We Americans talk about sex publicly all the time these days, but it rarely dawns on America’s cultural warriors that foreigners overhear these conversations. The consequences are not always trivial.
Yes, you read that right. We Americans have sex, sometimes, but we talk about it publicly all the time these days, especially the kind that tends to dwell at the sloughs of the bell curve of normality. We generally assume—without letting ourselves in on the assumption most of the time, so self-absorbed are we—that the cultural conversations we have on subjects sexual stay in the United States, if not in Vegas. It rarely dawns on America’s cultural warriors that foreigners overhear these conversations, and that they also consume our sexually vulgarized popular culture productions through exported movies and television serials. Some of these foreigners are Middle Easterners, and the narrative produced by American writers and readers, producers and viewers, affects the image of American society—our politics and policies with it—in the region. The consequences are not always trivial.
I will discuss what some of these consequences are in a moment. But some table setting must precede that discussion, so that it may alight in an intelligible context.
All the American culture-war topics surrounding variable human sexuality—same-sex rights and marriage, abortion, surrogacy, and, lately, campus sexual assaults as a sub-category of generic violence against woman—attract great buckets of ink on a regular basis. Most of these buckets are the property of the post-bourgeois salon Left, which has rendered the American Left as a whole so drunk on culture-war juice that it spends almost no effort on the political economy issues that used to be its raison d’etre. The country is arguably much worse off as a result.
Let me put my cards on the table before we go any further: I’m sick of it all, especially the obsessions of the Sunday New York Times Magazine, whose editors seem to have great difficulty getting their heads out of their, or other people’s, crotches. I am unashamedly old-fashioned: I think public discussion of intimate sexual matters is unseemly, a word that has become as quaint as outlandish mass-culture fare has become hideously sexualized. I don’t care if the subject to hand is essentially heterosexual in nature, or homosexual, transsexual, omnisexual, multisexual, interspecies-sexual, or all the other kinds of sexual that I’m sure exist but know nothing about. I could not give a damn what consenting adults do with their genitalia in private, but I don’t need or want to hear about it in public—and these days you nearly have to hole up in a mountain cave somewhere to escape it.
For similar reasons I don’t like “acclaimed” television shows like Law and Order, because the relentless focus on pedophilia and other disgusting para-sexual behaviors is coarsening, just as all the over-the-top, gratuitous violence on offer 24/7 in the American electronic sewer is coarsening. The late George Gerbner, of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School of Communications, used to study the effects of these kinds of mediated displays and came up with the concept of the mean-world syndrome. Gerbner showed through meticulous empirical research that people who watched this kind of stuff on a regular basis tended to exaggerate significantly real-life incidences of crime, violence, infidelity, sexual abuse and suicide.
By “norming” such behaviors through ceaseless discussion and fictive depiction, many people come to believe that they are not only more prevalent but also less morally deviant. The net result of more coarsening images is more coarsening behavior; life does indeed imitate art, even very bad art. The corporate sponsors and fat-cat producers of this fare earn big market-share bucks from offering the scintillating and the sexually weird, creepy and gross, so they don’t care. (And to think that there are actually lighter-than-air libertarians out there who believe that only government can undermine American society’s moral values….) And nowadays they must offer it or they will be at a competitive disadvantage with those who have no qualms at all about doing so.
To this race to the bottom I have given a generic name: scoundrel cascades. It simply means that people will do what they know to be improper or harmful by using the excuse that if they don’t do it, less morally constrained others will put them at a competitive disadvantage. First only a few people cross over to the dark side, and are seen to profit from so doing; then the number doubles, then quadruples, and so on until one has a behavioral cascade within a given market niche or professional zone. This leads in due course to the decay of institutions. It is bad.
There are also virtue cascades. Trailblazers sometimes clean up delimited market activities, as, arguably, Brahmin Boston bankers did at the end of the 19th century, and they profit from a reputation for probity, honesty and empathy that the morally uplifted behavior justifiably produces. In a way, “green” or organic food producers, by basking in the secular godhead of environmental correctness, are doing something similar today—they are creating a virtue cascade within our food supply chain. That is good, whether their reasons and science are impure or imperfect or not.
This raises a social science question: Under what conditions do scoundrel cascades get started, under what conditions do virtue cascades arise, and under what conditions does one kind of cascade reverse its valance and change directions? It seems to me that as a matter of public policy generally, we would be wise to get ourselves an answer to this question.
Alas, we seem to have no idea. I recently asked a prominent social scientist whose very métier is the origins and vicissitudes of moral behavior to have a go at this question for the magazine, and he did not understand what I meant by a scoundrel or a virtue cascade. When I explained it, and added my sense that we are witness today to many more scoundrel cascades than virtue cascades (think offshore banking lawyers and accountants, think big bankers in general for that matter, think professional athletes and banned substances, think insider traders, think rock and rap music lyricists, think plagiarism or outright fabrication in journalism, think lying in resumes, think excessive and accelerating uses of dangerous hormones in animal feed, and one can go on and on), he questioned whether in America today there is more morally smarmy behavior than there was in the past. That stopped me dead in my tracks; I was flat-out gobstruck speechless—dipped chin, flared nostrils, wide eyes and all. And despite having left the speechwriting racket more than nine years ago, I am rarely speechless.
Now, we have never been a nation of goody two-shoes, to be sure; the brilliant historian Walter McDougall has rightly insisted that hucksterism is at least as American as anything noble, or anything resembling apple pie, that we claim as a heritage. And it’s true, too, that the 1950s and 1960s before the counterculture set roots were an unusually antiseptic time, what with the Cold War in gear and piety advancing on the Potomac, and so may not be a proper comparative base. Still, it beggars belief that America is still more like Bedford Falls than Pottersville today than it was when Ozzie and Harriet, Leave It to Beaver, Lassie, and Father Knows Best were the hit television shows—and no, I am not ignoring segregation and the other high misanthropies of that era.
Whatever their shortcomings in tolerating bigotry of various sorts, the gatekeepers were still at the gates enforcing some moral order, and hypocrisy still played the critical role that it alone can play as the homage that vice pays to virtue, as la Rochefoucauld famously put it. Without hypocrisy we are sunk, for the alternative to high standards is not low standards; it’s eventually no standards at all—which in matters sexual is pretty much where we are now, it seems to me. (As Mary Eberstadt argued already some years ago, we seem to have transferred our moral taboos from sex to food—as in homosexuality is fine, but transfats are sinful.) If I’m wrong about all this, if Americans as a whole are as honest and truthful and unselfish and fidel to their spouses today as they were fifty and a hundred and two hundred years ago, OK: Show me.
Just in case you were wondering, I’m no prude. I chased plenty of women in my time, and even caught a few willing ones back in the day (which is another way of saying that some of them were kind enough to let me think that I caught them). It’s the PC salon Left that lately wins the prude prize. Case in point: The amazing law recently passed in California (where else?) on affirmative consent in sexual relations on campus.
According to the NYT, colleges must require “affirmative conscious and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity.” Moreover, the Times informs us that the law mandates such consent for each phase of a sexual encounter, without explicitly defining what those phases are: “Consent to one kind of contact cannot be taken to mean consent to another. So an encounter that progresses from kissing to intercourse would require not one go-ahead but several.” The California law stipulates, again without actually defining it, that consent can be communicated verbally (they didn’t dare say orally) or through actions, but other such codes in other states require written consent, which we are told can range from a short statement to up to two pages.
Now, I understand why college leaders are allowing and even asking legislators for such codes. On the one hand, they don’t want to be sued out of their endowment funds, and on the other they may be genuinely alarmed by what they construe to be an upsurge of sexual abuse and violence, often in tandem with binge drinking. Given the “mean-world syndrome”, not so speak of the wild proliferation of internet porn and exhibitionism, there is reason to worry about a real upsurge and not just a skewed reporting phenomenon going on here. If the new campus sexual consent codes prove effective in containing and even rolling back the problem—which probably qualifies as a scoundrel cascade of sorts, too—then I can tolerate them. If they lead to less pre-marital intercourse among young people who have barely begun to solve the riddle that connects sex to love, so much the better. (I freely admit than when I was 23, as opposed to 63, I probably would have taken a different view.)
That said, we should recognize such sexual codes, no less than campus speech codes, for what they are: Efforts by dreary, killjoy social authoritarians to apply governance to aspects of private life where it doesn’t belong in a society claiming to esteem liberty. Beyond bringing the spirit of Taylorism into the bedroom, PC radicals will doubtless abuse such codes in the name of and as a means to peddle the mindless amorphous egalitarianism that has become the secular religion of many. We already see some of this, I am informed, in the way these codes are being presented, with the names of individuals in hypothetical scenarios being void of gender identification. So it’s always someone named Jamie or Pat or Sam or Jess, because the ideologically necessary if bizarre PC presumption is that young women are as likely to sexually aggress against men as men are against women, and that the problem is by no means limited to heterosexuals. Maybe; I really wouldn’t know.
There is of course no excuse for sexual abuse or violence, up to and certainly including rape. I have never struck a woman, not even my baby daughter’s tiny butt back in the day when her exuberant kicking made it mighty challenging to get her diaper on. The whole idea is sickening to me, as it is to my two grown sons. But that’s not really at issue in these codes, which are not needed for clear-cut cases of violent abuse. They rather seek to regulate and so need to routinize inherently ambiguous human behavior that is decidedly foreign to such impositions. Sexual encounters between young and relatively inexperienced individuals—and I mean emotionally inexperienced more than I mean inexperienced in technique—are frequently less than clearly staged (if memory serves me correctly). Whether slightly inebriated or not, part of the mystique—and part of the enjoyment—is the sweet uncertainty with which such encounters begin (never mind the kinds of uncertainties that usually attend their conclusion). If both participants knew ahead of time where the first sexual opportunity with a certain person would lead, it would rob the experience of much of its allure. It would cease being an adventure, which, by its very nature, poses the possibility of risk and regret as well as of satisfaction and serenity.
I don’t mean to make light of the dilemma, but when I try to picture the actual implementation of a multi-stage written sexual consent code, I double over in paroxysms of laughter. Try to picture Pat and Jess, their clothing loosened and cast hither and yon, their breathing quickening and audible, their body parts vibrating to music on the stereo (could it still possibly be Pachelbel’s Canon?), and their tongues launched on journeys toward salty destinations when, suddenly, Jess interrupts their romantic embrace and flatly states: “Pat, you’ve got to sign this paper before I can lick your [fill in the blank……use your imagination].”
If you don’t find this hilarious, then I cannot help you. Do the sex code writers really expect an already consummated couple, so to speak, who met a month before in English lit class, Jamie and Sam say, to calmly discuss beforehand the nuance of whether they are going to make love, have sex, or rut like beasts of the field? Oh, how I long to know what the late George Carlin would have done with such material, unseemly by nature as it may be and as he often was (though usually for some redeeming purpose).
But the PC crowd that thinks up this stuff does not find anything about it the least bit funny. As best I can tell from a safe distance, campus Big Sister is totally humorless, thus managing the improbable feat of being unseemly, inane and tedious all at the same time.
Now what, finally at long last, has all this to do with the Middle East? The answer is “plenty”, but I will be brief.
To one extent or another, all Muslim Middle Eastern societies (to include those of North Africa, the Sahel and Southwest Asia), Arab and non-Arab alike, maintain traditional attitudes toward human sexuality and to how that subject in its various manifestations may and may not be discussed in public. I do not mean by this that these societies are free from pre- or post-modern sexual perversity; on the contrary, there is plenty of perversity and arguably no shortage of sexual neuroses as well from Morocco to Egypt to Pakistan and back again. But the public optic conveys a very different image, and toleration for what is defined as deviant behavior is low. This is not hard for Americans of a certain age to understand, for Middle Easterners’ attitudes toward homosexuality, out-of-wedlock sex, abortion and so forth are more or less indistinguishable from mainstream American attitudes a mere half century ago. Take careful note: We are the ones who have changed, and by normal social-historical criteria, the change has been blindingly rapid.
Middle Easterners are regularly sideswiped by our mean-world syndrome, both the sexualized parts and the other parts. But unlike Americans, they lack the day-by-day encounter with American reality that might leaven their perceptions. So a female Peace Corps volunteer shows up in a Moroccan village and an 11-year old boy asks her to show him her gun. In her surprise, she laughs and tells him that she doesn’t have a gun. He doesn’t believe her because he knows from American television shows and movies that all Americans carry guns, that all American women are either prostitutes or victims of sexual predation, that there are hardly any grandparents or old people in America, and that there are no families where mothers and fathers live together with their own children. In short, compared to their own social surroundings, Middle Eastern Muslims see an America that is the consequence of multiple, protracted scoundrel cascades.
This raises a weird but telling paradox. Many young Middle Easterners admire American political institutions but not the wiles and ways of American society. And they have a point. Their countries’ political institutions are mostly pathetic or worse, but their societies generally are not. If a foreigner forgets her cash-stuffed purse in a schoolroom she has visited in Cairo or Ramallah or Tunis, Arabs will fall over one another to return it to the owner, cash included. Would the same happen in a reversed situation in St. Louis or Atlanta or Washington, DC? Maybe, but maybe not. You don’t have to factor in the mean-world syndrome to guess the answer.
But, you object, can’t these people distinguish fact from fiction? After all, they’re neither stupid nor primitive. True, they are neither stupid nor primitive, but the conventions of what is fictive and how it is produced are not homogeneous across cultures: Societies can be different without some being “superior” or “better” than the others. The answer, then, is sometimes a flat “no”, as in the case of rural Pashtuns who thought a BBC radio serial “soap opera” skillfully designed to inject “good values” regarding women’s rights and various hygiene/medical issues was real. When the show ended, some of its fans wanted to know what had happened to the people, if they were all right, and where exactly in Afghanistan they lived so that they could extend offers of hospitality. The answer is sometimes more complicated than “no”, because again, as Lawrence Rosen points out in Varieties of Muslim Experience, not all cultures offer up the same mix of raw social material for fictive, artistic or symbolic manipulation. Suffice it to say, we should protectively assume that the answer is “no”, they cannot readily distinguish fact from fiction at the margins, especially when they lack anything like a reliable reality check about America.
The favorite rhetorical question asked here after 9/11 was “Why do they hate us?” The answer to this question is that it was and remains the wrong question. The typical tradition-minded Middle Easterner does not hate America. But rather a lot of tradition-minded Middle Easterners are disgusted by America. There is a difference.
The rise of “gay rights” discourse and especially of the gay marriage controversy to the pinnacle of American politics—all the way to the Supreme Court—befuddles and disgusts most of them. The immodesty and downright salaciousness of American “low” fashion, especially for women, repels and disgusts them, too. The manifest disrespect shown to elders and teachers alarms and disgusts them. The now deeply embedded linguistic obscenity in American culture, whether in some forms of popular music or just in overheard speech, repulses and disgusts them. And not that violence against women and homosexuals is unknown to them in their own societies—again, very much to the contrary—but the casual pervasiveness of it in Americans’ own depictions of American society shocks and disgusts them, too.
Above all, the deafeningly public character of all this—the banishment of useful hypocrisy, in other words—puzzles and disgusts to the point that many of them think we have simply gone mad. To figure out why so few Middle Easterners were won over by President Obama’s famous Cairo speech, and all the other speeches designed to project American “soft power” into the Muslim world (just check recent polling data to measure the failure), you need to understand this backdrop.
There have been other consequences, as well. It is a disturbing oversimplification to conclude from all this that al-Qaeda attacked America because a hedonistic salon Left’s influence on American culture disgusted them to the point that they could no longer bear it. But it was one element of a multipronged motivation. And so it remains: Read Sayyid Qutb’s famous memoir of his sojourn in America, back at a time (1948-50) when America was still Bedford Falls, if you want to get a better feel for these sensibilities. As a fish is the last to discover water, most Americans have become jaded to the point of non-discernment with respect their own cultural circumstances. But Arabs and Turks and Kurds and Pashtuns and Berbers who come to America to study in their impressionable youth are not jaded, and they do not all return home as fans of American culture or society, particularly of the way we conduct ourselves when it comes to matters sexual.
I don’t know how California’s sexual consent on campus code will strike Middle Easterners once they get wind of it. When they learn that the codes are being imposed because elite young Americans are so often hammered, let alone that on a regular basis they cavort around their coed dorms like horny satyrs and nymphs, they will not be surprised. Their default expectation of us is already one of disgust at our immodesty, disrespect, materialism and impatience. Will they find any of this as funny as I do? Well, I’m headed back to the Arab Gulf for a few days later this month, and I intend to ask. I’ll let you know what I find out.