Today was the first day of the Playboy Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl, and the glossy program included a note from Hugh Hefner welcoming the audience, which made me chuckle. The night before I had gone to a concert at my favorite neighborhood rock club – the Whisky a Go-Go, on the Sunset Strip — featuring the metal band Faster Pussycat, whose lyrics are so raunchy that the band prides itself on the sobriquet “the Kings of Sleaze Rock.” Glancing through Mr. Hefner’s missive, I imagined myself traveling back in time and telling the 1955 editors of National Review about American culture in 2016: “I went to two concerts this weekend, both of which were open to people of all ages. One of the concerts was organized under the auspices of Hugh Hefner’s Playboy magazine . . . and the other concert was much more overtly sexual.”
Yes, I think I know what conclusions my NR forebears would have drawn about American culture a.d. 2016. But what if I also told them another fact about my musical weekend – that I sat in my apartment and got to choose among dozens of stereo performances of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, all by world-class pianists and harpsichordists, all available to me for unlimited listening for just a couple of (1955) bucks a month? What would that tell the 1955 guys? They would probably look at those two facts in juxtaposition, and intuit that by 2016, the free market had triumphed over all other values, in a libertarian’s utopia. Universal access to Faster Pussycat, universal access to J. S. Bach – whatever people want, Adam Smith’s invisible hand will give them.
And there would be some truth in that. Only some, though, because that analysis leaves out the consideration that, in addition to the free market and the miracles it has wrought, we manage to simultaneously have a government more powerful and intrusive than could have been envisioned in 1950s America (to say nothing about what the Founders would have made of it; I shudder to think).
But at a time when America is almost universally considered to be going in the wrong direction, we should take a moment to be grateful for the choices capitalism has given us. The response of a socialist to choices is to bridle and to rebel: to try to set limits. We had, this year, one of the most memorable articulations, ever, of this sentiment. Remember when Bernie Sanders said we didn’t need 23 different choices of underarm deodorant? What makes socialism so popular in this regard is that it speaks for the Everyman who is overwhelmed by choices and seeks to simplify his life. The sister of an ex-girlfriend of mine lived in Egypt for a while; when she came back to the Washington, D.C., suburbs, she was absolutely staggered by the choices available to her at the local supermarket. She had gotten used to Egyptian markets with their much more limited offerings.
We have all had that feeling. It happens sometimes, when I’m on Rhapsody or Classical Archives, that I look at the hundreds of thousands of albums available to me, that I can’t decide which to listen to, and end up listening to none of them. But that doesn’t happen very often. To say, “I choose all,” as St. Thérèse of Lisieux did, is the path of holiness, but not a practical solution when deciding on cultural matters; one good thing about capitalism is that most of us figure out our own strategies for how to cope with the blinding array of choice, without recourse to a one-size-fits-all solution. Which is why even people who think they like Bernie Sanders would chafe under the kinds of limitations a socialist regime would impose.
The human being, both as an individual and with the aid of what the poli-sci people call “mediating structures,” has plenty of resources to help cope with freedom.
Irony Alert No. 1: Here’s one of Faster Pussycat’s best songs; despite their cultivated attitude of “sleaze,” it makes a rather social-conservative point about the importance of fathers.
Irony Alert No. 2: One of the best performers at the Jazz Festival was Seth Macfarlane, who is often referred to as a major force leading culture in a vulgar direction. (I enjoyed very much his Ted movies, which no one can deny are extremely vulgar.) But his musical venture is a big band performing songs in a Sinatra swing style; the orchestra, with his vocals, would be an appropriate soundtrack for a “Back to the Fifties” political-cultural movement.