There are many explanations for President Obama’s popularity: his personal charisma, demographics, Republican bungling and dependency on government. Yet rarely is culture invoked as the reason why so many Americans have embraced his agenda.
To many, talk about culture evokes classical art and music, and often prompts blank stares, but if we define culture as the predominant beliefs and behavior of a society, what can be said about 21st century American culture?
Few believe that culture really matters in a society where millions of voices are competing for attention and notoriety, but America has embraced a predominant culture: relativism, the belief that I decide what is right or wrong, true or false, that there is nothing that is objectively right or wrong, true or false.
Relativism has become America’s national “religion.” In recent decades, Americans have adopted this attitude because it allows them to indulge their passions and ambitions guilt-free, or because they have been brainwashed into believing that adopting this attitude is a mark of sophistication. While many Democrats have embraced the ideal of a welfare state, many libertarian Republicans have embraced the competing ideal of the autonomous man. Neither acknowledges an authority higher than the state or the individual in matters of right and wrong, truth and falsehood.
It is unlikely that many Americans would consciously choose a culture of coarseness, so why is American culture — TV, radio, films, books and advertising — so immersed in violence, indiscriminate sex, superficiality, pornography and ugliness?
There is much talk about our freedom to choose, but we rarely hear that we can’t choose the consequences of our choices. When relativism is adopted by a society, it does not produce beauty, but coarseness, if not as the desired outcome, then as an unintended consequence. One can see this occurring in America, in a descent to the lowest common denominator when it comes to art, music, literature, public discourse and entertainment.
When no one can judge with anything like authority, then the ugliest TV show is on par with a program that depicts heroic virtue. There is nothing “bad” about someone who makes exploitative films, nor is there anything “good” about someone who strives to produce something beautiful. Relativism fosters self-indulgence over self-governance, hedonism over self-giving.
Examine cultures that have embraced relativism, and you find moribund societies with few children, “green religions” that value the planet over human life, the glorification of physical stimulation and “self-fulfillment,” and nihilism that proceeds from life having nothing to offer apart from what can be extracted from it in a few short years.
Without reliably honorable norms of human behavior, constant stimulation often becomes the paradigm for happiness, frequently resulting in enslavement to drugs, alcohol, sex, pornography, violence or the passive malaise of video games and the Internet.
Relativism diminishes our intellectual capacity. How many today are capable of constructing a rigorously logical argument to support their position? When there is no right or wrong, when nothing is true or false, then the need for rigorous reasoning and meticulous research diminishes. Debating positions becomes a matter of appealing to an audience’s passions, of attacking the person making the opposing argument or of demonstrating how the consequences of a particular position will either favor or harm the audience.
This zeitgeist has been ably captured by Mr. Obama and his allies, with references to “fairness,” “tolerance” and “cultural sensitivity” replacing “anachronistic” concepts like right and wrong, truth and falsehood.
Despite what is peddled in our universities, by Hollywood and on Madison Avenue, we are not equipped to decide what is right and wrong solely by ourselves. Attempting to do so makes us less human, not more human. Relativism produces self-absorbed men and women who can’t think, but who believe themselves to be knowledgeable, sophisticated and liberated. It is a dead-end existence masquerading as freedom.
Thomas M. Doran, a writer and educator, is the author most recently of “Terrapin” (Ignatius Press, 2012).