I was on a very long flight the other day and, to get me through it, I had two books: the new bestseller Of Thee I Zing by Laura Ingraham, and a book I last read twenty years ago, The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth. The former is the latest hit from one of America’s most popular talk radio hosts; the latter is an Austrian novel from 1932 by a fellow who drank himself to death just before the Second World War, which, if you’re planning on drinking yourself to death, is a better pretext than most. Don’t worry, I’ll save the Germanic alcoholic guy for a couple of paragraphs, although the two books are oddly related.
Of Thee I Zing
’s subtitle is “America
’s Cultural Decline: From Muffin Tops To Body Shots.” If you are sufficiently culturally aware to know what a “muffin top” and a “body shot” are (and incidentally, if you don’t have time to master all these exciting new trends, these two can be combined into one convenient “muffin shot”), you may not think them the most pressing concerns as the Republic sinks beneath its multitrillion-dollar debt burden. But, as Miss Ingraham says, “Even if our economic and national security challenges disappeared overnight, we’d still have to climb out of the cultural abyss into which we’ve tumbled.”
Actually, I think I’d go a little further than the author on that. I’m a great believer that culture trumps economics. Every time the government in Athens calls up the Germans and says, okay, we’ve burned through the last bailout, time for the next one, Angela Merkel understands all too well that the real problem in Greece is not the Greek finances but the Greek people. Even somnolent liberal columnists grasp this: a recent Thomas Friedman column in the New York Times was headlined, “Can Greeks Become Germans?” I think we all know the answer to that. Any society eventually winds up with the finances you’d expect. So think of our culture as one almighty muffin shot, with America as a giant navel filled with the cheap tequila of our rising debt and#… #no, wait, this metaphor’s getting way out of hand.
These are difficult issues for social conservatives to write about. When we venture into this terrain, we’re invariably dismissed as uptight squares who can’t get any action. That happens to be true in my case, but Laura Ingraham has the advantage of being a “pretty girl,” as disgraced Congressman Charlie Rangel made the mistake of calling her on TV the other day in an interview that went hilariously downhill thereafter. So, she has a little more credibility on this turf than I would. She opens with a lurid account of a recent visit to a north Virginia mall — zombie teens texting, a thirtysomething metrosexual having his eyebrows threaded, a fiftysomething cougar spilling out of her tube top, grade-schoolers in the latest “prostitot” fashions — and then embarks on a lively tour of American cultural levers, from schools to social media to churches to Hollywood. If there is a common theme in the various rubble of cultural ruin, it’s the urge to enter adolescence ever earlier and leave it later and later, if at all. So we have skanky tweens “dry humping” at middle-school dances, and an ever greater proportion of “men” in their thirties living at home with their parents.
Adolescence, like retirement, is an invention of the modern age. If the extension of retirement into a multi-decade government-funded vacation is largely a function of increased life expectancy, the prolongation of adolescence seems to derive from the bleak fact that, without an efficient societal conveyor belt to move you on, it appears to be the default setting of huge swathes of humanity. It was striking, during the Hurricane Irene frenzy, to hear the Federal Emergency Management Agency refer to itself repeatedly as “the federal family.” If Big Government is a “family,” with the bureaucracy as its parents, why be surprised that the citizens are content to live as eternal adolescents?