Pointing the Finger

Book cover
Over The Edgeby Leo Bogart

Ivan R. Dee Publishers. 323p $27.50

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The argument of Over the Edge is spelled out clearly in the subtitle: the media (film, television, computer games), driven by advertisers fixated on the importance of an audience of youthful consumers, has changed and corrupted American culture. In pushing the limits to attract the younger generation, the media feature (kind of ) explicit sex, violence and crude language. Sexual behavior, violence and the use of crude language have increased in American society. Therefore the media and the advertisers who pay the bills have changed American culture.

Over the Edge will provide useful homily material for those clerics, of whatever persuasion, who want to denounce the media and the consumerism, materialism, commodification, paganism, secularism, etc., etc. of American society. And Leo Bogart, a well-known cultural critic, provides abundant quotations that might be integrated into such homilies.

Unfortunately, his argument is almost certainly wrong or, at best, true in a very limited degree. It is a classic example of the “good old days” fallacy (also known as “the golden age” fallacy) mixed with the post hoc, propter hoc fallacy. To prove his argument, Mr. Bogart would have to establish that violence is on the rise in American society, that sexual misbehavior has increased and that Americans today use crude language more frequently than they used to. Having proved those changes, he would also have to prove that there are no other, more likely explanations of such changes.

I find it interesting that the author’s list of changes includes crude language alongside sex and violence. Four-letter words are not sins; they harm no one. They may not be appropriate in some times and places, but the Calvinist horror over them is hypocritical. Do American soldiers in Iraq “curse” more than those who fought in Vietnam or in the World Wars or the American Revolution? That is most unlikely. As one who grew up in a very Catholic neighborhood and attended a parochial school in the 1930’s and 1940’s, I can testify that we knew all those words and (some of us) used them even in the schoolyard. We also discussed sexual matters constantly, with perhaps somewhat less accuracy than would be the case today. Innocents we were not.

In fact, even if one takes into account the violence of drug traffickers, violence in American society—though still unconscionably excessive—has decreased since the baby boomers have grown out of the crime-prone segment of their life cycle. Moreover, there is no evidence that there is more child abuse or more rape than in earlier years; there is certainly more awareness, more outrage, more attempts to defend the victims or the potential victims, yes. But these phenomena would suggest that social change is positive rather than not. (There was an abusing priest who visited our parish back in the old days, too.)

More sex? Perhaps among the young and among the unmarried, and among the old. A more likely explanation, however, would suggest that availability of appropriate drugs to fend off pregnancy or to keep sexual desire alive in the senior years ought to be considered before one blames Hollywood. My impression is that my generation coped with the violent hormones of adolescence by “petting” instead of engaging in intercourse. Certainly none of the studies of adult sexual behavior suggest that Americans are having sex more often or enjoying it more.

My colleague Robert Michael developed an econometric model to account for the increase in divorce in the late 1970’s, one that also predicted correctly when the increase would level off. The key variables were the availability of jobs and of fertility control among American women.

The social scientist searches for explanations in technology before he searches for sweeping (and deep, to use one of Mr. Bogart’s favorite words) cultural change. Evidence that TV addiction leads to violence and/or sex—holding constant the relevant psychological variables—is hard to come by. The sexual hormones of adolescence and the testosterone-driven male propensity to settle an argument with a fight have always been with us, designed as they are to keep the species in existence.

I do not propose to defend the media. Such creations as “The Sopranos,” “Sex and the City” and the carefully crafted “reality” shows are disgraceful. Parents have every right to protect their children from such programming. However, if they are worried about sex, violence and four-letter words, the best education is parental good example, perhaps the only one that really works.

One should also consider the positive changes in American culture: decline in racial discrimination, more tolerance for homosexuals, more opposition to war (not enough, alas), more respect for the rights of women, more concern for civil liberties (except in the present administration), greater inclination to volunteer service (the highest in the world), larger charitable donations (except among Catholics).

Mr. Bogart writes smoothly, so smoothly that one can readily be taken in by his argument that the media are responsible for the alleged deterioration of American culture since the “good old days.” The golden age fallacy is always seductive, but it usually isn’t true.

It could be that this is a better time than the era between 1935 and 1950. Perhaps these are the good old days. My contemporaries generally disagree. But that’s because they have poor memories for what it was like when we were young.

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