Monday, June 24, 2013

A Culture of Indulgence

This is an interesting talk contrasting cultural norms governing self-regard and indulgence.  It is an oft told tale, but true nonetheless.  Since at least the 60s one facet of American (indeed Western) cultural development has been an increasing focus on self, this has, over time, become a norm, whereas in past generations, (Brooks here discusses the 40s and 50s), the norm was to think about ones duties to family, country or even employer/employee first before one considered self.  What is more, it was considered bad form to celebrate self, or tout accomplishments.  It was more often the case than it is now that folks would be embarrassed to be singled out for praise, and would downplay their desert for such commendation.

Brooks illustrates this change by contrasting something we see every Fall Sunday with what we can hear in a radio broadcast from August 1945. The broadcast is the “Victory Extra” edition of Command Performance,  a variety show broadcast to U.S. servicemen during and after WII. Produced in Los Angeles, it featured the celebrities of the day; film and stage actors, radio personalities, and musicians of all stripes.  The “Victory Extra” aired after Japanese surrender.   The mood is one of great relief. True, there is some comedy, as was usual for the show, but the overall mood is one of humility before those that served, and before God. At times, particularly in an Ernie Pyle piece read by Burgess Meredith, there is even warning to the nation not to become too prideful in victory. It is a humble victory celebration. 

Fast forward to a typical Sunday watching NFL football. Your team (in my case the Mighty Leos from the D) are getting pasted, it’s halfway through the 4th quarter, and a second and 15 halfback dive between center and guard fails for the Lions’ opponents. A lion lineman makes a jarring tackle. What does he do? You know the drill. He does some sort of dance, pounds his chest, maybe even glowering over the dazed halfback, while engaging in some sort of trash talk.  He celebrates one tackle in a meaningless series, the game having long since ceased being competitive. The ensuing third and 17 play nets 19 yards and a first down.

Actually, Brooks could have contrasted the two eras in the same entertainment genre. Watch video of any football game during the 40s 50 or early 60s, and you would see little such display.  Sticking with the Leos, part of what made Barry Sanders unique was his attitude toward personal accomplishment. His approach to the game was much more at home during that era of football than the modern era (90s) in which he played. He was a bit of a fish out of water in that regard. 

Similarly, Tom Landry, a person very much in that self-effacing mode, had difficulties dealing with players from the wild and woolly me-generation of the mid to late 60s and 70s. While he did express the sentiment that his generation was perhaps too self-constrained, and too stifling of individuals and groups, and did believe the nation needed the corrective move supplied by the me-generation and needed the excision of racial inequality from the body politic, he nevertheless wondered if the overall cultural move that accompanied these corrections was not in fact too much, a lurch not toward some sort of Aristotelian mean, but toward the excess.

Now, what accounts for the cultural differences between America of the mid-20th, and America of the late 20th and early 21st Century?  One obvious and important difference that can go toward an explanation: A world war was going on, one whose outcome was not at all certain.  This war was an existential struggle between totalitarian ideology and open society. This war actually extended into the cold war as erstwhile “ally” Stalinist Russia showed its totalitarian colors. Victory in this struggle brought a period of American prosperity the likes of which the world had not witnessed before. In fact, no major existential wars have been fought since.  The ‘me-generation’ grew up during this time. The norm was a world basically safe, secure, and wealthy relative to what had gone before. 

Even the poor were considerably better off than in the depression era or before. Poor these days have cars, air conditioning, HD televisions, I-phones, and other conveniences of modern technological life. They have come of age in an environment unlike any before.  Today’s Americans enjoy the luxury of being able to focus on self and on entertainment. There is no need to engage in a massive effort to protect the very society of which they are part. There is no common core of sacrifice that all Americans on the home front must endure; no rationing, no fuel shortages, for instance. And those enemies that do pose a threat to our society do it covertly, from afar, and in fits and starts, or ‘invisibly’ in the cyber realm. 

What is more, the men and women who do protect this society do not do so ‘observed’. What I mean by that is that media coverage of war effort is not what it was during WWII. Then, you not only heard about our military efforts on radio news broadcasts, but the popular culture mobilized in support. Scores of radio shows were engaged, as were films, theatre, you name it, the war effort and servicemen and women were featured constantly.  Command Performance is a case in point. Often the CP broadcasts were also aired domestically.

Today, nothing like this occurs, and generations of Americans have come of age and reproduced in an age of relative prosperity and peace, a Pax Americana, bought and paid for by the generation that fought the Second World War. So, it should not be altogether surprising that the evolving cultural norm is analogous to that of the stereotypical privileged adolescent of the well to do family or second generation wealth.

To some extent I am reminded of a similar shift in the ancient world, this one also lasting about 50 years and pivoting on the Persian wars. Victory against Persia in 480/79 bc brought an age of prosperity and empire for Athens, that lasted a generation, but it also brought cultural changes, perhaps best exemplified by the contrasting life stories and ethos of Socrates and Alcibiades.

The older of the two, Socrates, was actuated by duty. He pestered and questioned because he felt it was a task assigned him by ‘the God.’ After being convicted he took his poison because he felt he had a duty to Athens, having benefited from her governance. It would be wrong of him to take flight. He had a contract to fulfill with his mother city. He must obey the law, and abide by the verdict.  Socrates was famous for being impervious to discomfort, and lived life simply so that he could carry out his philosopher’s duty. (His wife was justifiably peeved by the way).

                                                              Note: This pic has Al entirely to old...

Contrast Alcibiades, the younger self-promoting and quite talented general who changed sides in the Peloponnesian war so many times that he was universally distrusted, and, not surprisingly, killed. He was a profligate, and sensualist to boot. We see him, in Plato’s Symposium, well and truly sloshed, bereft of inhibitions, making a fool of himself over Socrates.  We see that he does not have the good sense to be embarrassed with himself, or so Socrates thinks. Socrates pities him.

Additionally, we see Periclean Athens’ growing prosperity, and the hubris it nurtured, bringing down the wrath of subject states, who sided with Sparta to lay her low by 399 BC, the year Athens also executed Socrates.

This sort of cultural development (existential struggle -> victory -> security and prosperity -> indulgence) may be something that is inevitable, and can be seen in the history of Rome as well. Like later Romans, modern Americans do not have to serve in the military. True we do not hire out mercenaries and attract foreigners with promises of citizenship to fight our wars, but the general populace is insulated by the all-volunteer Army. (This is not to argue, as some do, that it would be a good idea to bring back the draft, by the way.)

Now, it has been noted before that these analogous cases each included decline of the civilization in question. Athens’ downfall was quick, Rome’s more extended.  Is such decline inevitable? Is it tightly connected causally, to the indulgence? Would a second existential crisis forestall the indulgence and/or decline? Are there historical examples of societies that switched from an indulgent to a self-effacing ethos in the face of such threats, thus causing at least one or two ensuing generations to look back upon the past indulgent generations with the attitude a self-made parent may have to his or her spoiled and inexperienced adolescent? Will that be the attitude of those in this generation that fight our wars, as they look upon the boomers who govern them, growing old after having lived an insulated life?