Last year, a friendly foreigner asked me a particularly poignant question:
“What are you Americans going to do about American culture? Every country has its moral problems, but you Americans are making the abnormal normal.”
There was a certain irony in his remark. Himself a Brazilian, he prefaced his question with an admission that, between carnival culture and various political corruptions, Brazil was in no position to consider itself morally superior to anyone. But it was precisely because no one in a culture like Brazil’s has yet begun seriously pursuing the American pastime of redefining decadence or immorality as “free expression” or an “alternative lifestyle” that, even amid their own failures, Brazilians can still talk about normal and abnormal.
Can we? Both terms imply that valid norms exist. Perhaps we still believe in something like abnormal psychology, meaning a big deviation from what is statistically average. When it comes to norms as some kind of proper definition of what a human life ought to be, we are all but speechless.
Let us be clear: There are, of course, still churches and other institutions in our society that try to give us guidance on how we are to live. My Brazilian friend was well aware of that. What he meant, and what is probably easier to see from a distance, is that American popular culture—meaning television and movies, pop music, and the media—are overwhelmingly engaged in breaking down standards in ways that destroy the very possibility of social norms. And people feel the threat, even in other countries.
I was reminded of the Brazilian’s question when I saw a front-page article in the New York Times not long ago fretting over the fact that Wal-Mart, the giant discount chain, only sells CDs that are edited, clean, and “sanitized for your protection.” For the Times, of course, a major business trying to restrain what it views as a harmful cultural influence is itself a harmful cultural influence. A thirteen-year-old is quoted, “They blank out all the words they think are bad…. I hate it.” His mother, the aggressive investigative reporter discovered, abhors Wal-Mart’s interference: “It should be my decision instead of theirs.”
But Wal-Mart is not alone. The Times reports that Kmart and Blockbuster, too, monitor their merchandise and “are having a profound impact on pop culture.” Oliver Stone, whose Natural Born Killers is not carried by Blockbuster, calls it “a new form of censorship . . . the sanitization of entertainment. . . . People don’t understand how much power these corporations have.” The Times writer warns that often people who buy videos and discs “are not aware that they have been changed.” One producer invoked the by now standard “chilling effect” argument, saying that some rock bands are now wondering “if they are going to have to change what they do if they want to make any money.”
I doubt that anyone in Brazil, or Bangkok, or Boston will be much impressed by such arguments. We come here upon a remarkable specimen of the relationship between current popular culture and the progressive media. Artists in America are not exactly newcomers to criticizing corporations, while happily making off with millions through the very market mechanisms they denounce.
But if a corporation decides that its larger responsibilities to the community require it to reinforce some norms, the repressive nature of corporate capitalism stands revealed. If this is allowed to continue, American youth may soon find it hard to exercise their constitutional rights to unlimited obscenity, violence, sadism, misogyny, and racial hatred. Thank God the Times is looking out for our civil liberties.
The power of the modern corporation is worth examining. On the one hand, modern technologies and corporate enterprises have put immense cultural riches at our disposal. The average bookstore today carries works in translation from around the world that a Petrarch or Erasmus would have given years of life to read. On the other hand, our culture seems awash in barbarism that would have disgusted even the libertines in earlier centuries, also thanks to corporations far less socially responsible than Wal-Mart.
Modern societies depend on the transmission of knowledge—moral and religious knowledge as well as mere information and technical know-how—for their survival. Unlike previous ages, much of that transmission now occurs through economic enterprises and the media rather than in the family or cultural and religious groups. We have begun to debate whether this is a good thing. But that the institutions of our culture are producing moral and intellectual abnormalities, and encouraging people to think of these things as normal, while the upholders of norms are considered a threat, no one can any longer dispute. Ask any Brazilian.