Would anyone else out there love to hear a politician — or almost
anybody in the public eye — respond to the mother’s question in Tuesday
night’s debate about the malignant influence of popular culture in a
slightly different fashion, beginning something like this?

“I’m glad you asked that question, because there’s something I would
like to say to a lot of — not all, but a lot of — parents out there.
Grow up. Start acting like adults and start acting like parents. The
government can’t handle your parental responsibilities for you, and
you’d be a lot sorrier than you imagine if it really tried to do so.
You’re the adult. You’re the parent. Stop asking Big Daddy in Washington
to do your job for you.”

It is part and parcel of the ongoing infantilization of the American
public — well, perhaps the American electorate — that so many parents
are acting like children helpless in the face of a too-complex world and
expecting some all-wise father-figure to handle their responsibilities
for them. Both parties and almost all political persuasions have
encouraged this particular brand of infantilizing, although the wing
most responsible is the supposed avatar of personal responsibility and
rugged individualism, the so-called right. The liberal-left, however,
has shown itself perfectly capable of appropriating and trying to co-opt
this twisted version of what is laughingly called “family values.”

Popular culture has always been mostly vulgar, overtly or covertly
transfixed by sex, sometimes uncomfortably violent. Popular music in the
’30s and the ’50s — including music now regarded by nostalgic
family-values advocates as representative of a more innocent time — was
often derided by critics as corruptive of the morals of youth. Benny
Goodman’s “String of Pearls” has a sly and sexy second meaning that even
now would be viewed as vulgar (figure it out). Frank Sinatra was a
danger to the morals of deluded young girls. Almost every blues song is
about the sexual act if you pay attention to the subtext. Congress held
overwrought hearings about comic books in the 1950s. Remember Ed
Sullivan censoring Elvis Presley’s dangerous hips?

Yet parents then managed to cope with the potential dangers
represented by popular culture without the federal government mandating
filters on radios, or federal subsidies for after-school programs or
faith-based charitable programs.

How did they manage? Maybe they hadn’t been convinced that they
themselves were helpless children who simply don’t have the stuff to
impart decent values to their children without help from the gang of
thieves and liars in the Imperial City. None of those bygone parents was
perfect, of course — there’s nothing quite like being a parent to
remind you of your own shortcomings and occasional bafflement in the
face of obstreperous small humans who are supposed to be bone of your
bone but can’t be reached by the most logical and eloquent of
admonishments.

But parents of the past coped, and, truth to tell, most parents today
cope reasonably well — much better than the dominant media or
politicians think they do, and in many cases better than they themselves
think they are doing.

This is a large and diverse country that is still reasonably free,
especially when it comes to commercial culture (which is not a
coincidence; commercial culture is almost always freer and more
innovative — and potentially dangerous, of course — than subsidized
culture). A country like that is going to have popular culture that is
offensive to more than a handful of prigs, and part of the job of being
a parent is to help children learn to deal with it (unless you live in a
cave completely cut off from electronica, prevention of exposure isn’t
in the cards) without becoming corrupted and degraded by it.

As any parent knows, there will be times when you think you’re not
getting through and you come close to despairing for your children. And
many children — probably most — will go through periods of rebellion
(or self-discovery?) when it seems that the only way they can learn is
to try every stupid, ugly and hateful experience in sight.

Children will make mistakes. Parents will make mistakes. But most of
them will be susceptible of correction. A few parents will be completely
uninvolved or ineffective with their children, and a few children will
end up irresponsible, addicted or criminal despite the best loving
environment decent parents could provide. But at the end of the
heartaches and the joys, most children will grow to be at least as
responsible and decent as their parents, and some of them will be more
so.

In the Oct. 9 National Review John Derbyshire offered a bit of
perspective on the culture wars:

“If, in 1956,” he wrote, “you had asked any thoughtful American what
consequences might follow from the abandonment of all customary
restraint in entertainment, and from related phenomena like the
attempted normalization of homosexuality, he would probably have said
that the Republic could not survive such a transformation. Plainly,
these good people believed something that was, in fact, untrue: that the
stability of society depended on the exclusion, by common consent, of
certain things from the sphere of public display.”

The country didn’t crumble because of Elvis or Madonna or Howard
Stern. You could make a better case that insofar as it has crumbled it
has been because of those upon whom some would call to save us from
depredation. The growth of government has probably done more to
undermine personal responsibility than any artifact of popular culture.
And the continued growth of government is fed by those who whine for
government to handle parenting for them and are ready to believe they
are helpless ninnies in the face of all those Hollywood sharpies. Those
in government are more than happy to encourage the sense of
helplessness, to cast themselves as champions of morality and decency
who will “fight for you.” It all feeds into their power.

A side lesson of the long episode of trying to win votes by deploring
popular culture has been that conservatives never had a lock on the
“socially conservative” morality agenda. As soon as liberals saw that it
had even a bit of traction they appropriated the professional prude
stance and turned it into a way to make government even stronger and
more powerful. The Democrats spent half their convention tut-tutting
poor Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez for wanting to hold a fund-raiser in
the Playboy Mansion for heaven’s sake — an exercise in hypocrisy that
made her stronger, more popular and more independent of the party. If
they are restored to power they will do just fine at pretending to be
tough on their buddies in Hollywood and using whatever traction they get
there to direct their real enforcement fire at the politically
incorrect. The guys who started it will get zinged. They’ll deserve it.

Ah, well, we know the presidential debates aren’t about serious
political discussion, honesty about the possible consequences of one’s
proposals or — inasmuch as the minor-party candidates are excluded —
about showing the American people what kind of options they have
available. But I think I have figured out the real purpose. It’s to let
the people decide which of the two preordained is the least annoying.
The people know that every time there’s a fire or flood, a foreign
entanglement or a domestic embarrassment that demands a statesmanlike
trip overseas, the president will be on television incessantly. The
purpose of the debates is for us to decide which one we can stand — in
short, which is least annoying.

Based on the sterling insight, I’m predicting a Bush win.

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