Having announced that I was thinking of writing a new blog on censorship in the arts and in the media, numerous Facebook friends sent me comments expressing their own disgust with the mass media, with the ineffective ratings system that fails to protect children from exposure to excessive violence, and with the general coarsening of our culture.
In prior blogs, I have complained mightily about what I perceive to be a loss of standards throughout the culture, sometimes focusing on primitivism, rappers, Tom Wolfe’s genteel variant of primitivism, and the Great Dumbing Down. One friend starts the dumbing down with the revolts of the 1960s, and there is something to be said for that turning point. Another blames the movies and mass culture in general. Many believe that the Aurora massacre was stimulated at least in part by the increasing violence of Hollywood movies. Indeed, I had already noticed the disturbing abundance of horror movies directed to adolescents. What was the appeal, I wondered, and still can’t answer that, other than speculating that youngsters are terrified of the modern world in ways that have not been adequately described: Feeling perhaps impotent in the face of predators, they Identify with the Aggressor, to use a once well-known Freudian formulation.
What could I possibly add to this discussion now, I wonder? In the past, I argued that cultural radicalism was not only wrong-headed, but a distraction from other questions that were not focused solely on sex and violence or political correctness. I had insisted that the idea that words and images created reality for readers and viewers was in itself deeply ideological. But I did not dismiss the power of propaganda, but rather pointed out that popular explanations for the rise of Hitler among allies to the Roosevelt administration had blamed mass culture as the primary explanation for the bond of Hitler with the German people, thus discarding political errors, economics, and diplomacy. (See http://clarespark.com/2009/06/04/modernity-and-mass-death/.)
I must say the same for the rowdy arts, whether found in pop culture or in the highest reaches of Kultur. While bohemians were kicking up their heels and converting adolescents to drugs, sex, and rock and roll as transformative politics, petit-bourgeois media reformers wanted positive images of their group, acting on the belief that “role models” (and “inclusion”) would repair grave deficiencies in education or family life. But these same reformers were reinforcing ethnic or racial ties, thus undermining the search for explanations of poverty that are more properly found in political and economic institutions, not just “discourses.”
Since the days of Plato and Aristotle, intellectuals have been fighting over the effects of pornography: Plato would have banished poets from the Republic, while Aristotle believed that catharsis through the arousal of pity and terror would keep the masses in line. I adhere to neither of these philosophies. Either we have a marketplace of ideas or we do not. What matters is the critical context surrounding controversial works of art or other toys and entertainments. Sadly, perhaps disastrously, the “critics” and other explicators of cultural artifacts tend to share the same ideology as those who produce the “edgier” pieces, and leave the field to those whose own sensibilities are disgusted by “vanguard” works. Hence, our culture is impoverished. Vanguard artists and critics stand together, while “philistines” remain bemused and angry. The feedback loop is thus severed and everyone loses.
But more, what may be decisive is the deliberate silence around certain issues; e.g. the increasing acceptance of sadomasochism, Satanism, misogyny and antisemitism, or the opacity of governments, or the widely held belief that there is no truth, or the power of some families to screw up their kids, or limited interest in the great issues of our time, such as the causes of mass death in the 20th century—a subject that has been hitherto dominated by left-leaning statists with designs on the public.