Day By Day© by Chris Muir.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Aspirations and the lowest common denominator

Every few months I opine about the rot that characterizes modern pop culture and cast longing eyes back to a pop culture that pre-dated my birth -- the halycon days of the 40s and 50s, when pop culture was, dare I say it, aspirational. The easiest way to make this point is to look at early TV fare: Leave it to Beaver, Father Knows Best, Ozzie & Harriet, etc. I'm not arguing that any of these are great art or that they are well written, or even that they're very good (they're not my favorite shows of the past, to be honest). What does characterize these shows, though, is that they present an idealized America. Thus, if one ignores the color line (white, white, white), one finds some deeper themes: They all have nuclear families, with strong, loving parents; the parents and their friends all work; the kids are cute and smart, but the parents are smarter, and are strongly in control; and traditional values get advanced in every episode (Wally & the Beav always ending up learning about honesty, honor, loyalty, bravery, etc.). By the 1960s, these shows had become somewhat laughable, although the value system appeared in some old standbys, such as The Brady Bunch. By the 1970s, they were gone. With few exceptions (and I think The Cosby Show is one such exception) shows were now characterized by broken families, street-smart values, weak parents (or, rather, a single weak parent), despair, greed, and a complete absence of moral touchpoints. They may not have been teaching kids bad things (none espoused theft, or murder, or drug use), but they really didn't advance any positive ideas, either implicitly or explicitly. Often, to support this type of programming, Hollywood types and critics claimed that the home depicted in the shows of the 1950s and 1960s was imaginary. The ground for this argument? A lot of American kids didn't (and still dont') live that way, so it was better, in the 1970s and on, to present a more realistic picture of home. There are a couple of things wrong with this reasoning. First, a lot of people did in fact live the Ozzie and Harriet life. I was not alone amongst my friends in growing up with two parents, who were wise, moral and loving; and in living in a clean, stable home, with the people in my life holding jobs and being responsible for me and those around them. Second, I think a culture makes a huge mistake when it looks at the "haves" and "have nots" and chooses the "have nots" as the aspirational goal. Maybe it hurts the feelings of the "have nots" to be passed over as culture touchstones, but it hurts the whole culture a lot more to make broken families, weak parents, and disorganized homes seem normative, instead of focusing on and aspiring to the equally common whole families, strong parents, and well-organized lives. Moral values demand that, sometimes, you have to hurt someone's feelings (or a whole group's feelings) to do the right thing. If one accepts the lowest denominator school of thought, we should give up a whole lot of things. You can join in with this list any time you like: Some people are bad readers, so we should stop encouraging any reading, because it makes the bad readers feel inadequate. Some people are lousy drivers who can't have a license, so we should stop other people from driving, because it might make the bad drivers feel left out. Oh, and wait, some people have unhappy home-lives so we, as a culture, should stop setting stable, two-parents as a socially desirable goal, because these unhappy people feel bad enough about their lives as is. This is not the way to run a healthy society.