Even though I started this blog to spare my poor family from my ramblings, the truth is that Dear Husband (DH) and I still talk about pretty much everything… and one of the topics is often the American trend toward social conservatism.
The pendulum is swinging, as it has countless times before… and will again. In fact, society is continually in flux, and we’ve moved from liberalism to conservatism (and back) many times (an interesting academic paper here).
This interesting social and political phenomenon figured largely in my thinking a few days ago when I wrote about Childhood and the Age of Consent, and it was with those generational cycles in mind that I read this WSJ piece by Daniel Henninger:
On this score, Mr. Hastert has our sympathy. There is much in American life that doesn’t seem “obvious” anymore. Call it the transgendering of reality.
This compulsion to ambiguity is the reason that both the politicians and the reporters writing about the Foley affair have been describing what the congressman did as “inappropriate.” Inappropriate is the word you use when describing behavior that falls on the scale between 3 to 7. Mark Foley seems to be the kind of guy who runs up a high phone bill calling 1-800-SEX-GUYS. That might have qualified as a 10 some 50 years, but not anymore. Former Congressman Gerry Studds had sex in 1973 with a House page. He said it was consensual. Even now, this is a 10. In Florida, doing a 10 probably earns you a johnboat trip to the swamps. But in Mr. Studds’s Massachusetts district, it earned him five more trips to Congress.
As a result, we live now in an era awash in cultural confusions. The tides bring in weird phenomena, like the Mark Foley story, leave them on the beach overnight, then drag them back out to sea before there’s time to make much sense of what we saw. As often as not, we don’t even try. The Web and digital technology have ramped up the cultural velocity to warp speed. MySpace, YouTube–the once-bright line between the private and public spheres has evaporated.
Intergenerationally, it is the “inappropriate” scale that changes, and filtering through the election hyperbole and partisanship, it’s obvious that some of the hypocrisy (thought not all) emanating from both the left and the right stems from this ever-morphing measure of morality and values.
Why else would Democrats find Mark Foley’s behavior outrageous, but have re-elected a similar actor in the past? I suspect it’s because the pendulum is fairly far right at the moment, and what was within the “inappropriate” range thirty years ago is no longer there… even for “liberals”.
The line has shifted.
Henninger brings up something else, though, that I see a bit differently:
It’s hard to believe that the Foley/instant message/congressional-page/GOP meltdown story has run for a week. Other than the slaughter in Amish country, is anyone aware of anything else of note in the world that happened the past seven days? Dive deep enough beneath the Foley flotsam and you discover reports that North Korea may be preparing to conduct an underground nuclear test. China and South Korea are at this hour trying to forestall the Hermit Kingdom’s nuke test and no doubt could use an expression of support and outrage from the American political establishment. Sorry, they’re busy reading Congressman Foley’s 1995 email traffic.
The situation today, regardless of how one thinks it developed, is very worrying. War, nuclear proliferation, and religious intolerance are flaring all over the globe, while here at home the papers are filled with school shootings, violence, and general mayhem. Each of these is, in and of itself, potentially diverting, but if one sinks too deeply into that depressing morass, it threatens to overwhelm.
In such a disturbing environment, Foley’s Folly and the GOP meltdown has the aura of a circus event — a center-ring act that has captured everyone’s attention. The combination of sex and politics has always held us rapt, but technology has added spice; we can actually read these IMs and emails, and thus the reactions are immediate — and utterly engrossing.
It’s TMI on a phenomenal scale, and while we’re horrified by the explicitness, we can’t get enough. In a comment thread yesterday, I described the Foley scandal as “diverting” — and it is — but there are a number of levels, and one of them is sheer comic relief.
We needed a break.