David Batstone, in this issue of Sojourner’s Sojourner email newsletter (which incidentally I think is probably the best email newsletter out there) covers some of the same territory I did in talking about Battle Cry. But he falls right into the trap of moralizing about content that I was trying to avoid…
I simply cannot understand why so many evangelicals consider same-sex marriage as the prime threat to the virtue of heterosexual families. Honestly, which has ruined more marriages: The extramarital affairs that are so brazenly celebrated on Desperate Housewives or the decision of two men or two women who love each other to make their lifelong commitment public? I don’t think there is any doubt about the answer to that question.
I honestly doubt that Desperate Housewives really has broken up that many marriages. Maybe it’s not Mr Batstone’s bag, but my wife and I really like it – we watch it and giggle in horror at their antics, and maybe even feel a little thankful that our lives are so not even a little like that. Maybe we’ll experience some kind of cumulative effect down the road, who knows. But the content of any given TV show, or even the lot of them, worries me far, far less than the cumulative effect of all the commercials. So. very. many. commercials.
Or for that matter, look at land use decisions. I’m sure the isolation and long commute times involved with the suburbs have caused far more divorces than all the lousy TV shows ever made. I’ve even seen quantitative data on this and it’s not pretty. Or look at our crappy family leave policies, or the fact that Americans work more hours than anyone else in the world, or the number of people with two or more jobs, etc etc. There are a lot of factors that go into divorce rate and I’d have to guess that bad TV isn’t anywhere near the top 10.
A little while back I read a curious little book called Bang, which was primarily about getting heard in today’s media environment. It was also an utterly fascinating peek inside the world of television advertising. The secondary message I got from it was a little horrifying: our society pays it’s best and brightest huge, huge quantites of money to sit around all day and do their absolute best to persuade people that they’re dissatisfied in as many ways as possible and that the purchse of products is the path towards redeeming this. I don’t know if the social costs of this are even quantifiable, but obviously the advertising industry in this country has truly enormous agenda setting capacity.
There are two great metanarratives about why it seems like society is going downhill. The conservatives argue that it all fell apart with some mushy and vague increase in “loose morals” that has something to do with the 60s.
I would say the progressive antithesis to this should go something like this: first of all, things are improving in many, many ways. During the 60s and since then, substantial freedoms have expanded almost continuously. And to the extent that they haven’t, the problems are the usual suspects: capitalism, oligarchy and imperialism far outside the boundaries of democracy are complicit in if not primarily responsible for a whole lot of the problems. Sure, it’s a lot easier and probably a lot more profitable to blame it on gay people or immigrants, but that doesn’t make it right.
The best frame for how we go about fixing this that I’ve seen so far is “housebreak capitalism.” It’s perfect because it neatly dissects the scourging charges of socialism that come wheeling in from the right anyone proposes even the vaguest of challenges to market fundamentalist orthodoxy. Capitalism is a good thing in the same way that a puppy is a good thing. When a puppy poops all over the rug, you don’t kill the puppy, you train it. The market fundies are always accusing us of trying to kill the puppy, when nothing could be further from the truth. We just don’t want it to poop all over the rug.