The news came in numbers and the numbers were fairly grim, all the grimmer for being unsurprising. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll reported this week that more than half of Americans, 55%, think America is on the wrong track, with only 33% saying it is going in the right direction. A stunning 66% say they’re not confident that their children’s lives will be better than their own (27% are).
It is another in a long trail of polls that show a clear if occasionally broken decline in American optimism. The poll was discussed on TV the other day, and everyone said those things everyone says: “People are afraid they’ll lose their jobs or their houses.” “It’s health care. Every uninsured person feels they’re one illness away from bankruptcy.”
All too true. The economy has always had an impact on the general American mood, and the poll offered data to buttress the reader’s assumption that economic concerns are driving pessimism. Fifty-one percent of those interviewed said they disapproved of the president’s handling of the economy, versus 42% approving.
But something tells me this isn’t all about money. It’s possible, and I can’t help but think likely, that the poll is also about other things, and maybe even primarily about other things.
Sure, Americans are worried about long-term debt and endless deficits. We’re worried about taxes and the burden we’re bequeathing to our children, and their children.
But we are concerned about other things, too, and there are often signs in various polls that those things may dwarf economic concerns. Americans are worried about the core and character of the American nation, and about our culture.
It is one thing to grouse that dreadful people who don’t care about us control our economy, but another, and in a way more personal, thing to say that people who don’t care about us control our culture. In 2009 this was perhaps most vividly expressed in the Adam Lambert Problem. More on that in a moment.
America is good at making practical compromises, and one of the compromises we’ve made in the area of arts and entertainment is captured in the words “We don’t care what you do in New York.” That was said to me years ago by a social conservative who was explaining that he and his friends don’t wish to impose their cultural sensibilities on a city that is uninterested in them, and that the city, in turn, shouldn’t impose its cultural sensibilities on them. He was speaking metaphorically; “New York” meant “wherever the cultural left happily lives.”
For years now, without anyone declaring it or even noticing it, we’ve had a compromise on television. Do you want, or will you allow into your home, dramas and comedies that, however good or bad, are graphically violent, highly sexualized, or reflective of cultural messages that you believe may be destructive? Fine, get cable. Pay for it. Buy your premium package, it’s your money, spend it as you like.
But the big broadcast networks are for everyone. They are free, they are available on every television set in the nation, and we watch them with our children. The whole family’s watching. Higher, stricter standards must maintain.
This was behind the resentment at the Adam Lambert incident on ABC in November. The compromise was breached. It was a broadcast network, it was prime time, it was the American Music Awards featuring singers your 11-year-old wants to see, and your 8-year-old. And Mr. Lambert came on and—again, in front of your children, in the living room, in the middle of your peaceful evening—uncorked an act in which he, in the words of various news reports the next day, performed “faux oral sex” featuring “S&M play,” “bondage gear,” “same-sex makeouts” and “walking a man and woman around the stage on a leash.”
People were offended, and they complained. Mr. Lambert seemed surprised and puzzled. With an idiot’s logic that was nonetheless logic, he suggested he was the focus of bigotry: They let women act perverse on TV all the time, so why can’t a gay man do it? Fifteen hundred callers didn’t see it as he did and complained to ABC, which was negligent but in the end responsive: They changed the West Coast feed and apparently kept Mr. Lambert off “Good Morning America.”
Mr. Lambert’s act left viewers feeling not just offended but assaulted. Again, “we don’t care what you do in New York,” but don’t include us in it, don’t bring it into our homes. Our children are here.
I don’t mean to make too much of it. In the great scheme of things a creepy musical act doesn’t matter much. But increasingly people feel at the mercy of the Adam Lamberts, who of course view themselves, when criticized, as victims of prudery and closed-mindedness. America is not prudish or closed-minded, it is exhausted. It cannot be exaggerated, how much Americans feel besieged by the culture of their own country, and to what lengths they have to go to protect their children from it.
It’s things like this, every bit as much as taxes and spending, that leave people feeling jarred and dismayed, and worried about the future of their country.
Truly, 2009 was a bad year for public behavior.
There were this year the party-crashing Salahis and their amoral assumption that their needs—fame and fortune, which are the same as Adam Lambert’s—trump everyone else’s. You want public order and security? We want a reality show. And there was their honest and very modern shock that people were criticizing them. “It’s ruined our lives,” Michaele Salahi told the Today show in a bid for sympathy. She and her husband in turn were reminiscent of the single woman who likes to have babies, and this year had eight, through in vitro fertilization, and apparently expected to win public praise.
All these things—plus Wall Street and Washington and the general sense that most of our great institutions have forgotten their essential mission—add up and produce a fear that the biggest deterioration in America isn’t economic but something else, something more characterological.
I’d like to see a poll on this. 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?
So much always roils us in America, and so much always will. But maybe as 2010 begins and the ’00s recede, we should think more about the noneconomic issues that leave us uneasy, and that need our attention. Not everything in America comes down to money. Not everything ever did.