I was on a very long flight the other day and, to get me through it, I had two books: the new bestseller Of Thee I Zing by Laura Ingraham, and a book I last read twenty years ago, The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth. The former is the latest hit from one of America's most popular talk radio hosts; the latter is an Austrian novel from 1932 by a fellow who drank himself to death just before the Second World War, which, if you're planning on drinking yourself to death, is a better pretext than most. Don't worry, I'll save the Germanic alcoholic guy for a couple of paragraphs, although the two books are oddly related.
Of Thee I Zing's subtitle is "America's Cultural Decline: From Muffin Tops To Body Shots." If you are sufficiently culturally aware to know what a "muffin top" and a "body shot" are (and incidentally, if you don't have time to master all these exciting new trends, these two can be combined into one convenient "muffin shot"), you may not think them the most pressing concerns as the Republic sinks beneath its multitrillion-dollar debt burden. But, as Miss Ingraham says, "Even if our economic and national security challenges disappeared overnight, we'd still have to climb out of the cultural abyss into which we've tumbled."
Actually, I think I'd go a little further than the author on that. I'm a great believer that culture trumps economics. Every time the government in Athens calls up the Germans and says, okay, we've burned through the last bailout, time for the next one, Angela Merkel understands all too well that the real problem in Greece is not the Greek finances but the Greek people.
Even somnolent liberal columnists grasp this: a recent Thomas Friedman column in the New York Times was headlined, "Can Greeks Become Germans?" I think we all know the answer to that. Any society eventually winds up with the finances you'd expect. So think of our culture as one almighty muffin shot, with America as a giant navel filled with the cheap tequila of our rising debt and#… #no, wait, this metaphor's getting way out of hand.
These are difficult issues for social conservatives to write about. When we venture into this terrain, we're invariably dismissed as uptight squares who can't get any action. That happens to be true in my case, but Laura Ingraham has the advantage of being a "pretty girl," as disgraced Congressman Charlie Rangel made the mistake of calling her on TV the other day in an interview that went hilariously downhill thereafter. So, she has a little more credibility on this turf than I would. She opens with a lurid account of a recent visit to a north Virginia mall — zombie teens texting, a thirtysomething metrosexual having his eyebrows threaded, a fiftysomething cougar spilling out of her tube top, grade-schoolers in the latest "prostitot" fashions — and then embarks on a lively tour of American cultural levers, from schools to social media to churches to Hollywood. If there is a common theme in the various rubble of cultural ruin, it's the urge to enter adolescence ever earlier and leave it later and later, if at all. So we have skanky tweens "dry humping" at middle-school dances, and an ever greater proportion of "men" in their thirties living at home with their parents.
Adolescence, like retirement, is an invention of the modern age. If the extension of retirement into a multi-decade government-funded vacation is largely a function of increased life expectancy, the prolongation of adolescence seems to derive from the bleak fact that, without an efficient societal conveyor belt to move you on, it appears to be the default setting of huge swathes of humanity. It was striking, during the Hurricane Irene frenzy, to hear the Federal Emergency Management Agency refer to itself repeatedly as "the federal family." If Big Government is a "family," with the bureaucracy as its parents, why be surprised that the citizens are content to live as eternal adolescents?
Perhaps the saddest part of the book is Ingraham's brisk tour of recent romantic ballads. Exhibit A, Enrique Iglesias:
Please excuse me, I don't mean to be rude
But tonight I'm f**king you . . .
Well, at least he said "excuse me," which is more than this young swain did:
Take my order 'cause your body like a carry out
Let me walk into your body until it's lights out.
Lovely: I am so hot for you I look on you as a Burger King drive-thru. That's what the chicks dig. That's what you'll be asking the band to play at your silver wedding anniversary as you tell the young 'uns that they don't write 'em like they used to. Even better, this exquisite love song is sung not by some bling-dripping braggart hoodlum of the rap fraternity but by the quintessential child-man of contemporary pop culture, ex-Mouseketeer Justin Timberlake.
It's not the vulgarity or the crassness or even the grunting moronic ugliness, but something more basic: the absence of tenderness. A song such as "It Had To Be You" or "The Way You Look Tonight" presupposes certain courtship rituals. If a society no longer has those, it's not surprising that it can no longer produce songs to embody them: After all, a great love ballad is, to a certain extent, aspirational; you hope to have a love worthy of such a song. A number like "Carry Out" is enough to make you question whether the fundamental things really do apply as time goes by.
Yet one of the curious features of a hypersexualized society is that it becomes paradoxically sexless and joyless. Guys who confidently bellow along with Enrique's "F**king You" no longer quite know how to ask a girl for a chocolate malt at the soda fountain. It's hardly surprising that, as Miss Ingraham reports, the formerly fringe activity of computer dating has now gone mainstream on an industrial scale. And, even then, as a couple of young ladies happened to mention to me after various recent encounters through Match.com and the like, an alarming number of chaps would rather see you naked on their iPhones Anthony Weiner–style than actually get you naked in their bachelor pads. I was reminded of The Children Of Men, set in an infertile world, in which P.D. James's characters, liberated from procreation, increasingly find sex too much trouble.
Laura Ingraham's book is a rollicking read. But, as I said, I picked it up after a re-immersion in The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth, a melancholy portrait of the decline of the Habsburg Empire seen through the eyes of three generations of minor nobility and imperial civil servants in the years before the Great War swept away an entire world order and its assumptions of permanence. Roth was a man of the post-war era, yet he could not write his story without an instinctive respect for the lost rituals of a doomed world: The novel takes its title from the great Strauss march that the town band plays in front of the District Commissioner's home every Sunday. As much as the Habsburgs, we too are invested in the illusions of permanence, and perhaps one day it will fall to someone to write a bittersweet novel about the final years of the republic. But we will not even enjoy the consolations of a Strauss march. It doesn't have quite the same ring if you call the book "Carry Out" or "F**king You."