At the age of 73, my capacity for outrage never ceases to amaze me. I am getting tired of being indignant most of the time. However, it seems to me, that given the trajectory of behavior in modern American culture, it is the moral obligation of every decent, thinking human being to be perpetually furious.
A few days ago, I read a column by the brilliant commentator, Dennis Prager, who in three short words was able to encapsulate the slide of our civilization into the abyss within one generation. The metaphor that Prager used was “Carson to Colbert.” His thesis was that a few short decades ago, Johnny Carson reigned supreme as the undisputed king of late night television. He was unquestionably hilarious and his peerless comedy amused just about everyone — young or old, rich or poor, Republican or Democrat. He was an equal opportunity offender, but his gibes were always good-natured and at its worst only mildly offensive. He was never insulting or crude, but he always hit his mark with a gentle irony that made us all laugh ... including his target.
Things have certainly changed. The most recent example of how far we have sunk is Stephen Colbert’s disgustingly crude slap at President Trump. I will not lower myself to repeat what he said, but suffice it to say that had I said it, my mother would have gone ballistic and scrubbed my tongue with a Brillo pad — and had Johnny Carson said what Colbert said (which would have been unthinkable), he would have lost his television program and been permanently thrown off the air.
“Carson to Colbert” is the perfect summary for the vulgarization of modern America. In a nutshell, it exemplifies our descent from a civil society to a crude amalgam of self-definers ruled by the sensibilities of a feral 15 year old. It seems that we have become anesthetized and are no longer conscious of the vulgarity filth that daily surrounds us. Not too long ago I was in a shopping mall and I came upon a group of teenage boys (15-16 year olds). They were skateboarding in a corridor and screaming the filthiest words imaginable at all passersby. Had I had any sense, I would have located the nearest Paul Blart and asked him to do something, but I have never laid claim to much sense (and my aforementioned indignation was in full flower).
So I approached these young piglets and I told them that their language was offensive, that there were women and children all over the place and that they should shut the Hell up! I should have expected to be attacked. Instead, all that I received was some snide laughter, derision and further obscenities. These poorly raised miscreants didn’t even have enough decency to be embarrassed.
The precipitous slide in our cultural experience is not limited to vulgar language or inconsiderate behavior. Recently, I had occasion to hear a talk by a brilliant moral authority who teaches family law at a prominent national law school. His students are among the brightest members of the generation that will shortly be the drivers of our culture. This professor said something that shocked me to my very marrow. He stated that none — none! — of the students in his class considers lifelong marriage an essential part of a well-lived life or of a decent society. He said that his students look at marriage in much the same way as they look at a future job — they will enter into it (with or without benefit of official recognition of the commitment) in the fullest expectation that when they grow bored, tired or unhappy they will get out of it and go on to the next relationship. In other words, if they do actually get married officially, they all expect that they will divorce!
Furthermore, this professor said that if you find this hard to believe, witness the number of children who are born in the United States to unmarried parents. In 2015, 40.2 percent of children were born out of wedlock (what a trite phrase) and the number is increasing. That number and the fact that it is growing, is the best gauge of the unimportance of marriage to an ever-growing number of Americans.
This might not alarm you, but it certainly alarms me. It is not my purpose to expound on the value of marriage to a civilized society (I have had 48-plus years of commitment to my wife to happily absorb that fact), but marriage as an institution — husband and wife; man and woman — has been considered vital for thousands and thousands of years. At the very least, is it not the height of arrogance to simply brush it aside now as having no relevance or importance?
The professor continued that for most of history, the accepted order of things has been: Love, marriage, sex, children. Two people fell in love, they married, chemistry ensued and children followed.
This changed in the ‘60s and the order became: Love, sex, marriage, children. Two people fell in love, “hooked up” (what a coarse description), married and children appeared.
This order further changed with blinding alacrity and now the order appears to be: Sex, children, love(?) — with marriage nowhere in the picture.
Does anyone out there, with the exception of a few over-hormoned students, actually believe that our society (and life) has improved as a result of these overwhelming changes in the course of human behavior? I don’t think so, but we have become numbed, deadened, apathetic to the corrosive effect of the vulgarization and the coarsening of life in America. And make no mistake, the acceptance of filthy language, the acceptance of unwholesome and inconsiderate behavior, the blindness to today’s “hookup” culture and the discarding of marriage as a lifelong commitment are all part of the same slide of American civilization into a sewage pit.
The coarsening of American society is nothing new, but its increasing acceleration is new. Can we apply the brakes before we slime ourselves into oblivion? I don’t know. But the answer to that question lies in the dwindling number of parent(s) out there who care enough to teach their children the difference between decency and vulgarity. The schools cannot be expected to carry the load. It is only the parents who can make the difference.
On Sundays, I am a greeter at Hyman’s, a highly popular restaurant in Charleston. It is my pleasant task to wander from table to table chatting with our patrons and I encounter a dizzying number of families as a result. Too many have children who are rude and boorish (yes, one can be a boor at the age of seven or ten). But I also see a huge number who have children who are well mannered and delightful. Children who respond to a question by saying “Yes, sir,” or “No, sir.” These are children who obviously love and respect their parents and who are obviously loved and respected in return. I have found that the majority of these children are members of families who have just come from worshipping in church. There is a correlation between religious faith and decency. That should come as no surprise to anyone, but unfortunately too many Americans are losing that correlation.
So, let us come out of our coma and awaken to the fact that the vulgarization of American society must be reversed. It is up to parents to do the hard work to make it happen. “Carson to Colbert” is too much for us as a civilization to accept. Push back against the forces of coarseness. Civil behavior is a prerequisite to a civil society. Without it, life would be, as Thomas Hobbes stated, “solitary, nasty, brutish and short.”
Stuart Kaufman is a retired lawyer, investment banker and businessman. He relocated from New York to Mount Pleasant in 2012. A friend recently told him that he has been a South Carolinian all of his life ... but he just didn’t know it.