Wednesday, March 28, 2018
We spent last Sunday afternoon at my son’s place in the country where, as usual, I delighted in some age-inappropriate country labors for which my body was punishing me by Monday morning. But we did not stay into the evening, as we were eager to return home in time to watch a television program at seven o’clock. The situation was most unusual. We are not what you would call television people. We watch the PBS “News Hour” fairly regularly, but that is about it. We had to give up on the later-hour programming some time ago, since we are by then in the Land of Nod.
So maladroit a television watcher am I that I had some difficulty locating the right channel for CBS. In fact, for a while I feared I would never find it, since what was appearing on the screen were the last ten minutes of a tense basketball game between the Kansas Jayhawks and the Duke Blue Devils. I later realized that this was due not to a technical glitch but to the welcome fact that there must still be a few people somewhere in the country who have their priorities straight. At length the program that I was so eagerly anticipating—apparently along with many millions of my fellow citizens—eventually did come on. It was “Sixty Minutes,” and it consisted of an interview of a businesswoman whose nom d’artiste is Stormy Daniels conducted by the well-known TV “personality” Anderson Cooper.
The question that arises in this essay—or at least I hope would arise from it—is why an elderly professor of medieval literature, and a person of conservative instincts, would eagerly and without conscious embarrassment listen to the testimony of an entrepreneurial pornographer concerning her sexual commerce with the man who is now the President of the United States. In the ballyhoo preceding the interview it had been promised that Ms. Daniels would reveal the details of an “affair” with the future president, but we heard no such thing. A witticism came back to me from the time I worked very briefly in the capital the summer after I graduated from college. It was pointed out to me that while the House of Representatives has a Committee on Foreign Affairs the Senate, whose members are on the whole older than those of the House, has to make do with a Committee on Foreign Relations. What Ms. Daniels described, with a matter-of-fact candor that it would be most difficult to disbelieve, was a single incident of sexual relations, as would be consistent with Mr. Trump’s senatorial age at the time of the event.
But back to the question of why I, along with twenty-one million other folks, rushed to my television set to watch all this. It is obvious, is it not, that our whole public culture has undergone a coarsening and a debasement that has been relatively rapid and may prove to be irreversible. “In olden days a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking, but now….” About twenty-five years ago, New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, one of the rare intellectuals to be elected to high public position, coined a catchy phrase: Defining Deviancy Down.
The phrase described the phenomenon of attempting by cultural fiat to “normalize” obviously aberrant and socially destructive behavior. This has usually been done with the best of good intentions and the highest of liberal principles. The specific issue addressed by Moynihan at the time was the passive acceptance of an astronomically high crime rate, especially in New York City. But there were many other examples that he touched upon, including “single mothers” or “one-parent families”. Moynihan had a particular interest in the pathology of the American inner-city, which he related, among other associations, to the large number of effectively fatherless youths being raised solely by their mothers or other female relatives. Even then he got in trouble for advancing the suggestion that there was something unhealthy in the phenomenon. The idea, that by now has now become political orthodoxy in certain quarters, is that widespread unmarried maternity or “single motherhood” is simply one form of family organization among several others—and certainly not a form of “deviancy”. Palpable social problems can thus be eliminated by linguistic manipulation. “Treason cannot prosper—what’s the reason? For if it prosper none dare call it ‘treason’.”
There’s something wrong when nobody any longer thinks it’s wrong that twenty million Americans go out of our way to hear a professional pornographer describe playfully spanking the bare backside of what we call (inappropriately in these particular circumstances) our sitting president. What has brought us to this pass? Can we ever retreat from it?