May 22, 2012 essays

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Neoconservatism Versus Libertarianism, Part 3

It was August 1921, and Anne Shaw Faulkner was concerned about the cultural fallout from the Great War (WWI), which had ended less than three years earlier. She wrote in The Ladies’ Home Journal:

There is always a revolutionary period of the breaking down of old conventions and customs which follows after every great war; and this rebellion against existing conditions is to be noticed in all life today. Unrest, the desire to break the shackles of old ideas and forms are abroad. So it is no wonder that young people should have become so imbued with this spirit that they should express it in every phase of their daily lives.

Anne Faulkner—music chairperson of the National Federation of Women’s Clubs, and author of What We Hear in Music and The Opera and Oratorio—was alarmed by a new type of music that was sweeping across America. She called her article Does Jazz Put the Sin in Syncopation?

Faulkner wrote her article to explain the “evil influence” of jazz on American culture. Jazz inspired a style of dancing that originated with the “voodoo dancer, stimulating the half-crazed barbarian to the vilest deeds.” The fact that the syncopated rhythm of jazz, which causes “brutality and sensuality,” has “a demoralizing effect upon the human brain has been demonstrated by many scientists.” Jazz “almost forces dancers to use jerky half-steps, and inspires immoral variations.”

Faulkner was especially troubled by the detrimental influence of jazz on the morals of women. Women who liked to dance to the music of jazz orchestras frequently availed themselves of “corset check rooms,” which enabled them to shed both physical and moral restraints; and over-stimulated young women sometimes wandered off with their dates during breaks.

Jazz, according to Faulkner, is an “expression of protest against law and order, that bolshevik element of license striving for expression in music.” It is a scientifically proven fact that jazz destroys the moral sensibilities of human beings.

A number of scientific men who have been working on experiments in musico-therapy with the insane, declare that while regular rhythms and simple tones produce a quieting effect on the brain of even a violent patient, the effect of jazz on the normal brain produces an atrophied condition on the brain cells of conception, until very frequently those under the demoralizing influence use of syncopation, combined with inharmonic partial tones, are actually incapable of distinguishing between good and evil, right and wrong.

The “demoralizing effect” of jazz on factory workers was also evident. “This was noticed in an unsteadiness and lack of evenness in the workmanship of the product after a period when the workmen had indulged in jazz music.”

It is “universally recognized,” Faulkner wrote, that “the human organism responds to musical vibrations.” Marches and patriotic songs—tunes with a simple melody, harmony, and rhythm—cause us to feel “contentment or serenity” and inspire us to acts of “valor and martial courage.” Jazz, in stark contrast, “disorganizes all regular laws and order; it stimulates to extreme deeds, to a breaking away of all rules and conventions; it is harmful and dangerous, and its influence is wholly bad.”

In a later issue of The Ladies’ Home Journal, editor Barton W. Currie praised Faulkner’s article, as well as a subsequent article (by Mrs. Rinehart) that discussed “jazz-mad children.” Currie continued:

This month we begin a broadside discussion of the evils of jazz wherever found, by John R. McMahon. The series will carry the general heading Back to Prewar Morals.

The objection will likely be offered that our prewar morals were no better than our postwar morals. We shall find many defenders of jazz outside those who are profiteering in it. They will proclaim, “Don’t be a prude; this is a new age we’re living in!”

That is precisely the same lazy-minded viewpoint that obtained in Rome during its decadence….[W]e are confident that the facts [McMahon] will present are sufficient to convince every clean-minded reader of The Ladies’ Home Journal that an anti-jazz crusade is of as great importance today to the moral well-being of the United States as the prohibition cause was in the worst days of the saloon.

In my last essay I discussed Irving Kristol’s defense of censorship. Kristol’s observations about the degeneration of American culture, which are scattered throughout many of his essays, would have been applauded by readers of The Ladies’ Home Journal in 1921. But his arguments are generally not as coherent or convincing as the arguments for an anti-jazz crusade presented in that magazine.

Kristol agreed with The Ladies’ Home Journal about the harmful effects of certain types of music, but he did not seem to have a problem with jazz, and his timeline differed. Kristol dated the onset of musical decadence a few decades later than did Anne Faulkner. “A sign of the troubles ahead was evident in the early 1950s,” wrote Kristol in 1992.

While parents were watching Milton Berle on their new television sets, their children were listening to Elvis Presley on their old radios. For these adolescents and teenagers, frank sexuality—and what was really new, frank female sexuality—shoved aside the older romantic-erotic appeal of, say, a Frank Sinatra….The real breakthrough came with the Beatles.

Kristol failed to mention that Milton Berle performed some of his most popular television routines in drag, so he did not consider the possibility that Berle may have generated sexual confusion among baby boomers and thereby contributed to the decadence of American culture. Nor did Kristol analyze the music of the Beatles with the same thoroughness with which Faulkner analyzed jazz. And for that we should be thankful.

Rather, Kristol argued that 1960’s pop music inspired a dissenting youth movement with no respect for traditional values and that this movement spawned a nihilistic counterculture. Such were the consequences when the youth of America repudiated Milton Berle and Frank Sinatra in favor of Elvis Presley and the Beatles. And such is the kind of puerile cultural analysis that passes for profound among fans of Irving Kristol.

I do not maintain that cultures cannot or do not decline, nor do I believe—contrary to the repeated assertions of Kristol and other neocons about libertarians—that cultural values are irrelevant to a free society. My beef is not with Kristol’s interest in culture per se but with his sophomoric understanding of culture and his insistence that the coercive power of government should regulate personal values.

For all his emphasis on the unintended consequences of government intervention in economic matters, Kristol seems never to have seriously considered the unintended consequences of compelling millions of people to conform to a government’s notion of a desirable culture. The very idea of a crime against culture —Kristol did not use this expression, but that is the sum and substance of his arguments—makes me shudder.

Consider Kristol’s discussion of drug laws, in “Urban Civilization and Its Discontents” (1970). Kristol was not interested in “venturing into the swamp of controversy that surrounds this topic in the conventional terms in which it is publicly discussed.” In other words, Kristol was not concerned with whether certain drugs, such as marijuana, amphetamines, and LSD, were harmful to the consumer. Indeed, such drugs should be illegal even if biochemists could render a drug like heroin medically harmless. “What makes a drug a truly serious problem,” proclaimed this guardian of culture, “is less its medical aspect than its social purpose.”

And here we have arrived at the nub of the question as I see it. What counts is why drugs or intoxicants are taken, not whether they are. What counts is the meaning and moral status of the action, not its physiological dimensions.

Although cigarettes and alcohol may be bad for us, they pose “no kind of threat to our society or to our civilization.” But drugs like marijuana should be illegal, even if they are far less harmful than tobacco and alcohol, because they are taken for the purpose of seceding “from our society and our civilization, and such a declaration requires a moral answer, not a medical one.”

Of course, Kristol’s “moral answer” to those who might wish to secede from “our democratic, urban nation” is to imprison cultural criminals who believe they have the right to pursue happiness as they see fit, provided they do not violate the equal rights of other people. Never mind that millions of lives will be ruined as the government tramples on individual rights wholesale, for culture, as conceived by the neocon, trumps everything else. As Robert Bork (who was nominated to the Supreme Court in 1987 by President Reagan) said in his article “Culture and Kristol” (1995):

Modern liberalism employs the rhetoric of “rights” incessantly to delegitimize restraints on individuals by communities. It is a pernicious rhetoric because it asserts a right without giving reasons. [R]ights cannot win every time.

According to Bork, “radical individualism descends into hedonism,” and this is why rock music, which “celebrates the unconstrained self,” is so pernicious. A hedonistic culture cannot sustain a free society, so communities must be able to regulate values by democratic means. Otherwise, the degeneration of American culture will continue unabated. “Wherever one looks,” declared Bork, “the traditional virtues of this culture are being lost, its vices multiplied, its values degraded — in short, the culture itself is unraveling.”

Bork decried the Supreme Court decision that created a right of privacy, according to which “a person belongs to himself and not to others nor to society as a whole.” This libertarian doctrine of self-ownership, according to Bork, Kristol, and other neocons, is the philosophic mainspring of cultural decadence.

This is part of a series