By David Deming
There is a whiff of anarchy in the air this morning. As I sit here writing, a conservative victory in the midterm elections looms. But I find no reason to be optimistic. The midterm elections will solve nothing. The plain fact is that conservatives have lost the battle for America. The country that many of us were born in has ceased to exist. And we have no one to blame but ourselves. Nothing can or will change until we come to terms with the grim reality of moral degeneration. And I have no hope that this can happen, save by some terrible trial.
Last week in Oklahoma City, two pedestrians were run down by cars at the same intersection within a few hours. In one incident, the driver did not bother to stop, but continued driving as if nothing had happened. It was a horrific but perfect metaphor for the self-absorbed entitlement mentality that grips the country.
Every day, the news brings a startling new incident of moral corruption. A few days ago it was reported that an eighteen-year-old geology student at Arizona State University had starred in an online pornographic film in which she performed “explicit and degrading” sex acts for a one-time payment of $2,000. The young woman explained that she needed the money to supplement her scholarship, and then inexplicably proclaimed, “I have morals!”
We are a nation of gluttons. About one-third of adults in the U.S. are obese. To qualify as “obese,” the average person has to be not just overweight, but carry an extra thirty-five pounds or more. In the last thirty years, the obesity rate in America has more than doubled. It is the sheerest irony that today, the average person has the choice of a multiplicity of fresh, wholesome, and nutritious foods, all available at the lowest prices in history. But choosing and preparing the best foods takes time and effort. We would rather stuff ourselves with fast food because it’s tasty and convenient. The consequences of this slothful lifestyle include hypertension, diabetes, and heart disease. After ruining our health through gluttony, we then go to our physicians and demand a quick fix in the form of a pill. Pharmaceutical companies are glad to oblige. And the government must pay, because free health care is now a “right.”
There is no better index for America’s moral degradation than television programming. Compare today’s shows with those of a generation ago. Every episode of “The Andy Griffith Show” contained a short moral lesson, and “The Twilight Zone” challenged our intellects and stretched our imaginations. But entertainment and instruction have devolved into shock and novelty. The networks are locked in a downward spiral to see who can provide the most outrageous and offensive programming. It’s not their fault. They’re just giving the American people what they want.
Children are not as smart as their parents. The average child today spends thirteen hours watching television for every hour he spends reading. We blame teachers and schools for failing to educate our children. But what can they do with undeveloped and undisciplined minds that expect to be entertained and rebel at the labor of thought? The decline in intellectual aptitude is so dramatic that the authors of the SAT test have had to add a hundred points to the combined math and verbal score just to make current averages equal of those of a generation ago.
We are oblivious to the fact that our society is intellectually and artistically bankrupt. Modern art is not good enough to be bad. At the beginning of the sixteenth century, Leonardo da Vinci took four years to paint the Mona Lisa. He left the work unfinished because he was always seeking to add “perfection to perfection.” Earlier this year, x-ray fluorescence spectroscopy revealed that the way Leonardo created realistic flesh tones was by building up successive layers of pigments that were as thin as a few micrometers. A micrometer is a thousandth of a millimeter.
Compare Leonardo’s work with that of the modern American artist Robert Ryman. Ryman began his career working as a security guard at a museum. The guard decided he wanted to become a painter, so he bought some white house paint and slathered it on a canvas. Art critics had orgasms. For decades, Ryman has continued to produce paintings that consist of nothing but monochrome white. The tones and textures vary, but most of Ryman’s paintings consist of nothing but a plain white surface. Ryman has explained that he paints only white surfaces because he wants to “reduce visual disturbances.” Imagine that the next time you’re contemplating Michelangelo’s “disturbances” on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
Our popular music is a painful cacophony of obnoxious dissonance. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had Mozart, Beethoven, and Tchaikovsky. We have Snoop Dogg and Lady Gaga. Is that progress? We have advanced technology, but do we use it to uplift ourselves? No, we indulge the animal side of our natures. The internet is mostly used for downloading pornography or playing video games.
In America today, everyone is entitled to everything. According to a recent report by NPR, the mentally retarded are now attending college and receiving grants. Professors are being advised (i.e., pressured) to modify their curricula to accommodate the new students. People incessantly demand entitlements and handouts. Every government intervention in the free-market system creates a fresh problem that demands another ruinous intervention with unintended consequences. Nobody is responsible for anything, and no one wants to pay the bills. And believe me, they’re coming due.
In this brave new world, everyone has the right to not be offended, and no one can be held accountable for anything. The fundamental unit of human civilization, the family, has been caustically eroded by feminism. The divorce rate is fifty percent. Oklahoma is supposedly a conservative state. Last year, a state legislator introduced a bill that would require parents with minor children seeking a divorce to first undergo counseling. Not only was the bill not passed, but the legislator was derided and mocked. How dare anyone be required to undertake the work necessary to save a marriage for the sake of his or her children? Why, it might interfere with their pursuit of happiness.
We celebrate homosexuality and then wonder why sexually transmitted diseases are exploding. According to the CDC, men-who-have-sex-with-men make up only two percent of the population but account for 53 percent of all new HIV infections and 64 percent of all new syphilis cases.
I’m beginning to acquire an appreciation for Paul’s doctrine of Original Sin. The nation that began with freedom of religion has progressed to freedom from religion, freedom from moral constraint, and freedom from responsibility. Just as Plato described in the Republic, the “horses and asses” are “marching along with all the rights and dignities of freemen,” and the ultimate result can be only that “tyranny will spring from democracy.”
Elections matter only in the short term. Every long-term social index I am aware of is negative. The plain fact is that the American people are too morally degenerate to be capable of effective self-government. The Roman satirist Juvenal understood. “The people that once bestowed commands, consulships, legions and all else, now meddles no more and longs eagerly for just two things — bread and games!” I can find no reason to be optimistic. It is only our blind vanity that lets us pretend that the United States can endure forever. Rome fell, and so will America. For all intents and purposes, it is already over.
David Deming is an associate professor of Arts and Sciences at the University of Oklahoma and the author of Science and Technology in World History: The Ancient World and Classical Civilization.