Bil Browning

Peggy Noonan asks some good questions

Filed By Bil Browning | December 23, 2009 1:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: Adam Lambert, American culture, Peggy Noonan

While Peggy Noonan and I don't agree usually, she does ask some interesting questions in a recent Wall Street Journal column. Of course, she goes off the rails when she starts blaming Adam Lambert's AMA performance for Americans' worries about the future of the country. (No, seriously. Read the whole piece if you don't believe me! The twists of logic are incredible.)

Still, she asks some questions later in the piece about American culture that I'd be interested to hear Projectors' thoughts on.

Yes or no: Have we become a more vulgar country? Are we coarser than, say, 50 years ago? Do we talk more about sensitivity and treat others less sensitively? Do you think standards of public behavior are rising or falling? Is there something called the American Character, and do you think it has, the past half-century, improved or degenerated? If the latter, what are the implications of this? Do you sense, as you look around you, that each year we have less or more of the glue that holds a great nation together? Is there less courtesy in America now than when you were a child, or more? Bonus question: Is "Excuse me" a request or a command?

What do you think? How would you answer?

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I'm only 30, so I have no perspective with which to answer most of these questions. I can only say that people tend to be nostalgic about the past and cynical about the future.

I will answer the last question though. "Excuse me." is usually a command in my experience, mostly because my generation are especially demanding and entitled.

I think that we used to have a surface level that hid much of the society's vulgarity, but I have a hard time believing it wasn't actually there. In certain private situations, people have always let down their guard and become much more expressive of impolite emotions and drives.

Perhaps our culture is more direct, opting for talk of cocks and cunts rather then "down there" and other euphemisms. But one can be very ribald and vulgar relying on double entendre and suggestion, and undiluted rage and hatred giftwrapped in polite language is still rage and hatred.

Not to mention there is the issue of what is considered vulgar. While we may talk about sex more directly today, our society is much more discrete about social prejudices. Our talk of sex my shock someone from 50 years ago, but their talk or race, gender, and politics would most certainly shock many of us.

I don't think that we've become more vulgar, necessarily. I think what's really going on here is a bit of clever language trickery.

I think when most people say we've become less civilized, or more vulgar, or less sacred, or more profane, these are all weasel words of the worst kind. What's really meant by them, in my opinion, is that more and more people are rejecting the picture-perfect 1950s-America-that-never-was as the ideal model for society, and that most people who do cleave to that ideal don't even understand that they're doing it. They get as far in their reasoning as seeing that other people don't show the same instinctual respect for tradition that they do, but they don't know enough about critical thinking to realize that it's their assumption that life ought to look like Leave it to Beaver that's being challenged.

We're not any more profane than we were when rock-and-roll was going to tear apart the moral fabric of society. We're not any more vulgar than when comic books were a threat to American youth. We're not any more corrupt than when public dancing was a threat to propriety. We're just finding new moral codes, new ideals, new visions by which to live, and the people who haven't done so don't know how to cope, because they don't know how to think outside their own paradigms. They only see people not behaving as they expect people should, and they can't not think in terms of their own culture and morality as innate, and so they see these moves towards other ideals only as a rejection of their own, and thus as a coarsening of public identity.

Forgive him, Theodotus: he is a barbarian and believes that the customs of his tribe and island are the laws of nature. ~ George Bernard Shaw, Julius Caesar

We've made tremendous moral progress with how minorities (racial, national, ability level, etc.) are treated. I think conservatives often forget how bad this country used to be. Or, worse, they moan about "political correctness" when held accountable for saying needlessly offensive things.

Like Ms. Noonan, I am uneasy about the level of sexuality displayed in popular culture. I can understand why she feels the US is more vulgar than it was in the past. But I think she fails to recognize the progress we have made. This lack of awareness, shared by many conservatives, may have to do with the privileges she has enjoyed in life. If she had felt the sting of prejudice she might have a more nuanced position.

More vulgar?

When I first came to the United States during the Drexel scandal, I was surprised at the tenor of your young freshmen republican congressmen's vehemence upon the floor of the House of Representatives. The US Congress had always been held up as a model of civilised democracy and that age was gone.

That sort of vehemence, that narrow, black and white/either-or/good or evil dichotomous branding of the 'other" as all bad has since become common place in the American scene

More vulgar?
More blindly angry?

Isn't it "interesting" that Peggy Noonan uses references to a Gay performer as a basis for her

That being said: I do feel there has been a marked decline in civility and common decency.

I am old enough to remember (57) and I feel that we are just more public with our 'vulgarity' - which Kristina rightly identified as a weasel word used to evoke unconscious reactions and connotatons.
(I doubt there has been a generation since Australopithecus that hasn't bemoaned the loss of traditional values... "Remember before those kids invented fire? Boy, THAT was a moral time!")

That sexuality is open and casually-regarded is a positive thing, imo. Goddess forbid we should return to the aura of 'dirtiness' I grew up with in the 50s and 60s! I may not care for some manifestations of this change, but I don't confuse my personal taste with Signs of Society's Moral Decay and Imminent Collapse. Mostly, I love it!

There was a study released just last week that showed that sexually-active teenagers and young adults had absolutely no adverse mental health issues as a result of their having just said "Yes, yes, YES!!!" I would just like to insure that they are getting information about decision-making and protection from disease and pregnancy with their daily dose of sexualization.

As to the meaning of 'Excuse me', depends on the tone of voice and circumstance. Having been a waiter for 20 years, I know that "Excuse me" in a crowded kitchen translates as "Get your ass out of my way now, please!" (But pray for the soul who says it in a nasty tone - they will feel consequences later...) Said softly in a crowded theater, it is a polite request to temporarily invade another's space.

The angst over sex is eternal. Noonan's fellow columnists and moralizers said the same things about Elvis in the 1950s (when he was on the Ed Sullivan program the camera only showed him from the waist up, no wiggling hips); and Frank Sinatra and the bobbysoxers in the 1940s; and people were "scandalized" by the "showgirls" of the Victoian era. Go read the contemporary accounts. It goes back and back and back....

Bob Roehr

To answer the question, "Excuse me" is the punchline to a joke in a stand-up routine. Check out the early Steve Martin.

Or more precisely ... "Ex-cu-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-zzz!"