In Jacques Barzun’s masterwork on cultural history he describes modernity as decadent. Pitirim Sorokin’s narrative of contemporary society includes sensate culture, a belief that the senses are superordinated over ideas and beliefs.
There are many explanations for President Obama’s election victory, but in my judgment, none is more compelling than the degradation of American culture. When Jay Z and Beyonce are considered cultural royalty, sidekicks of the president, something is fundamentally wrong. After all, Jay Z’s fame- such as it is – emerged from rap lyrics that described the abuse of women and police officers. Bruce Springsteen travels the campaign trail entertaining audiences in behalf of the president. This is the same Springsteen who hypocritically sings of the plight of the working families while he invests millions of dollars in horses for his daughter.
An America more inclined to know the names of finalists on “American Idol” rather than justices of the Supreme Court, neither cares nor is informed about issues the nation is obliged to confront. For the young, President Obama is cool. For minorities, he is a soul brother. The issue of competence is subordinated to the superficial consideration of style.
It has been noted before that bread and circuses characterize the present cultural scene. What has not been emphasized is the degree to which culture of this superficial variety is the calling card as a political message. Hollywood is not only political in espousing an overt left wing message in film and television programming, it embraces every aspect of a presidential campaign from messaging to appearance. Hollywood isn’t the metaphor for politics; it is politics. Bill Maher, to cite one egregious example, doesn’t tell jokes or entertain, he campaigns. He is out to convert or reinforce attitudes.
Here is Brave New World with “feelies” in the form of entertainment as politics. Comedy Central is little more than fatuous censure of conservatives. Jon Stewart is a hired gun for liberal bromides. Laughter is always at someone’s expense. If a female character in a sit-com refuses to jump into bed with her male protagonist, it is invariably because she is a Republican, an uptight, frigid Republican.
It is inconceivable that an entertainment figure will appear on late night talk shows as an opponent of same-sex marriage. Leno would fry that guess. David Letterman maintained that no one in his viewing audience should consider voting for Mitt Romney until he appears on his program. This kind of arrogance would have been widely criticized in another era. After all, why should any candidate be obliged to appear on a show with a giant ego and miniature brain? But this is contemporary politics in which appearing to be hip is more noteworthy than being substantive.. Can anyone imagine President Eisenhower as a guest on Letterman’s show?
The morphing of entertainment and politics has reduced ideas and serious policy debate into laugh lines. Did you hear the one about Bashar Assad…? Now that must be pretty funny. One shouldn’t laugh at a German joke, but these days we don’t realize that the joke is on us. Extremism seems less extreme when put through the cauldron of culture. In fact, there is nothing to ponder over an Iran with nuclear weapons or Muslim radicals that kill innocent people, conditions reduced to cultural detritus.
This degradation, this inability to distinguish between the critical and the trivial, resulted – as I see it – in Obama’s overwhelming victory. The United States is contemporary Rome lost in a miasma of sensual experience. Does that explain why the abortion issue, which on its face is certainly not one of the nation’s prominent issues, became the overarching reason for many women embracing the Obama ticket?
Is our civilization unfolding from dawn to decadence and, as significantly, is this decadence the cadence for political dialogue? The answer is obvious. Should this march continue, the bell will toll for the last best bastion of liberty. And as the decline afflicts this once land of the brave, people will be laughing and the politicians will stand stylishly beside the widespread ruin.
Herbert London is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, president emeritus of Hudson Institute and author of the book The Transformational Decade (University Press of America).
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