Friday, November 03, 2006

Glamour and Amplified Virtue: Fumbling Towards a Thought

One of my favorite writers noted, back in the late 1940's, that when 'glamour' attaches to a phenomenon, we can expect two simultaneous and seemingly-contradictory developments: greater attention paid to those who do it 'well,' and fewer people doing it. The higher levels of performance to which we're exposed as spectators actually work to discourage participation, since most of us don't sound as good as Pavarotti or look as good as Angelina Jolie.

I'm beginning to think there's something to this.

Start with the increasing distance between what celebrities look like and what the rest of us look like. At a time when Americans are, statistically speaking, fatter than we've ever been, our celebrities are almost scarily thin. At a time when Americans are less physically active than we've ever been, our athletes are becoming freakishly large and strong. (During the World Series, which the wrong team won, I saw a few clips of games from the 70's and 80's, and was struck by how much smaller the players were then. And it wasn't all that long ago, evolutionarily speaking.) It's like we outsource our physical pulchritude to a small cluster of people, at whom we spend much of our time staring.

Now comes a study showing that dramatically-increased access to porn, especially for teenagers, brings dramatically decreased incidents of rape. (Intriguingly, weekends for which the highest-grossing movie was especially violent had lower rates of violent crime than weekends for which the highest-grossing movie wasn't violent. This strikes me as much the same phenomenon.)

If anything, I think the study stops too soon. Rape isn't the only variable that's dropping. Teen pregnancy rates, early first marriage, abortion rates, and single-parenthood rates are also dropping. More strikingly, the more 'secular' the state, the greater the decline in each of these categories. 'Blue' states have lower divorce rates than 'red' states, with 'liberal' Massachusetts among the lowest and Bible-belt Mississippi among the highest. With greater toleration of different choices comes fewer bad choices. It's almost as if forbidden fruit is somehow harder to resist.

I've noticed, anecdotally, that preachers' kids and psychologists' kids are usually messed up. The kinkiest sex scandals almost always happen to family-values Republicans. (Compared to Mark Foley, Bill Clinton was almost pedestrian. And check out Pennsylvania's Don Sherwood!) In the early 90's, something similar happened in England, with some really weird sex scandals breaking out among the most self-righteous Tories. You know who our only divorced President was? Reagan.

Even on a much more quotidian level, I've noticed that the people who bloviate the loudest about 'integrity' are almost always the most malicious practitioners of office politics.

It isn't just the greater appeal of 'man bites dog' stories, either. Any particular celebrity might be explained that way, but statewide statistics can't be.

Thinking about the people I've known whose morality or ethics I've most admired, I don't think any of them ever got on a high horse about it. Those who walk the walk seem to feel less need to talk the talk. Those who get swept up in the talk usually need to be.

I think this is why I react so negatively terms like “values voters” or “people of faith.” It seems to me that someone who has to identify as a “person of faith” is compensating pretty hard. There's a brittleness to that kind of amplified virtue, which is probably why it's nearly impossible to engage folks like that in actual debate. The slightest attack, and the whole edifice crumbles.

There's a wisdom in a certain kind of liberalism. It's easy to have self-control when there isn't any other option; the problem is that temptations always manage to sneak around corners. Real self-control consists in maintaining your balance when temptations are plainly present. Balance isn't the same as total purity; I try to eat reasonably well, most of the time, but I'll admit to a sweet tooth. The trick is in not fetishizing sweets as The Devil, because once you do, it's just a matter of time before you cave completely and wind up like Kirstie Alley. (For present purposes, I'll draw a distinction between the devil and Kirstie Alley.) If eating a cookie is falling from grace, you can bet that you'll scarf the whole row. Sometimes a cookie is just a cookie.

It takes a certain maturity to accept that there's an admirable and worthwhile space between 'abstinence' and 'Keith Richards,' but there is. And in real life, that space is where most people are, most of the time. Values, to me, consist in acknowledging the reality of temptations, negotiating one's own way through them, and maintaining one's own integrity all the while. Faith consists in believing that you'll make it through, and/or that your kids will. Wisdom consists in still going to the gym, even after accepting the fact that six-pack abs simply ain't gonna happen. In a values-voter mindset, if I don't look like Brad Pitt, there's no point in exercising at all. In the real world, that's crap. In a values-voter mindset, it's a fast slide from seeing porn to committing rape; in the real world, the correlation is actually negative.

It's hard to embrace the messy and uncertain real world over the clean and easy prepackaged virtues. I can see the glamour, the temptation, of certainties, and yes, sometimes I fall prey to a few of them myself. (I can be quite dogmatic about driving techniques, say, or getting places on time.) But resisting the siren call of certitude takes a kind of faith, one more demanding than just passing judgment on other people. It involves being willing to exercise when you know you'll never Be Like Mike, being willing to look the other way when people make what seem like glaring mistakes, and taking comfort in knowing that you can, and often will, be wrong about what won't work. Celebrities can be fun to watch, but there's work to do.