As the White House plays the desperate game with Iraq, a few of us remember Vietnam and acknowledge--in helpless misery--that a nation infatuated with its own firepower is stone deaf to the lessons of history. The United States has produced its share of sane legislators, wise soldiers and astute diplomats, all somehow vanished from the scene. In the year 2002 our fate rests in the hands of a cockeyed cabal of Christian mystics, Texas oil pirates and born-again Cold Warriors for whom Saddam Hussein is the geopolitical equivalent of Viagra.
Who'd have believed that Afghanistan would become our 51st state, or that the nation's capital would be a lockdown fire zone where a mystery sniper murdered someone almost every day? Shortly before he died in 1987, mythmaster Joseph Campbell predicted the defining symbol for 21st century America: "The Lord Death, carrying his gun." Out of our folly we've created our personal Angel of Death, our flesh-and-blood Grim Reaper with his high-powered rifle of doom. If I set national priorities, it would be Wayne LaPierre and the NRA gun lobby I'd strive to disarm first of all. But that, as we know from grim experience, would be 10 times harder than disarming Saddam Hussein.
These are sad times and perilous. In Ronald Reagan's day, to vote Republican was to vote with reckless optimism. In November 2002, that same vote expresses hopeless foxhole pessimism. The average endangered American, seeing his personal wealth dissolve, his civil rights shrivel and his children arm themselves for warfare in distant deserts, may be too stunned and stricken to worry about what's on the radio. But anarchy, bellicose demagogues and economic vertigo aren't the only signs that the greatness America claims for itself is rapidly slipping away.
Listen to the radio. But step carefully, because there are places on your dial like places they mark on the map of the Great Dismal Swamp, where you could sink into the mire until you suffocate.
The airwaves' latest outrage occurred during baseball's divisional playoffs in Phoenix, when disc jockey "Beau" Duran of KUPD-FM placed an on-the-air phone call to the widow of St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Darryl Kile, who died of a heart attack in June. Duran told her she looked "hot" to him and asked her if she had a date for the ballgame. Mrs. Kile hung up in tears and was left to ponder what kind of world her husband had left her to navigate alone.
The Cardinals' manager, Tony La Russa, after considering personal, physical assault on this idiot--La Russa has a law degree--offered at a press conference his opinion that Duran "needs to suffer." The station suspended him for three days and then fired him.
If Duran's moronic cruelty doesn't inspire you to start boiling tar and plucking feathers, we're not on the same page and you ought to stop reading. This follows an incident in New York the last time I visited--another FM shock show was caught taping two tourists fornicating in the side entrance to St. Patrick's Cathedral, a performance the show instigated with double-dares and a cash incentive. In Raleigh this summer, a grossly obese radio "personality" was threatened with a lawsuit for running naked through a health club, poking and propositioning its members to the ostensible delight of his audience.
In Florida, the jock who calls himself Bubba the Love Sponge caught the nation's attention--the highest achievement for radio's shock troopers--by castrating and slaughtering a wild boar while the microphone recorded its agonies.
Whenever you imagine that popular culture has sunk as low as commercial cynicism and human nature allow--that we've reached the final fetid subbasement, 20 stories beneath the ground floor of civilization--you will immediately be disappointed. Shock jocks, connoisseurs of their own degradation, seem determined to eradicate the last traces of the fundamental decency that underlies the social contract. If the mass media have entered into a conspiracy to deprive Americans of privacy, dignity and self-respect, Duran's abuse of Flynn Kile takes us one step lower yet. Grief has been held sacred in every coherent society since the Stone Age.
The 'Limbo Society'
You have to be at least 50 to remember when "poor taste" was something the mass media tried to avoid. Calling Jerry Springer, Vince McMahon or Howard Stern "tasteless" is like calling Hitler prejudiced. The abomination known as shock radio is an accurate barometer of what I've come to call the Limbo Society--Limbo from the dance, not the waiting room between heaven and hell. You remember the broom handle, the straining thighs and calves, the chant repeated: "How low can you go? How low can you go?"
Today, no one knows the answer. Older Americans like me remember when radio "announcers" spoke and dressed like gentlemen and aspired to civic prestige. We have no frame of reference for Bubba the Love Sponge. Well, maybe we do, if we think back a little further.
Remember junior high school, and the sadistic kid who made fun of your clothes, your parents, your face? He'd tell you that your sister was a whore or that he saw your dog lying dead at the side of the road, just to watch your face turn red and draw a snigger from the little chorus of knuckle-dragging sycophants who followed him around. He'd circulate gross drawings in study hall, labeled to indicate your mother embracing an orangutan or the private parts of your female relations covered with flies. In the locker room, a well-aimed snap of his lethal wet towel might send you to the doctor's office.
Physical retaliation against these loathsome comedians was not uncommon, though they took care to choose victims who seemed sensitive and harmless. I tended to exact my own revenge in Machiavellian installments, as opposed to giving or getting a bloody nose. But the eighth-grade Nazi was destined, we were sure, for a career in correctional institutions or a job so dirty and arduous that every day would be a living hell like the school days he created for the rest of us.
Instead he ended up on the radio. And replaced his sneering chorus of knuckle-draggers with a lucrative audience of arrested adolescents who never evolved beyond the biting wit of the junior high locker room. Shock radio is programmed for the coveted demographic group known as the 18-to-34s; though Jonathan Dee in The New York Times Magazine argues that the group's buying power and brand loyalty are woefully exaggerated, a quick survey of the media landscape leaves the impression that 18-to-34s are the only customers who count.
Radio, like every medium, treats these dirty-minded Peter Pans with both solicitude and contempt. Don't poll or psychoanalyze them, says market wisdom, just go lower, younger, nastier, dumber, meaner. If they buy professional wrestling, body piercing and Eminem, it's a safe bet that torturing animals, defiling churches and tormenting widows will delight them too. The new motto of the Fox network, trend-setter for the Limbo Society? "It's good to be bad."
I'm not sure that shock radio began with Howard Stern. But I heard him a long time ago in New York when he was still a novelty, with his job in constant jeopardy, and I suppose his profoundly depressing success is the inspiration for every mutant with a microphone who imagines himself embracing P. Diddy at the MTV Awards. Could anyone over 16 fail to notice that shock is poor Howard's only asset? The second he's used it up, he's almost as funny as crib death. Like the sixth-grade towel-snapper, like all talk-show hosts with moribund routines, he shields himself from embarrassed silence with flunkies who laugh like imbeciles at everything he says. Howard is the Mullah Omar of comedy.
A sad thing is that nobody ever loved their work or their medium more than old radio hands, like my friend Lowell Shoemaker. In Florida last spring he was lamenting the tragic decline of radio, from Lowell Thomas and Edward R. Murrow to Stern, Imus, the Love Sponge and the egregious Rush Limbaugh, who outdid himself by gloating openly when the D.C. Sniper proved to be a black Muslim instead of the usual white Christian commando.
I tried to console my friend by pointing out that newspapers and magazines, where I worked most of my life, have been sinking almost as fast. We live in the age of visual saturation, of 24-hour square-screen addiction, and the inert, obese, jaded audience it's producing requires almost thermonuclear stimulation to make its neurons fire. Radio, with the least to offer this audience, has been driven to increasingly hysterical pleas for its attention.
Who's to blame?
Shock jocks are the result, not the cause, of a media society that eats its own entrails. The mean streets have always been crawling with subhuman slugs who'd do anything for lunch money and a dry place to sleep. In the sideshows they used to bite the heads off live chickens; now they butcher pigs, mock widows and orphans and sometimes go into radio syndication. The greater fault lies, of course, with the cynical people who pay them--and the pitiful people who find them amusing.
Listen, if your stomach is strong, to these bottom-feeders invoke the First Amendment. It's another example of sound doctrine for the 18th century colliding with unforeseen realities in the 21st. When the founders drafted our Constitution, they were determined to protect political speech, a free press and all forms of artistic expression. How could they guess that in our day the dominant form of public speech would be commercial seduction? The snake-oil salesmen, the charlatans who in colonial days were frequently tarred and feathered, these are the spiritual fathers of almost all the public expression a contemporary American consumes.
America is a medicine show, and advertising and the trivial entertainment in which it wraps itself are the primary beneficiaries of the First Amendment (the Internet is the next constitutional battleground). Where deceit is the first principle of the marketplace, broadcasters who might muzzle their Beaus and Bubbas out of personal shame become rare birds indeed.
A free society can't legislate shame or regulate decency. We can't dissolve popular culture and declare martial taste. So we've become demoralized in every sense of the word. The world according to 18-to-34s is a world of vulgarity, venality and violence, and to that American Trinity shock radio and "reality" television have added "viciousness." What do the under-18s--or the under-12s, now thoroughly wired into popular culture--make of a media environment where the Four Vs rule, where civility is the anachronism and cruelty is the norm? Does anyone still care how this plays out when children with media-scarred psyches become the programmers and consumers?
Somehow we produced a generation stimulated by shamelessness and fascinated by feral competitions, even by macabre spectacles like the popular Internet video "Bumfights," which shows homeless men pounding each other, pulling out their teeth with pliers and smashing their heads against brick walls for the price of a bottle of wine. (Howard Stern touted it on his radio program, and its producers claim to have sold 300,000 at $19.95 apiece.) The Internet is a medium 18-to-34s have grown up with, and many of its Web sites feature squalid, infantile behavior: verbal hydrophobia, malicious gossip, even character assassinations by thugs who remain anonymous--virtual snipers.
In a world immersed in war and terror, with more murder always brewing, you might argue that a general breakdown of civility and decency is a lesser concern. It is not. We slip into incoherence and barbarity one concession at a time, and a society without shame or compassion--without courtesy--is finally a society no sane person will bother to defend, with a word processor or a rifle. In a contaminated culture, civil rights and political ideals are irrelevant. Democracy means nothing (or only bad things) if the electorate is made up of rhesus monkeys. Freedom means nothing if it's no more than the freedom to act like sociopathic children.
Civilization is a simple thing, really. Jesus Christ asks too much when he tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves. It isn't in us. Even respecting each other, without exception, is a stretch. But we must behave as if we respect each other. When that's lost, there's nothing left but the fire and the Visigoths, and nothing much to mourn.