WASHINGTON -- Do you know that this country was once derided as being the most prudish of all the major countries on earth, even more prudish than the U.K.? For decades, we were laughed at for our prudish ways. Then something happened. We moved from being puritanical to being obsessed by sex and, by the way, obsessed by violence, too. We became obsessed with killing each other, or at least with shooting each other, particularly in schools, places of worship, hospitals and late-night parties, wherever you would least expect mayhem. Some of our experts spoke of Black-on-Black shootings, but there has been plenty of white-on-white shootings and indiscriminate bloodshed.
I am not quite certain when we moved from being puritanical to being obsessed by sex and violence, but my guess is that it goes back at least to a speech delivered by President John F. Kennedy’s new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. He delivered the speech to some 2,000 broadcast executives on May 9, 1961. They feared the government would be patrolling the broadcast media even more aggressively than before the new chairman had uttered a peep. His name was Newton N. Minow. He was an odd fish, though not to be confused with the small freshwater fish similarly named.
Minow died a couple of weeks ago at the age of 97, and I think we could call him a reformer, though most of his reforms were doomed to failure. Strange as it might seem to regular readers of this column, at least one of his reforms appealed to me, albeit if it were followed it would take us in exactly the opposite direction that we have been heading toward. America has been heading toward sex and violence and a culture of coarseness for years. Minow wanted us to go in precisely the opposite way: toward sophistication, moderation, restraint. His reform was doomed from the start. Yet he proceeded.
Minow said to the assembled broadcast executives that if they spent but one day with their eyes “glued to” their television sets he could assure them that they would “observe a vast wasteland.” He was referring to their product, television programing. It struck Minow as what T.S. Eliot called a “wasteland” in a poem bearing the same name, “The Waste Land.” Ever since Minow delivered his speech, things have only gotten worse. Television, if anything, only speeded up the process of decay in our culture.
The chairman of the FCC said that if the broadcast executives would stay glued to their television sets for a day, “You (the executives) will see a procession of game shows, violence, audience participation shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, Western bad men, Western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence and cartoons. And endlessly, commercials -- many screaming, cajoling and offending. And most of all, boredom.” What happened to the prudish and restrained Americans of 1961 when Minow spoke to the broadcasting executives? Those Americans grew bored with the wasteland of their day and welcomed a coarser, more violent entertainment.
Now our culture is filled with all the indelicacies that Minow spoke out against in 1961. I see no sign that the American audience is going to rebel against today’s broadcasting executives or the products they promote. Those who oppose guns in our society or violence in sports or the increasing coarseness of our culture are engaged in a futile endeavor unless they take on the real cause of the decline, which is the decline of our culture. One sees it everywhere. The cavalier treatment of taking another’s life, whether it be through abortion or shooting up a birthday party or going berserk on the subway or randomly drawing a knife on a perfect stranger. Americans have to cherish life once again, and the fact is they do not cherish life. I do not know what can be done about it. It is the largest problem facing America today, and collecting up some 350 guns or closing down abortion clinics or jailing mass killers will not put an end to the killing.
Glory to Ukraine!