I don’t know when we reached it but its evident to me that we have. By “we” I mean the United States. Yeah, I know, change is inevitable, but does it have to be so damned ugly and painful? Malcolm Gladwell defined the tipping point as “the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point.” As I see it we are in an accelerating downward arc descending into a diagnosable societal madness–a new nihilistic, every-man-for-himself dark age. We are in a feeding frenzy in which we are both the perpetrator and the victim of our unrestrained appetites for titillation.
Robert Bork wrote a 1996 book about this trend: Slouching Toward Gomorrah. He attributes our downfall to modern liberalism–Bill and Hillary Clinton and Obama representing the now nadir in this descent. Nine decades ago Yeats penned the oft quoted lines: “Turning and turning in the widening gyre the falcon cannot hear the falconer; things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. . .and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned. . .”
I suppose there was no definite point at which things toppled over–where the centre imploded. But in my book, if there were, it would surely have something to do with a Supreme Court ruling about First Amendment rights. The notion of Free Speech has allowed everything short of yelling “fire” in a crowded theater and downloading child pornography. As best I can tell something changed around 20-25 years ago. Ever pandering to the lowest common denominator the media stopped policing itself. I recall first seeing the Fox TV show Married with Children in 1988 and feeling offended by its content. It was hard to fathom its deep cynicism about marriage and the family. But it was undeniably funny at times and so I kept watching it, and eventually it pretty much became my favorite show. Around the same time I noted that the fake wresting shows on TV had become over-the-top and in-your-face vulgar and disrespectful. The grappling had become quite secondary to trash talking and almost all of the main characters were villains. Another milestone: the Jerry Springer show debuted in 1991 and the quality of television took a quantum leap backward. This was followed by Cops and other shows with documentary violence, car chases and arrests. People were viewed at their worst and their most vulnerable moments became public entertainment.
About a decade ago I wrote an op-ed piece for the Orlando Sentinel that was never published. They had previously published several of my “My Word” essays and I guess I felt that they would be eager to print some of my other thoughts. Wrong! What I wrote had to do with what I perceived as a need for some type of censorship to stem our society’s rapidly deteriorating decorum in the media. I was naive. Anything to do with censorship or the abridging of free speech is a sacred cow as far as the mainstream media is concerned. A decade ago I wrote:
“It is an odd nation we live in. We pass legislation that goes to great lengths to preserve the structural integrity of the brains of our young by mandating protective car seats and bicycle helmets, and yet we seemingly care little about the sensory images that go into those developing brains. It seems to me to be a far more pernicious form of abuse and neglect to allow an 8-year old unsupervised access to cable television or the internet than to not provide them a bicycle helmet.
Several years ago I recall seeing an article of the pornography of violence. It struck me as an interesting melding of concepts–pornography and violence. It also seemed an appropriate portrayal of both the media and society’s ever-increasing fascination with violent imagery. Mayhem and death can be obscene and at the same time titillating. Also, it is as communicable as a deadly virus.
I spend an hour or two daily surfing thru the forty-some channels available to me on the cable. More often than not I witness scenes and images that are truly appalling. Several days ago I watched 10-minutes of what is apparently a typical episode of Jerry Springer. The theme was jealousy, and several young adults took turns exposing parts of their bodies, hitting each other, ripping each other’s clothes off and shouting obscenities and threats. Meanwhile, Jerry smirked and the audience shouted approvingly. It is truly sad that this fare is available at five in the afternoon; midnight might be more appropriate.
The proliferation of hand-held video recorders has provided prime time television with a cheap supply of real live-action violence–scary car chases, police shoot outs and animal attacks. These prime-time show I suspect are quite popular with children. I say that because their appeal is certainly to adults with child-like mentalities. Also, speaking of child-like minds, are we not given more than enough exposure to violent imagery through the fake ‘rasslin’ shows put on by the WCW and the WWF. Their shows have little to do with athleticism or grappling, and everything to do with the inappropriate discharge of anger. Far more time is spent posturing, making threats, shouting obscenities and bashing each other with chairs than is spent in real wrestling. In a feeble attempt to somehow justify this buffoonery, it has been referred to as a “morality play” and also perhaps a safe way for the audience to discharge their anger. There may have been some truth in this statement in the 1950s when there were clearly good guys and villains. Today, the stars of TV wrestling appear to be just varying shades of bad, and the only real moral is that its okay to use threats and violence to get ones way. I have read that these shows are among the most popular syndicated shows on TV and I’m sure that a great percent of their viewers are children.
I am amazed that there are apparently still some constraints imposed by the FCC or the television industry itself. I only surmise that because occasional words are bleeped out; given what they allow one wonders why they bother. Also, at times graphic violence is preceded by a warning. I would imagine this serves only to rivet the attention of youngsters.
I think the time has come to begin raising the bar back toward a higher standard in what children can access on TV or the internet. Continuing to allow them steady exposure to violent imagery, explosive anger and disrespectful attitudes represents a form of child abuse. I am not a bit amazed when children bring guns to school and shoot teachers and classmates. They are only reflecting a theme they’ve been exposed to thousands of times. They have learned that the way to deal with anger is to act it out. I find it appalling that this form of child abuse and neglect is allowed and in fact promoted by judges under the banner of free speech. To not have sensible censorship of what our young watch is a total perversion of that doctrine. In speaking about those who have influence over the young, Jesus said, “It would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around his neck than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin.” (Mt. 18:6)”
I wrote that in 1999 or 2000. It was written on a typewriter and the typing paper it was written on is starting to tatter and yellow. At that time I had little experience with the internet and all the pornography and pornographic violence available there. My attitudes about censorship and free speech havent changed. If anything, I feel more strongly that some kind of government imposed restraint is warranted because the industry is not going to police itself. But that it isn’t going to happen and our nation’s downward arc will continue. A few weeks ago I heard the conspiracy theorist and “conservative” media buffoon Glenn Beck defending the bunch from that church in Kansas that shows up at the funerals of men killed in Iraq and Afghanistan with pickets like “God Hates Fags” and “The U.S. is being Punished for Homosexuality” etc. He was defending their right to free speech. I find it interesting that his meal ticket being threatened by some small abridgement of free speech takes precedence over his skin deep patriotism. It’s over, the tipping point is now distant, the centre didn’t hold, we imploded. The ACLU, the Supreme Court and the other forces of societal chaos and entropy have temporarily prevailed–the conspiracy of the prince of the power of the air.