Friday, February 23, 2001

“Prole Models” is the title of a recent essay in the Wall Street Journal by visionary sociologist Charles Murray that trains a beam of light on the battlefield chaos of the culture wars. Mr. Murray focuses our attention on a chief cause of the to many, bewildering coarsening of our culture that continues unchecked all around us. He calls this theory the proletarianization of the elite.
Gulp. How politically incorrect to conjure up either a proletariat, an elite, or the proletarianization of that elite but how neatly Mr. Murray’s theory clicks into place. Seizing on the work of the late British historian Arnold Toynbee, Mr. Murray explains what amounts to our civilization’s disintegration by illustrating the dramatic shift that has taken place in the behaviors of our elites those whom Toynbee called the “dominant minority.” Lacking confidence, or even belief, in traditional codes of behavior, these elites have increasingly turned to the proletariat for inspiration and guidance, ultimately ending up as imitators of those who may indelicately be said to lodge at the bottom of the heap.
So what does all this have to do with everybody else in the middle? Everything. In the name of what Mr. Murray calls “ecumenical niceness,” behaviors, manners, attitudes and styles that used to be branded low-rent, no-count or downright trashy have become acceptable to, if not adopted by the boy next door not to mention his sister. (His parents, meanwhile, are tolerant or even similarly inclined.) Foul language? Ubiquitous. Bad sportsmanship? On every tennis court, let alone football field. Hooker looks? On almost every teen-age girl, and sometimes little sis. Trog aesthetics? Just check out the Grammy Awards.
Changing sexual mores bear out Mr. Murray’s theory in spades, from the increase in divorce to the decrease in virginity. Consider how language reflects changing attitudes toward men and women living together and having children without marriage or, as was once quaintly said, without benefit of clergy: “People used to shack up,” Mr. Murray writes. “Now they cohabit. The woman used to have a bastard, then an illegitimate child; now she has a non-marital birth.” I would drop in here the notion that the poll-tested tolerance for the sexual adventurism of former President Clinton a prole model if ever there was one is also rooted in our cultural coarsening. Not only have women had the pedestal taken out from under them (admittedly, all too many of them jumped), but even girlhood has been cheapened beyond recognition.
Mr. Murray makes another important point. “It may be a positive sign that important voices have again begun to talk about virtue, but the salient fact is that they must start by defending the proposition that virtue and vice are valid concepts.” In other words, just as there is no common understanding of vulgarity, he explains, there is no common contempt for the vulgar. “In these senses,” Mr. Murray writes, “the elites have already been proletarianized, and only remnants protest.”
Doesn’t sound too good for us we few, we happy few, we band of protesting remnants. Of course, things may be bleaker still. Take the recent hue and cry over Eminem, another major prole model. So singularly focused was all the furor over this particular so-called “artist’s” atrocious rap-sodies that an intergalactic visitor would certainly come away with the impression that Eminem is an inexplicable anomaly, a smelly cheese that stands alone among all the jasmines and roses of the rock world. Hardly. You don’t have to look or, rather, sniff further for comparison than Steely Dan, the group that beat Eminem to the Grammy, widely portrayed as the respectable, elder-statesman choice for best album. As one critic writing in the Los Angeles Times helpfully pointed out (to prove a completely different point), Steely Dan’s winning album, “Two Against Nature” includes a song, “Janie Runaway,” which is “sung in the voice of an aging pedophile trying to set up a threesome with his jailbait house guest and a friend of hers.” (No, it’s not about former congressman and sex offender Melvin Reynolds, another one of those pesky Clinton pardonees.) Twisted? Depraved? Will anyone say so?
It isn’t that any number of Americans aren’t angered by such, shall we say, grubby songs, and wouldn’t, on the whole, prefer that their children and their children’s friends not listen to, or buy such tripe. But who among them has the confidence to buck the all-enveloping culture of coarseness that surrounds them and their families?
If confidence is too much to expect at this late date and low point in our civilization, let’s hope a little survival instinct kicks in before all that “ecumenical niceness” out there is remembered one day as the tolerance that was terminal.

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