exposure of men's nipples represent a coarsening of contemporary culture?

Do we wish to return to the prudery of the Victorian age? Does an attorney general's draping of the Goddess of Justice reassure or embarrass us?

Chill, my fellow citizens. Will somebody tell me what is the big deal?

Richard Walter, a writer, chairs the graduate program in screenwriting at the film school at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad