Some of us now struggle to recognize the culture we live in. We are profoundly baffled and greatly disturbed by what seems like a complete inversion of values.
The zeitgeist looks at actions that to us seem utterly unremarkable and treats them as major social sins or even illegalities. Yet when other actions strike us as jaw-droppingly outrageous or corrupt, the larger culture shrugs without concern.
Take, for example, the burgeoning controversies surrounding Hillary Clinton, which may finally be gaining a little traction in public consciousness — though the traction may be fleeting. What seems alien to us is that these scandals should be stampeding their way through every newscast and every front page of every newspaper, every day. Indeed, by rights, we should see one aspect of the many interlaced Hillary controversies as perhaps the biggest scandal in American governmental history.
Think about it. What’s the bigger story, the one that involves the more venal behavior while potentially harming the lives of more Americans: 1) a few goobers rifling through the office of the opposing political party and then having the president’s men try to cover up the petty hanky-panky; or 2) a former president and husband of the then-current secretary of state making hundreds of thousands of dollars while the couple’s foundation gets millions, in a deal approved by the former first lady’s own State Department, which results in about half of this nation’s uranium falling under the effective control of the proto-fascist, anti-American leader of the nation with the world’s second biggest store of nuclear weapons?
Yet much of the media covers this story with the enthusiasm of a six-year-old swallowing castor oil, and much of the public still thinks Hillary is a minor deity. A goodly number of Americans apparently are aware of the scandal yet still fall at her feet.
They likewise excuse Barack Obama’s lies about “keeping your doctor” or “keeping your insurance plan” if you like them; they see him say harsh, even nasty things about his adversaries in a way prior presidents have rarely or never done, and generally coarsen public discourse, yet they still think he’s likeable. They say they believe quarterback Tom Brady cheated but say in the next breath that he’s a good role model for children.
These are somewhat random examples, but the theme is consistent: Behavior that once would have earned near-universal opprobrium or, in the case of the Clintons’ uranium deal, white-hot anger, now barely raises an eyebrow.
Behavior that once would have earned near-universal opprobrium or, in the case of the Clintons’ uranium deal, white-hot anger, now barely raises an eyebrow.
And this isn’t even to delve into the general coarseness of the culture that positively celebrates depravities — and splashes them across the glossy pages of, say, People magazine — among elites of Hollywood, the music industry, and other walks of life. (Literally as I was writing this, a commercial aired on my TV advertising the third season of the ABC show Mistresses. In prime time. Enough said.) It’s Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s “defining deviancy down” to a degree Moynihan himself may have found astonishing.
Yet at the same time that we old-school types are bombarded by cultural rot of every kind, we also are hounded by what Charles Krauthammer called “defining deviancy up.” He wrote:
There is a complimentary social phenomenon that goes with defining deviancy down. As part of the vast social project of moral leveling, it is not enough for the deviant to be normalized, the normal must be found to be deviant. Large areas of ordinary behavior hitherto considered benign have had their threshold radically redefined up, so that once-innocent behavior now stands condemned as deviant. Normal middle-class life then stands exposed as the true home of violence, abuse, misogyny, a whole category of deviant acting and thinking.
So we see, for example, college professors all over the country being disciplined or even fired for innocuous statements in class that random students find offensive. We see owners of various artistic businesses fined into oblivion for refusing to sell their artistic skills for ceremonies that violate their beliefs. We see ordinary words such as “arrogant,” “haughty,” and “thug” being denounced as racist (or sexist, or whatever). We see people taking offense at “micro-aggressions” that are neither aggressive nor even visible under ordinary social microscopes. We see parents sanctioned by the state for allowing their children to enjoy playgrounds unsupervised (oh, the horror, the horror). We see stories of verbal pleading leading to consensual sex that is later reclassified as rape. (Who knew that Bruce Springsteen in “Jungleland” was describing not romance but rape when he sang of “whispers of soft refusal, and then surrender”?)
We’re now told that we can’t spank a misbehaving child; that we can’t read Huckleberry Finn because it features the “n” word; that we can’t name sports teams in honor of Indians; that syllogistic or “linear” logic is culturally oppressive; that it’s offensive if we pray in public or say “Merry Christmas”; and that we can’t allow our own 20-year-olds to drink a glass of wine with us in our own homes as a civilizing part of a holiday meal, but that we’re disastrously prudish if we don’t give them condoms for the sex we should be glad they are engaging in as a necessary form of self-expression.
In short, we’re told that so much of what we know is good and normal is actually bad, while so much that’s objectively awful is actually no big deal or even something worth admiring.
Nothing looks the same. The values, the culture, the standards, the frames of reference: All are skewed, tumped over, deconstructed, disorienting. We feel like we’re in a phantasmagoria, a Moody Blues lament in which “red is gray and yellow, white” — except that, unlike in the song, we are actually powerless “to decide which is right,” and the new cultural construct, unfortunately, is no illusion.
This isn’t only modernization we’re experiencing; it’s a veritable inversion of values and decency, and of the very nature of truth.
Among us relics of a bygone age, the debate is not whether the current state of affairs is atrocious; the debate is whether we’re only at a tipping point or instead already beyond it. The rough beast slouches ever closer, and we don’t know if we can stop him. We know, though, that we must try.
— Quin Hillyer is a contributing editor for National Review Online. Follow him on Twitter: @QuinHillyer.