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Culture crash between two generations

Does every older generation peer out at the passing spectacle of popular culture, listen to the frenetic music, observe the fickle trends and styles, balk at the egregious behavior, and conclude that all is lost? Is that why someone came up with the bumper sticker that says, "Where are we going and why am I in this basket?"

Have we dropped into some abyss where civility and decorum are frayed and eroded to the point of no return? Are the boundaries between what is appropriate publicly and privately becoming so blurred as to be all but indistinguishable? Are we living through a tipping point?

Or is all that we observe just manifestations of a dynamic and ever changing society? A culture that is vigorous and impelling, potent because of our freedoms, and definitely showing no sclerotic signs of slowing down any time soon.

There are some markers that might raise concerns. Or not. There's language. If you've listened to adolescents talking among themselves recently, perhaps you've noticed that profanity is growing ever more common, sprinkled casually through the language with little reservation or thought. Vulgarities once reserved for the most private and dire moments, the F word for example, are now slowly creeping into the common language with growing acceptance.

One doesn't have to look far for another example. Language in films has changed, as it has on television. There was a time when Clark Gable shocked the world when he said the words, "Frankly my dear, I don't give a..."

It is an interesting phenomena, this change in language and public/private behavior. Perhaps significant of nothing; or significant of a great deal. Our mores regarding language, sexuality, a sense of privacy, dress, are all in flux. People appear on national television and actually answer questions of the most personal nature, revealing themselves to be liars, profoundly duplicitous, acting as if Larry King was their father confessor and they were alone in a dark room. Until they take calls from the audience. Skin is in.

Reality television rules; call it voyeurism R US. Or a passion for the prurient. Recall when our country endured a most public airing of the President of the United States' most private moments off the oval office, discussing in open forum intimate behavior that went beyond the pale. In fact, the Republicans were all but apoplectic, ramping up impeachment proceedings to illustrate their shock. And while the president seemed angry, often combative, he never seemed genuinely ashamed, arguing instead what the meaning of is is. You would have thought he would have crawled under Lincoln's bed and refused to come out. Good grief. Most recently, it's been Sen. Larry Craig and his toe tapping men's room sortie, explained in painful detail by the Senator, with his wife sitting by his side.

Western culture is in constant flux, and trying to comprehend fully the meaning of the most current metamorphosis, in all its vagaries, is like trying to peer into a kaleidoscope while driving over a bumpy road. Just when you think you've got a clear view, all is jarred loose. We have only to look at American society in the first half of the 20th century to know that public life was formal, bound by a rigid decorum, a decorum made manifest through dress, language and manners. People put leggings on bare piano legs.

Today, our codes of behavior have all but disappeared. People dress and talk in whatever way moves them (remember when everyone who flew on a plane dressed as if they were going to church?). There is little restraint, or self-censorship.

Or, perhaps the new code is that there are few agreed upon codes.

Of course, we can't have a law for every aspect of behavior. There has to be agreement and compliance, allowing us to live together with some semblance of harmony. Going with the flow works when you turn on the faucet. But in life, well. We still wait in lines, wait our turn, we open doors for one another (or not), try not to talk in movie theaters (but do check our cell phones at odd moments), we respect a thousand unspoken rules (while ignoring a bunch) that make our daily lives manageable and in the aggregate define civility. If those rules begin to erode, if behavior becomes mindless and selfish, then the quality of our lives is commensurately degraded.

We live at a particular moment in history, share our lives with millions of other, an it's a time unlike any that has come before or will come after. Qualitatively, is it better or worse than one hundred years ago? Or the fifties? Was pre-industrial America niftier? Is our contemporary culture in terminal decline? Is the dumbing down of America happening right before our eyes, where public debates of critical issues are eclipsed by energetic discussions of the inconsequential?

Not a clue.

What is irrefutable is that as a member of the madding crowd we get to grumble or extoll depending. Hence, if a loud raspberry seems appropriate, well let'er rip. Openly, without concern or fear. Hang the code. The first amendment still rules. And that singular fact is not open to change or challenge (though the censors will certainly try). It is and ever should be immutable and for that we can give thanks.