What's Wrong with American Culture?
by Ari Armstrong, June 17, 2003
I read a note recently that really bothered me, and it continues to do so. The note was a reply to a column Jim Spencer wrote about guns, but that's not really the issue raised by the note. The question is, is there something fundamentally wrong with our culture? A lot of people seem to think so, though they disagree about what it is.
Spencer, for instance, posits a reductivist (and ludicrous) theory that what's wrong is that a sinister "gun lobby" is promoting "easy access" to guns, even for criminals, while (allegedly) knowing full well this will lead to more violence. Of course, responsible gun ownership deters violence rather than promotes it, and anyway citizens who advocate the right to bear arms are well-motivated. At least Michael Moore, though he too parrots the leftist conspiracy theory about the "gun lobby," at least comes up with a better story than what Spencer offers. As I've previously argued, there is a grain of truth in Moore's arguments about racism and sensationalized American mainstream media.
Before I continue, though, I want to make it clear this is not (just) a "downer" article. I tend to be an optimist. I'll eventually come around to talking about some of the things that are great about our culture, and about how individuals can choose to lead a purposeful, self-responsible life in it.
In my reply to Spencer, I pointed to an actual source of violence in America: drug prohibition. Prohibition is much more insidious than only its direct impact on violent crime, which it massively increases. What I described as the "culture of violence" perpetuated by prohibition exists on both sides of the law. The criminal underclass now routinely uses deadly violence even when drug sales are not directly involved. By the same token, many of our "law" enforcement officers are now "Special Weapons" teams trained to efficiently subdue and, when faced with resistance, kill American civilians. The militarized police forces were created in a vain attempt to control drugs, and, predictably, they are increasingly seen as the standard model. It is nearly impossible to overstate the corrosive nature of prohibition on American culture.
Here's just one recent example of the unnerving impact of prohibition on culture. I just saw a preview for Bad Boys II. Even though the African American community is most devastated by prohibition, the soon-to-be-released movie portrays two African Americans as enforcers of prohibition. They crack witty jokes as civilian automobiles fly crashing through the air during a chase scene. Isn't it just so fucking funny to see innocent people slaughtered in the war on drugs. Judging by the preview, there are plenty of shootings, explosions, and drug-war-related crimes to entertain us. But nevermind the fact that prohibition is the direct cause of horrendous violence in the real world. We started with the notion that the ends justify the means in the "war on drugs." Now we barely remember what the ends are, and violent means have nearly become a justification unto themselves. (How many more Republicans are going to tell me they "really" agree with me on this issue, but they couldn't possibly say anything in public?)
Rightists have some theories about cultural decay that are complete bunk, and others that convey some truth. As an example of the former, I've heard the laughable theory that our cultural decline should be blamed on homosexuals. Oh, and rock music. Nevermind the fact that swing was once considered decadent, and the Beatles -- well!
However, there is something to the notion that parents are no longer trying as hard to raise self-responsible children. The attitude is increasingly, "Let the politicians and bureaucrats do it." "You wanna drug my kid? Well, okay... you're the expert." "What do my kids need to know in life? Don't ask me -- ask their government nannies."
Of course, it's impossible to blame government schools per se for a recent cultural decline, as government has played a huge role in education for over a century in this country. However, there does seem to have been a shift in attitude during the last few decades. When my grandfather went to school, judging from his stories, the government played a fairly minor role in the raising of children. Now, not even government control of the "kinder" in their lovely "garten" is sufficient: today children need a "head start" in learning life's lesson of being cared for by government officials.
One of my friends says he always is immediately skeptical whenever he hears people talking about cultural decline. He figures people always talk about that, always have, and always will. Cultural problems need not be a sign of decline, just as cultural glories need not signal an assencion. However, it's difficult not to argue that, say, the Russian culture was problematic in the early 1900s, and the German culture hit a low point in the 1930s and '40s.
As a libertarian, I tend to see problems with the rise of the powerful centralized state, in this country from the late 1800s and accellerating into the 1900s. One of the reasons I am such a strong supporter of the individual citizen's right to keep and bear arms is that, in many ways, this right is one of the last lines of defense. Maintaining the right means the individual, not the state, fundamentally has control over his or her destiny.
But Chris Matthew Sciabarra in his work describes the essential concept of "reciprocal causality." I was just arguing as if the statist chicken laid the egg of personal irresponsibility. What, then, laid the egg out of which the statist chicken grew?
But enough. I mentioned a note I'd read that upset me. It was sent by Peter Hartley to the Denver Post. I quote much of it here.
Spencer apparently concludes... that once upon a halcyon time guns were not readily available, but an evil force called "gun lobby" has since come to power, forcing unprecedentedly easy gun ownership on America... He wants us to think that guns never entered the picture when [quoted source] Berryhill was a teenager because they weren't available, and that kids are now disposed to carry guns and use them on each other simply because guns are now available. To him, guns are the problem, not the disposition of the kids. He is wrong, as the least reflection must demonstrate.
Hartley does an excellent job disproving Spencer's case. Stories from my father and others of his generation confirm the point.
But Hartley then offers his right-wing equivalent of Spencer's argument. Social violence, he speculates, is not the result of the evil "gun lobby:" instead it is the result of the evil "pornography lobby." Kids have always dressed differently than their parents did. Yes, some "entertainment" currently offered in mass media is really horrible. For instance, I've mentioned the shockingly violent videogame "Grand Theft Auto." Yes, Lone Ranger was violent, too, and obviously the difference lies in the portrayal of good overcoming evil. But most of today's violent entertainment also portrays the "good guys" overcoming the "bad guys."
I really like the Matrix films. What's desturbing about them, though, is that the protagonists pursue in "the matrix" what, if conducted in the real world, would rightly be considered horrifying terrorist acts. The computer matrix of the films looks a lot like our real world. The Matrix thus demands a sophisticated viewer to keep the difference always in mind. But do some viewers see it merely as an escapist fantasy of what they wish would happen in our world? The possibility disturbs me. (Remember the "trench-coat mafia?")
What I especially liked about the novel Firestar is that it recognized a cultural decline, then described one possibible way to reverse it. Specifically, the novel uses an ambitious private space program to inspire the next generation to greatness. Without committing myself to the view that we are indeed experiencing a cultural decline, I think it is nevertheless obvious that we have some cultural problems. (Let's not overstate the magnitude of the problem, here: most Americans are basically good, emotionally-healthy people.) Following Firestar's author Michael Flynn, I want to outline some of the goals I think are appropriate for purposeful, responsible living in the modern world.
1. Space. Space is the permanent, practically limitless frontier. There is no good reason why billions of people shouldn't be living off-world within two or three centuries.
2. Energy. Once our houses go off-grid and become self-sustaining energy sources, and our cars no longer burn oil, our lives will change dramatically for the better. Also, better methods of producing energy are essential for the move to space.
3. Information technology. When we can download a movie from the internet for fifty cents in under a minute, then store that movie with a thousand others on a CD-sized disk, again our lives will change dramatically for the better.
4. Health. Every time I see somebody with a debilitating illness, I become angry that the net waste of government grows only slowly enough to allow the slow, unsteady growth of the economy. Real wealth should be growing exponentially, not at a trickle. Medicine is still a young science. When people start having their "mid-life crises" at age 100, that will be a wonderful start.
The world is not bleak, kids. The world is a wonderful place, and life is a precious gift. There is greatness to be had in this world of ours. Plenty of room left in the history books -- for your name.
Do you want the sickening breath of infamy, or do you want to forever change this beautiful world of ours for the benefit of yourself and all future generations?
There's so much. And so many people today settle for so little. It makes me sad. Future generations will look at our time as one still escaping from the Dark Ages, an era of barbarism and primitivism. We are at an exciting time, a time when human civiliation is increasingly a possibility. Can't you feel the quickening pulse of history?
Raise your eyes a little, kids. You're looking at the mud puddles, and you're missing the sunrise.