Moral Consternation, Damnit
By A.D. Freudenheim  

7 March 2004

At dinner the other night, a discussion began about the silliness behind Justin Timberlake’s exposure of Janet Jackson’s sunburst-covered breast during the Super Bowl half-time performance. As we debated whether or not the entire episode was rigged – by the performers, by the costume designers, or perhaps by the management at CBS and the NFL – one among us remarked that Osama bin Laden was right: that we live in a degenerate culture.

It was a most unsettling statement, one that recalls the comments of the Reverends Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson after the attacks of 11 September 2001, where they placed the blame for this unprecedented act of terrorism on the shoulders of a variety of Americans, from homosexuals to abortionists to just plain-old liberals. Surely, these two ministers argued, these attacks were a sign from god that we, the American people, have lost our way – undoubtedly also Mr. bin Laden’s sentiments.[1] And just as surely was the Jackson-Timberlake-Super Bowl fiasco another sign of the complete devolution of television into degeneracy. Reverend Falwell even wrote one of his “Falwell Confidential” e-mail missives about the episode, urging his supporters to contact CBS and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to protest against the “usual rubbish that is routinely pumped into American homes.”[2]

Bin Laden and the Reverends Robertson and Falwell seem to share many of the same beliefs: about the immorality of homosexuality; that women aren’t entitled to the same political or moral rights as men; and the sense that, when left to their own devices, people tend to stray from some of the stricter teachings of the “good book,” whether that book is the Koran or the New Testament, and need to be kept in line more actively. No doubt the reverends would favor a morality police, such as the one instituted by the former Taliban regime and likely supported conceptually by Mr. Bin Laden.

Degeneracy is a tough word, though, and the accusation of a degenerate culture even more complicated. It calls to mind the exhibition of so-called “degenerate art” organized by the Nazi regime in 1933, which collected the works of some of the greatest artists of the 20th century under one roof, but did so as means to condemn not only the art and the artists, but any and all elements of German society considered undesirable by the Nazis. I have a hard time believing that a breast – even one sporting a piercing of a sunburst, and even one unveiled by someone other than the breast’s rightful owner – is inherently degenerate. Nor do I consider the action a reflection of a degenerate culture. Stupid actions by stupid individuals, perhaps; poor choices by people seeking attention, most likely. A sign of a broadly degenerate culture? No. To condemn an entire culture is to condemn the people who live it. And to make such statements only puts any of us that much closer to arguing that drastic actions of the kind for which Mr. Bin Laden is known have some justification, either out of the need to destroy one culture or to “save” another.

I agree with Reverend Falwell when he says that most American television networks pump rubbish into our homes and our lives; and I think the Jackson-Timberlake-Super Bowl incident was shameful and stupid. But the awfulness of it all has less to do with some underlying moral decay than with a sadness – and an internal conflict – that sits at the heart of our culture of instant gratification. If breasts were to be bared, people should have been warned; as much as I believe there is nothing inherently wrong with breasts, people have a right not to see them, and to control whether or not their children see them. Still: it was just a breast. The Super Bowl is all about violent competition, less skill than brute force and strength-in-numbers. A breast, on the other hand, is about the opposite, whether as a means for sustaining life or as an object of sexual desire. In a more perfect world, we should be grateful to Jackson for reminding us that there is more to life than a nearly-orgiastic 3-hours of men in tight clothes charging into each other. With or without Jackson’s breast, the Super Bowl is hardly good television fare for children anyway, and Falwell’s protests ring hollow in complaining about Jackson’s breast, but not about the violence that surrounded it; likewise do the investigative actions of the FCC seem off-target, and the many, many news articles about this subject, too.

Ultimately, that we as a society seem so upset and confused about the entire incident seems to me to reveal not so much a culture of degeneracy as an elemental discomfort with our very humanness. To paraphrase Dr. Freud, sometimes a breast is just a breast. Disguising our collective cultural prudishness under a coating of moral outrage is only likely to lead us astray, towards the kind of socially-totalitarian world envisioned by Osama Bin Laden, the Taliban, and others. If any path seems quite literally degenerate – as in, indicative of a decay of our values – it is the one that leads us away from liberty and freedom under the guise of a higher, ostensibly more moral authority.

[1] See for some choice quotes.
[2] Google has a cache of the original “Falwell Confidential” column, distributed on 5 February 2004, here. It was also published by WorldNetDaily on 7 February 2004 as a commentary piece by Falwell titled “Let’s clean up TV for good!”, and can be found here:
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