David Bentley Hart: Freedom and Decency

It is heartening, naturally, to live in a country where so much righteous ire can be stirred by a fleeting glimpse of something the unarrested sight of which — on almost any summer day along certain sandy banks of the Seine — nourishes the noonday reveries of many a Parisian schoolboy. It attests to the persistence among us of the kind of social virtue — call it bourgeois respectability, or puritanism, or simple decency — that is too often appreciated only in the aftermath of its disintegration. That said, however, there is still something odd in the symbolic importance this event has assumed for many, given that far worse evidences of the rapid coarsening of our culture surround us on every side all the time (examples are too numerous and obvious to cite). I suspect that among those who professed their dismay at the halftime show there were many who as a rule are willing to tolerate most of the corrosive influences that invade family life — from advertising, films, popular music, the Internet, video games, the language we have all become accustomed to hearing every day — so long as those influences continue unobtrusively to operate in their “proper” places.

This is not to say that there is not a real division in American society between those of devout and traditionalist temperament, who try to abide by some common standard of decency or courtesy, and those who regard any cultural resistance to vulgarity, or vicious fantasy, or explicit violence, or sexual degradation as an obstacle to be surmounted. Nor should one fail to deplore the sheer boorishness with which the latter class feels free to impose the refuse of its imagination on the former (what was truly appalling about the recent halftime show was simply its incivility). The true depth of our social division is, however, difficult to ascertain. It is one thing to lament the discourtesy of those who delight in giving offense, but another thing altogether to provide an effective remedy for it; and only when we honestly ask ourselves what remedy we are willing to contemplate will it become clear whether as a people we are truly engaged in a “culture war” (as we are often told we are) or are simply witnessing the effects of a genuine but transient tension between more refractory and more energetic elements within a single cultural process.


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