Way back in college I read this ranting essay written in the 1920s by a conservative preacher, warning of the dangers that the “syncopated rhythms” of Jazz poised to society’s moral fiber. The preacher warned that the inherent sensualism of Jazz would lead to a culture of sexual promiscuity, weakened families and associated social problems. As my professors expected me to, I chortled at the preacher’s fevered concerns. Only years later did a realization strike me:
Our culture did in fact evolve just the way the preacher predicted.
Our culture did become more promiscuous, families are much weaker and we suffer from social problems like drug addiction that existed only on the periphery in the ’20s. We can trace much of this to a more sensualist and self-indulgent culture. We can also say that music and other arts played a significant role in driving that evolution.
Many people extol the arts as so vitally important to our individual and collective existence that they claim we should not allow anything to interfere with the creation and dissemination of any kind of art. Yet those same people vehemently reject the idea that art can foster values that lead to negative acts by individuals. They cannot have it both ways. Either art profoundly affects us for both good and bad or it serves only as trivial decoration which we can easily do without. Clearly, many want the acclaim, status and wealth that creating art brings, without the concatenate responsibility that comes with all creative endeavors.
We have decided, wisely I think, as a society that we will place the onus for behavior on the individual who acts and not on those who may have prompted him to act. We have decided that as individuals we will choose what ideas we consume and that we will accept responsibility for our own actions. (Granted, many different groups continuously challenge this standard.) Unfortunately, I don’t think we developed, or perhaps retained, the concept that only rigorous self-discipline prevents total freedom from destroying us.
The great benefit of the free market is that it will sell you anything you are willing to buy. This usually works out for the best, since individuals best judge what they do and do not need. However, the great threat posed by the free-market is that it will sell you anything you wish to buy. If you wish to buy poison, it will sell you poison. You can buy the rope to hang yourself with.
There is no freer market than the market place of ideas in the contemporary western world. The modern articulate intellectual has created for himself a libertarian paradise on which the rest of us can only gaze with envy. He can sell almost any idea to anyone with zero consequence. Reciprocally, consumers can buy almost any idea no matter the consequences. (The very idea that perhaps we should attach some consequences is treated as an assault on the very foundation of civilization itself. It’s a sweet setup if you can get it.)
Unfortunately, this radically free market sells destructive ideas as readily as creative ones. If individuals do not discipline themselves they can purchase rationales for any behavior no matter how negative that behavior might turn out to be. These rationales come packaged in everything from pop songs to an academic treatise, yet in the end they serve just as any other product we purchase to accomplish some task in our lives. The free market of ideas will sell us any fantasy we wish to buy.
Like any other product, people tend to buy what they see other people buy. They buy those ideas they see high status individuals buying. Ideas become fashion items. We grow into more savvy consumers as we age, but just as with any other product, the young, the poorly educated and the impoverished make worse decisions about the ideas they consume. The young and the poor consume ideas which they lack the experience or knowledge to evaluate. By the time they have obtained enough real-world experience to tell them how counter-productive the ideas are, it is too late. Those of us with the least margin for error end up consuming the most destructive of the fantasies for sale.
So we see the poor increasingly consuming ideas of immediate gratification and personal irresponsibility. The seductiveness of such ideas tempts even the most experienced and educated of us, but for those who already live hard lives the temptation seems overwhelming. Many people maintain their discipline and escape the trap but more and more become mired.
I do not think that any government policy can fix this problem. History suggests such cures are usually worse than the disease. We can, however, stop the hypocrisy of treating art as if it only influences for the good. We should have no qualm about criticizing those who sell destructive ideas just to make a buck. We can also teach our children that in very important ways, ideas are much like any other product, and that if you are willing to buy into an idea, some supposed authority with very impressive credentials will sell it to you.