So long as there is any diversity of voices in mass media, we will have something like a “culture war.” Which is really no different than saying that the very normal human activity of complaining about the way things are will continue to be broadcast. And although it is often tempting to believe that, decade after decade, conservatives and liberals line up on the same terrain, fighting with one territory lying behind and before them, it just isn’t true. The line doesn’t just shift left or right, it turns slightly.
It’s been one of those weeks where you realize things are turning. When I was young, Hugh Hefner’s status was almost unassailable. His conservative critics were outmoded. A sex-positive feminism that emphasized the moral agency of Playmates and prostitutes alike detested what they considered to be an older and prudish feminist vision that looked at pornography as exploitative.
But as angels sang Hugh Hefner toward his final reward, whatever that may be, I realized very few believe Hefner’s overall effect on the culture was positive. And the anger at him was especially strong on the left. Hef’s pushing of Quaaludes on his “girlfriends” was well-documented going back to the 1970s. (So was Bill Cosby’s. In some rumor mills, the Kennedy family’s use of “poppers” lives on.) But fresher reports about Hefner’s abusive behavior, ornamented with decidedly embarrassing and unsexy details, have circulated in recent years. And he got far more of the “Good Riddance” treatment than any social conservative could have expected ten or even 15 years ago.
If you look for it, you see signs everywhere. A recent, and largely well-done, HBO documentary on the parallel careers of music producer Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre was noticeably squeamish about the details of the early 1990s “gangsta rap” scene. Conservative moral figures such as Bill Bennet and Tipper Gore were trotted out and given a perfunctory whipping for their role in trying to suppress the free expression of artists. But the subjects of the documentary showed little hints of remorse, embarrassment, or shame at their treatment of women, their friends, and the law itself. In the one truly plaintive moment, Jimmy Iovine recalls that, amid the violence between East and West Coast rappers and after Snoop Dogg’s arrest in connection with a murder, he stopped to ask himself, “Am I standing up for free speech, or was I funding Hamas?”
Of course, none of the violence or misogyny troubled the gangsta rappers enough to give back all the money they made and dedicate their lives to moral improvement and uplift. Slowly, however, the elite of our culture seem to be drifting toward a new, far-more jaundiced and suspicious view of popular culture from the 1960s to the 1990s. When I grew up in the ’80s and early ’90s, it was considered enlightened and forward-thinking for parents to allow kids to see some pretty rough stuff on TV or at the movies. Parents were cautioned against over-interfering or sheltering their kids. Now, in the playgrounds of the town where I live, upwardly mobile couples brag that they don’t even let their tykes see the opening scenes of Moana, a Disney film, because it is too scary.
It’s not hard to imagine that in the near future the new cultural and economic elite will allow themselves to conclude that people such as Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre grew rich while demoralizing and degrading the middle and working classes of the nation. It won’t necessarily be a great tent revival that did it — just a newly empowered class of people reasoning from the behavior they observe in themselves and their peers.
In the ’80s and early ’90s, it was considered enlightened and forward-thinking for parents to allow kids to see some pretty rough stuff on TV or at the movies.
The world is full of these paradoxes. Apple and Google know that they profit from the millions of American kids who spend hours watching bizarre nursery-rhyme and “toy review” videos on their parent’s iPads. But tech executives are freaked out enough to make sure their own children go to “tech-free” school campuses and severely limit their gadget use.
Moral concerns pop up one decade in right-wing clothes, and, in the next, change into another outfit. Obscenity warnings were the pet project of moral majoritarians in the early 1990s. Trigger warnings are the project of progressives now. Each side believes that some people are too vulnerable to be exposed, unsupervised and unwarned, to certain adult content. And, in fact, advocates of trigger warnings would likely put them on most of the same content that earned obscenity labels in decades past.
Of course, Left and Right are often aiming moral criticism at the same culture artifacts for different reasons. It sometimes feels like the same moral instinct expressed in a different vocabulary. In our culture wars, it’s not enough to choose a political tribe. You still have to get a proper lay of the land.