Hard Truths about the Culture War
What began to concern me more and more were the clear signs of rot and decadence germinating within American society—a rot and decadence that was no longer the consequence of liberalism but was the actual agenda of contemporary liberalism . . . Sector after sector of American life has been ruthlessly corrupted by the liberal ethos. It is an ethos that aims simultaneously at political and social collectivism on the one hand, and moral anarchy on the other."
—Irving Kristol, "My Cold War"
Equivocation has never been Irving Kristol's long suit. About the fact of rot and decadence there can be no dispute, except from those who deny that such terms have meaning, and who are, for that reason, major contributors to rot and decadence. We are accustomed to lamentations about American crime rates, the devastation wrought by drugs, rising illegitimacy, the decline of civility, and the increasing vulgarity of popular entertainment. But the manifestations of American cultural decline are even more widespread, ranging across virtually the entire society, from the violent underclass of the inner cities to our cultural and political elites, from rap music to literary studies, from pornography to law, from journalism to scholarship, from union halls to universities. Wherever one looks, the traditional virtues of this culture are being lost, its vices multiplied, its values degraded—in short, the culture itself is unraveling.
These can hardly be random or isolated developments. A degeneration so universal, afflicting so many seemingly disparate areas, must proceed from common causes. That supposition is strengthened by the observation that similar trends seem to be occurring in nearly all Western industrialized democracies. The main features of these trends are vulgarity and a persistent left-wing bias, the latter being particularly evident among the semi-skilled intellectuals—academics, bureaucrats, and the like—that Kristol calls the New Class.
But why should this be happening? The short answer is the one Kristol gives: the rise of modern liberalism. (The extent to which he would agree with the following argument about the sources and future of modern liberalism, I do not know.) Modern liberalism grew out of classical liberalism by expanding its central ideals—liberty and equality—while progressively jettisoning the restraints of religion, morality, and law even as technology lowered the constraint of hard work imposed by economic necessity. Those ideals, along with the right to pursue happiness, are what we said we were about at the beginning, in the Declaration of Independence. Stirring as rallying cries for rebellion, less useful, because indeterminate, for the purpose of arranging political and cultural matters, they become positively dangerous when taken, without very serious qualifications, as social ideals.
The qualifications assumed by the founders' generation, but unexpressed in the Declaration (it would rather have spoiled the rhetoric to have added "up to a point"), have gradually been peeled away so that today liberalism has reached an extreme, though not one fears its ultimate, stage. "Equality" has become radical egalitarianism (the equality of outcomes rather than of opportunities), and "liberty" takes the form of radical individualism (a refusal to admit limits to the gratifications of the self). In these extreme forms, they are partly produced by, and partly produce, the shattering of fraternity (or community) that modern liberals simultaneously long for and destroy.
Individualism and egalitarianism may seem an odd pair, since liberty in any degree produces inequality, while equality of outcomes requires coercion that destroys liberty. If they are to operate simultaneously, radical egalitarianism and radical individualism, where they do not complement one another, must operate in different areas of life, and that is precisely what we see in today's culture. Radical egalitarianism advances, on the one hand, in areas of life and society where superior achievement is possible and would be rewarded but for coerced equality: quotas, affirmative action, income redistribution through progressive taxation for some, entitlement programs for others, and the tyranny of political correctness spreading through universities, primary and secondary schools, government, and even the private sector. Radical individualism, on the other hand, is demanded when there is no danger that achievement will produce inequality and people wish to be unhindered in the pursuit of pleasure. This finds expression particularly in the areas of sexuality and violence, and their vicarious enjoyment in popular entertainment. Individualism and egalitarianism do not always divide the labor of producing cultural decay. Often enough they collaborate. When egalitarianism reinforces individualism, denying the possibility that one culture or moral view can be superior to another, the result is cultural and moral relativism, whose end products include multiculturalism, sexual license, obscenity in the popular arts, an unwillingness to punish crime adequately and, sometimes, even to convict the obviously guilty. Both the individualist and the egalitarian (usually in the same skin) are antagonistic to society's traditional hierarchies or lines of authority—the one because his pleasures can be maximized only by freedom from authority, the other because he resents any distinction among people or forms of behavior that suggests superiority in one or the other.
The universality of these forces is indicated by the fact that they are prominent features of two institutions at opposite ends of the cultural spectrum: the Supreme Court of the United States and rock music.
The Court reflects modern cultural trends most obviously when it invents new rights of the individual against the decisions of the political community, but it also does so in the expansion of rights expressed in the Constitution beyond anything the drafters and ratifiers could have intended. Radical individualism surfaced when the Court created a right of privacy, supposedly about the sanctity of the marital bedchamber, which soon explicitly became a right of individual autonomy unconnected to privacy. Four justices subsequently pronounced it a "moral fact that a person belongs to himself and not others nor to society as a whole"—a "fact" which means that a person has no obligations outside his own skin. The same tendency is seen in the Court's drive to privatize religion, as when a girl is held to have a First Amendment right not to have to sit at graduation through a short prayer because it might offend her sensibilities. The list could be extended almost indefinitely. The autonomy the Court requires, of course, is necessarily selective, almost invariably consisting of the freedoms preferred by modern liberalism.
The Court's commitment to egalitarianism is so strong that it overrode the explicit language and legislative history of the 1964 Civil Rights Act to allow preferences for blacks and women. The Court usually argued that the preferences were for prior discrimination, discrimination not against the individuals now benefited but against other members of their race or sex in the past. Even that requirement was dropped when the Court allowed preferences for minorities in the grant of station licenses by the Federal Communications Commission, despite the lack of any evidence that such grants had ever been tainted by discrimination. In these ways the Court reflects, and hence illegitimately legitimates, the thrusts of modern liberal culture.
To point the parallel: in a book appropriately titled The Triumph of Vulgarity, Robert Pattison points out that rock music celebrates the unconstrained self: "The extrovert, the madman, the criminal, the suicide, or the exhibitionist can rise to heroic stature in rock for the same reasons that Byron or Raskolnikov became romantic heroes—profligacy and murder are expressions of an emotional intensity that defies the limits imposed by nature and society." Rock culture teaches egalitarianism as well, not only in its frequent advocacy of revolution, but in its refusal to make distinctions about morality or aesthetics based upon any transcendent principle. There is no such principle, only sensation, energy, the pleasure of the moment, and the expansion of the self.
Vulgarity and obscenity are, of course, rife in popular culture. Rock is followed by rap; television situation comedies and magazine advertising increasingly rely on explicit sex; such cultural icons as Roseanne Barr and Michael Jackson can be seen on family-oriented television clutching their crotches. The prospect is for more and worse. Companies are now doing billions of dollars' worth of business in pornographic videos, and volume is increasing rapidly. They are acquiring inventories of the videos for cable television; and a nationwide chain of pornographic video and retail stores is in the works. One pay-per-view network operator says, "This thing is a freight train."
It is likely to become a rocket ship soon if, as George Gilder predicts, computers replace television, allowing viewers to call up digital films and files of news, art, and multimedia from around the world. He dismisses conservatives' fears that "the boob tube will give way to what H. L. Mencken might have termed a new Boobissimus, as the liberated children rush away from the network nurse, chasing Pied Piper pederasts, snuff-film sadists, and other trolls of cyberspace." Gilder concedes, "Under the sway of television, democratic capitalism enshrines a Gresham's law; bad culture drives out good, and ultimately porn and prurience, violence and blasphemy prevail everywhere from the dimwitted 'news' shows to the lugubrious movies." But he blames that on the nature of broadcast technology, which requires central control and reduces the audience to its lowest common denominator of tastes and responses.
But the computer will give everyone his own channel: "The creator of a program on a specialized subject—from Canaletto's art to chaos theory, from GM car transmission repair to cowboy poetry, from Szechuan restaurant finance to C++ computer codes—will be able to reach everyone in the industrialized world who shares the interest."
Perhaps. But there seems little reason to think there will not also be an enormous increase in obscene and violent programs. Many places already have fifty or more cable channels, including some very good educational channels, but there are still MTV's music videos, and the porn channels are coming on line. The more private viewing becomes, the more likely that salacious and perverted tastes will be indulged. That is suggested by the explosion of pornographic film titles and profits when videocassettes enabled customers to avoid going to "adult" theaters. Another boom should occur when those customers don't even have to ask for the cassettes in a store. The new technology, while it may bring the wonders Gilder predicts, will almost certainly make our culture more vulgar and violent.
The leader of the revolution in pornographic video, referred to admiringly by a competitor as the Ted Turner of the business, offers the usual defenses of decadence: "Adults have a right to see [pornography] if they want to. If it offends you, don't buy it." Modern liberalism employs the rhetoric of "rights" incessantly to delegitimize restraints on individuals by communities. It is a pernicious rhetoric because it asserts a right without giving reasons. If there is to be anything that can be called a community, the case for previously unrecognized individual freedoms must be thought through, and "rights" cannot win every time.
The second notion—"If it offends you, don't buy it"—is both lulling and destructive. Whether you buy it or not, you will be greatly affected by those who do. The aesthetic and moral environment in which you and your family live will be coarsened and brutalized. There are economists who confuse the idea that markets should be free with the idea that everything should be on the market. The first idea rests on the efficiency of the free market in satisfying wants; the second raises the question of which wants it is moral to satisfy. The latter question brings up the topic of externalities: you are free not to make steel, but you will be affected by the air pollution of those who do make it. To complaints about pornography and violence on television, libertarians reply, "All you have to do is hit the remote control and change channels." But, like the person who chooses not to make steel, you and your family will be affected by the people who do not change the channel. As Michael Medved puts it, "To say that if you don't like the popular culture then turn it off, is like saying, if you don't like the smog, stop breathing . . . There are Amish kids in Pennsylvania who know about Madonna." And their parents can do nothing about that.
Can there be any doubt that as pornography and violence become increasingly popular and accessible entertainment, attitudes about marriage, fidelity, divorce, obligations to children, the use of force, and permissible public behavior and language will change, and with the change of attitudes will come changes in conduct, both public and private? The contrary view must assume that people are unaffected by what they see and hear. Advertisers bet billions the other way. Advocates of liberal arts education assure us those studies improve character; it is not very likely that only uplifting culture affects attitudes and behavior. "Don't buy it" and "Change the channel" are simply advice to accept a degenerating culture and its consequences.
Modern liberalism also presses our politics to the left because egalitarianism is hostile to the authorities and hierarchies—moral, religious, social, economic, and intellectual—that are characteristic of a bourgeois or traditional culture and a capitalist economy. Yet modern liberalism is not hostile to hierarchy as such. Egalitarianism requires hierarchy because equality of condition cannot be achieved or approximated without coercion. The coercers will be bureaucrats and politicians who will, and already do, form a new elite class. Political and governmental authority replace the authorities of family, church, profession, and business. The project is to sap the strength of these latter institutions so that individuals stand bare before the state, which, liberals assume with considerable justification, they will administer. We will be coerced into virtue, as modern liberals define virtue: a ruthlessly egalitarian society. This agenda is, of course, already well advanced.
Both diminished performance and personal injustice are accomplished through radically egalitarian measures. Quotas and affirmative action, for example, are common and increasing not only in the workplace but in university admissions, faculty hiring, and promotion. The excuse is past discrimination, but the result is that individuals who have never been discriminated against are preferred to individuals who have never discriminated, regardless of their respective achievements. Predictably, the result is anger on both sides and an increasingly polarized society. After years of struggle to emplace the principle of reward according to achievement, the achievement principle is being jettisoned for one of reward according to birth once more.
Remarkably little thought attends this process. The demand is always for more equality, but no egalitarian ever specifies how much equality will be enough. And so the leveling process grinds insensately on. The Wall Street Journal recently reprinted a Kurt Vonnegut story, which the paper retitled "It Seemed Like Fiction" because it was written in 1961, before the passage of the Equal Pay Act (1963), the Civil Rights Act (1964), the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (1967), the Equal Employment Opportunity Act (1972), the Rehabilitation Act (1973), the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990), the Older Workers' Benefit Protection Act (1990), and the Civil Rights Act (1991)." At the time of reprinting, Congress was preparing hearings on "The Employment Nondiscrimination Act of 1994" and was considering additional amendments to the Civil Rights Act. Even before all this, Vonnegut saw the trend and envisioned the day when Americans would achieve perfect equality: persons of superior intelligence required to wear mental handicap radios that emit a sharp noise every twenty seconds to keep them from taking unfair advantage of their brains, persons of superior strength or grace burdened with weights, those of uncommon beauty forced to wear masks. Why not?
Modern liberalism is most particularly a disease of our cultural elites, the people who control the institutions that manufacture or disseminate ideas, attitudes, and symbols—universities, some churches, Hollywood, the national press (print and electronic), much of the congressional Democratic party and some of the congressional Republicans as well, large sections of the judiciary, foundation staffs, and almost all the "public interest" organizations that exercise a profound if largely unseen effect on public policy. So pervasive is the influence of those who occupy the commanding heights of our culture that it is not entirely accurate to call the United States a majoritarian democracy. The elites of modern liberalism do not win all the battles, but despite their relatively small numbers, they win more than their share and move the culture always in one direction.
This is not a conspiracy but a syndrome. These are people who view the world from a common perspective, a perspective to the left of the attitudes of the general public. Two explanations for this phenomenon have been advanced. Both seem accurate. One is a heretical version of Marxism, a theory of class warfare; the other might be called a heretical version of religion, a theory of the hunger for spirituality, for a meaning to life.
Joseph Schumpeter first articulated the idea that capitalism requires and hence produces a large intellectual class. The members of that class are not necessarily very good at intellectual work; they are merely people who work with or transmit ideas at wholesale or retail, the folks collectively referred to above as the New Class (also known as the "knowledge class," the "class of semiskilled intellectuals," or the "chattering class").
Why should the New Class be hostile to traditional or bourgeois society? The answer, according to the class warfare theory, is that capitalism bestows its favors, money, and prestige on the business class. The New Class, filled with resentment and envy, seeks to enhance its own power and prestige by attacking capitalism, its institutions, and its morality. It is necessary to attack from the left because America has never had an aristocratic ethos and because the weapons at hand are by their nature suited to the left. The ideas are held not for their merit but because they are weapons.
There is probably a good deal to this, but it seems not quite sufficient. For one thing, it does not account for the Hollywood left. These are folks with no need whatever to envy the CEO of General Motors his prestige or financial rewards. And no one, to my knowledge, has ever classified Barbra Streisand, Jane Fonda, Ed Asner, and Norman Lear as intellectuals.
There is, however, an additional theory. Max Weber noted the predicament of intellectuals in a world from which "ultimate and sublime values" have been withdrawn: "The salvation sought by an intellectual is always based on inner need . . . The intellectual seeks in various ways, the casuistry of which extends to infinity, to endow his life with a pervasive meaning." The subsidence of religion leaves a void that must be filled. Richard Grenier observes that among those intellectuals "most subject to longings for meaning, Max Weber listed, prophetically: university professors, clergymen, government officials . . . 'coupon clippers' . . . journalists, school teachers, 'wandering poets.'" By "coupon clippers," I take it, Weber meant the generations that inherit the wealth of the men who made it, which would explain why so many foundations created by wealthy conservatives become liberal when the children or grandchildren take over. And for "wandering poets," read the likes of Robert Redford and Warren Beatty. The epitome of Weber's university professors is John Rawls, whose egalitarian theory of justice swept the academy. Among other odd notions, Rawls laid it down that no inequalities are just unless they benefit the most disadvantaged members of society. There is, of course, no good reason for such a rule, and it is a prescription for permanent hostility to actual societies, and most particularly that of the United States, which can never operate in that fashion. No vital society could.
What we are seeing in modern liberalism is the ultimate triumph of the New Left of the 1960s—the New Left that collapsed as a unified political movement and splintered into a multitude of intense, single-issue groups. We now have, to name but a few, radical feminists, black extremists, animal rights groups, radical environmentalists, activist homosexual groups, multiculturalists, People for the American Way, Planned Parenthood, the American Civil Liberties Union, and many more. In a real sense, however, the New Left did not collapse. Each of its splinters pursues a leftist agenda, but there is no publicly announced overarching philosophy that enables people to see easily that the separate groups and causes add up to a general radical left philosophy. The groups support one another and come together easily on many issues. In that sense, the splintering of the New Left made it less visible and therefore more powerful, its goals more attainable, than ever before.
In their final stages, radical egalitarianism becomes tyranny and radical individualism descends into hedonism. These translate as bread and circuses. Government grows larger and more intrusive in order to direct the distribution of goods and services in an ever more equal fashion, while people are diverted, led to believe that their freedoms are increasing, by a great variety of entertainments featuring violence and sex. David Frum argues that the root of our trouble is big government, but the root of big government is the egalitarian passion, which intimidates even many conservatives. So long as that passion persists, government is likely only to get bigger and more intrusive.
We sometimes console ourselves with the thought that our current moral anarchy and statism are merely one phase of a pendulum's swing, that in time the pendulum will swing the other way. No doubt such movements and countermovements are often observable, but it is entirely possible that they are merely ephiphenomena that do not affect the larger movement of the culture. After each swing the bottom of the pendulum's arc is always further to the cultural and political left. Certainly, in the United States, we have never experienced a period of cultural depravity and governmental intrusiveness to rival today's condition.
The prospects look bleak, moreover, if we reflect on the sources of modern liberalism's components. The root of egalitarianism lies in envy and insecurity, which are in turn products of self-pity, arguably the most pervasive and powerful emotion known to mankind. The root of individualism lies in self-interest, not always expressed as a desire for money but also for power, celebrity, pleasures, and titillations of all varieties. Western civilization, of course, has been uniquely individualistic. Envy and self-interest often have socially beneficial results, but when fully unleashed, freed of constraints, their consequences are rot, decadence, and statism.
Because they arise out of fundamental human emotions, it is obvious that individualism and egalitarianism were not invented in the 1960s. They have been working inexorably through Western civilization for centuries, perhaps for millennia, but they have only recently overcome almost all obstacles to their full realization. These forces were beneficent for most of their careers; they produced the glories of our civilization and, freed of the restraints of the past, became malignant only in this century. We are delighted that the restraints that afflicted men in the classical world, in the Middle Ages, even in the last century and much of this have been weakened or removed. Our names for particular events and eras celebrate that movement: the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, our own Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights, the Civil Rights Movement. Though they had other complex effects, all involved the loosening of restraints: religious, legal, and moral. But any progression can at last go too far.
The constraints that made individualism and egalitarianism beneficial included economic necessity, which channeled individualism into productive work, and religion (with its corollaries of morality and law), which tempered self-interest and envy. It is only in this century, and particularly in the years since World War II, that Americans have known an affluence that frees many of us from absorption with making a living, and it is in that same period that the decline in religion, which began centuries ago, reached its low point. Religious belief remains strong but seems to have a diminishing effect on behavior. And only lately have we developed the technologies that not only make work easier but also make the opportunities for sensation almost boundless. We have always known that unfettered human nature does not present an attractive face, but it is that face that is coming into view as modern liberalism progresses. It is difficult to imagine the constraints that could now be put in place to do the work that economic necessity and religion once did.
If the drive of modern liberalism cannot be blunted and then reversed, we are also likely to see an increasingly inefficient economy. The hedonism of radical individualism is not consistent with the habits of work and saving that are essential to a vigorous economy. The quotas and affirmative action that are growing in our educational institutions and in our corporations, the dilution of the achievement principle, coupled with the government's determination to intervene in the economy through manifold regulations, mandates, and taxes, will place additional burdens on productivity. Despite all we have learned from watching other economies, perhaps we are fated to repeat the socialist mistakes and suffer the inevitable consequences.
This is a picture of a bleak landscape, and there are many who disagree. Optimists point out, for example, that American culture is complex and resilient, that it contains much that is good and healthy, that many families continue to raise children with strong moral values. All that is true. I have been describing trends, not the overall condition of the culture, but the trends have been running the wrong way, dramatically so in the past thirty years. It would be difficult to contend that, the end of racial segregation aside, American culture today is superior to, or even on a par with, the culture of the 1950s.
Others might argue that the elections of 1994 are an indication that a cultural swing is taking place, that Americans have rejected huge, regulation-happy government. That may be so, but I remember thinking the same thing in November 1980 when the electorate chose Ronald Reagan and defeated a clutch of the most liberal Senators. But little long-term improvement occurred. Government now regulates more than it did then. It was fifteen years between Reagan's first inauguration and the Republican domination of Congress. We will know that a sea change has happened if, fifteen years from now, government is smaller, less expensive, and less intrusive. Modern liberalism, moreover, maintains its hold on the institutions that shape values and manipulate symbols. Hollywood and the network evening news will not change their ways because of Republican majorities. Political correctness and multiculturalism will not be ejected from the universities by Newt Gingrich. If the reaction of the left to Reagan's elections is any guide, modern liberalism will become more aggressive and intolerant. In any event, even a persistently conservative government can do little to deal with social deterioration other than stop subsidizing it through welfare, and it remains to be seen whether Republicans have the will to overcome the constituencies that want welfare. Moral decay is evident, moreover, among people who are not on welfare and never will be.
No one can be certain of the future, of course. Cultures in decline have, unpredictably, turned themselves around before. Perhaps ours will too . Perhaps, ultimately, we will become so sick of the moral and aesthetic environment that is growing in America that stricter standards will be imposed democratically or by moral disapproval. Perhaps we will reject a government that is controlling more and more of our lives. A hopeful sign is the degree to which modern liberalism and its works—political correctness, affirmative action, multiculturalism, and the like—is coming under intellectual attack, not merely from conservative but also from liberal intellectuals. If its intellectual and moral bankruptcy is repeatedly exposed, perhaps modern liberalism will die of shame.
But then again, perhaps not. Country singer and social philosopher Merle Haggard, whose perspective is like Irving Kristol's, says that the decade of the 1960s "was just the evening of it all. I think we're into the dead of night now." Chances are, that is too optimistic and the dead of night still lies ahead. For the immediate future, in any event, what we probably face is an increasingly vulgar, violent, chaotic, and politicized culture and, unless the conservative resurgence of 1994 is both long-lasting and effective, an increasingly incompetent, bureaucratic, and despotic government. Kristol refers to himself as a cheerful pessimist. If the argument here is even close to the mark, and if the counterattack falls short, we had all better start working on the cheerful part.
An earlier version of this essay appeared in The Neoconservative Imagination: Essays in Honor of Irving Kristol, edited by Christopher DeMuth and William Kristol (AEI Press). This article also appeared in First Things (June/July 1995). Reprinted with permission.Subscribe