Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Morality in America

A columnist for the weekly newspaper in my community recently decried the loss of "morality" in the United States. After being offended by the nudity and sex in the movie No Strings Attached, he crafted a piece which lamented the morally upright times of 1950s America. Warning of a "moral crisis," he calls for a return to the "unified morality" of the 1940s and '50s. The following is my response:

Mort Marks validly asserts that American entertainment has become more risqué. Offended by the blatant sex in a movie he chose to see, Mort laments the loss of morality in the United States, claiming there once was a moral “unity in this country” that in the 1950s became a “triumphant decade of togetherness.” While Mort no doubt has fond memories of the ‘50s, his ideas about America’s “Golden Age” are somewhat mythical. While the post-WWII economic boom created much progress in American society, the 1950s was also a time of harsh racial segregation and persecution, not to mention the “Red Scare” of McCarthyism and an assault on Constitutional rights. These incidents could hardly be representative of a unified “togetherness.” In the “unified” utopia Mort recalls, the Civil Rights Movement and the social rebellions of the 1950s and 1960s would never have happened.

Dissent and challenges to tradition and authority have always been a part of American culture. Mort’s “Golden Age” gave us the Beat Generation whose freedom and drug use inspired the hippies of the 1960s. Marlon Brando’s rebellious film The Wild Ones came out in 1953, and James Dean’s Rebel Without a Cause premiered in 1955. Clearly, all was not well in Pleasant-ville, or James Dean wouldn’t have screamed at his parents “you’re tearing me apart.” Like many of his generation, Mort may also view the 1950s as the “Golden Age” of education when young people all worked hard, respected their teachers, and knew how to behave. However, he would be naively overlooking the fact that Rudolph Flesch wrote Why Johnny Can’t Read in 1953. The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger’s classic novel of disaffected, angry youth, was published two years earlier.

Mort also seems to think sexual promiscuity began with the 1960s. Yet Marilyn Monroe was a sexual icon of his age, and Playboy debuted in 1953. Hugh Hefner is clearly a member of Mort’s generation, not the “hippies of the 1960s.” Obviously, today’s open sexuality in movies and society is extreme, but it doesn’t mean America is any less moral. The 1950s was certainly a time of greater modesty, but it wasn’t more “moral.” In fact, Mort seems unaware that the Kinsey Report on the perverse sexual habits of Americans was released in 1948 and 1953. Morality is not simply about how public or private people are with their behavior.

Mort’s criticism of the “cynicism ruling America” ignores his own naïve, cynical views. As an educator I see hope and optimism in America, not a “moral crisis.” Young people may spend a lot of time on Facebook, and their fashions and entertainment may make us uneasy. Yet, they are also a tolerant and hopeful generation who volunteer and aspire to achieve college degrees at rates never seen before. I, too, worry about the lack of modesty in contemporary society. I often criticize the adult humor injected into children’s movies, and I’ve never shown my kids a Disney film. However, I also have great faith in Americans, and I’m not naïve enough to connect Robert Kennedy’s vision of moral certitude to a concern about nudity in a romantic-comedy. Nostalgia is a wonderful thing – but its weakness is its detachment from reality.


Jordan Crawford said...

Not to be picky, which is just a horribly rude way of saying, "Just because I'm picky," but isn't Marylin Monroe a her, not a his? Just a little pronoun mistake there. See, I told you it would be rude and picky.

steven said...

Good response, Michael.

In my way of thinking, a moral society would be one that allows individuals to make and live with their own choices, and where people who try to impose their values on others are subjected to resistance and moral condemnation. A moral society is one that only uses force against aggressors.

I see our society heading in the opposite direction from my ideal of a moral society, so I'm not very optimistic at this point in time.

Anti Money Laundering said...

I guess it was but I think peoples morality has changed. It's gotten more liberal and more diverse and even in a sense much more fundamental, you take the fundamental religious right in this country, its got to go back about 50 years.