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When it comes to culture clash, is it inevitable?

Does every older generation peer out at the passing spectacle of popular culture, listen to the frenetic music, observe the fickle trends and styles, shudder at so much egregious behavior and then conclude that all is lost?

Are we dropping into some abyss where civility and decorum have been 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? Or is all that we watch from that staid place in the cheap seats, field center, 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 or suffering a serious flameout any time soon?

If you&

ve listened to adolescents (and celebrities) 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 common usage with growing acceptance.

You don&

t have to look far for an example. Take in a movie, such as &

The 40-Year Old Virgin,&

which did major business since its release and declares with every frame that nothing is sacrosanct.

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, however, are clearly in flux. People write tell-all books and appear on national television, addressing questions of the most personal nature, revealing themselves to be liars, profoundly duplicitous, and generally despicable. Reality television rules; call it Voyeurism R Us.

Remember when our country endured a most public and prurient airing of the president of the United States&

most private moments, discussing in open forum intimate behavior that went beyond the pale. And while the president seemed angry, often combative, he never seemed ashamed, arguing instead what the meaning of &


is. And at the center of the brouhaha was a topic that begged for 10 good metaphors.

Professional athletes and professional fans often symbolize the worst not the best in sports, their behavior on the field and in the stands reduced to the lowest common denominator. Steroids have made cheaters out of our heroes. Players spit at umpires and fans spit at players (or worse). Teams brawl. Fans brawl. If your team loses, hometown fans consider that loss license to riot, destroying property and taking on the police. The post game trashing of streets, cars and small businesses is no longer atypical.

And trying to comprehend fully the meaning of all this egregious behavior and trash talk is like trying to peer into a kaleidoscope while driving over a bumpy road. Just when you think you&

ve got the cultural drama in focus, it slips away.

We have only to look at American society in the first half of the 20th century to know that public life was far more formal, bound by a rigid decorum, a decorum made manifest through dress, language and manners. There was a time when the decorum police covered the legs of pianos.

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 nice restaurant?). There is little restraint or self-censorship. Or, perhaps the new code is that there are few agreed-upon codes. People sit in waiting areas, on trains and in restaurants, and have private conversations on cell phones in the most public way. And if codes of conduct do exist, they are often framed by adolescents and young entertainers: Brittany Spears, J.Lo, Brad and Angelina, Puff Daddy aka P. Diddy aka Diddy, the artist formerly known as Prince, Paris Hilton, the latest American Idol. All represent that age group which is emulated in dress and speech and attitude in America, for we are a people who worship at the altar of all that is youthful, splendidly fresh and young and stunningly immature.

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. We wait in lines, we wait our turn, we open doors for one another, we don&

t talk in movie theaters, we respect a thousand unspoken rules that make our daily lives manageable, even pleasant, and define civility. Or not. If those rules begin to erode, if behavior becomes mindless and selfish, then the quality of our lives is incrementally degraded.

So what does it all mean? Not a clue.

All of us, right this minute, live at a particular moment in history, unlike anything that has come before or that will follow. Qualitatively, is it better or worse than 100 years ago? Or during the &

50s? Is our 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?

Hard to say. Nevertheless, stay tuned. It&

s quite a ride.