Vice and Modern Culture


1. Vice, Vice Baby
2. Vice, Ethics, and Our Modern Age
3. The Golden Age

1. Vice, Vice Baby

As the season premier of Madmen captures the attention of the last generation to watch television, and the life of three martini lunches, inappropriate workplace sex, and the causal embrace of sheer venality fades from view. I can't help thinking we're missing something as we evolve into the healthiest and, perhaps, most boring generation ever. My grandfather who, in his short retirement, greeted every morning with a Bloody Caesar, would be ashamed at what we did to his legacy.

This all hit close to home as I sat last night with a friend who, although over fifty, looks like he is entering his forties. He has it covered: a personal trainer, an impeccable diet, a happy marriage. All things in moderation and nothing in excess. He told me about his new regime of super slow weights over a healthy amount of organic red wine while adding some artificial sweetener to a compote of free radical rich strawberries. It occurred to me, as I walked home smoking a virtually illegal cigarette, that if he wasn't careful he might live forever.

This used to be the picture of living large. Or this. Or this. Now, even our fallen icons look pretty fabulous. Our politicians used to reflect our weaknesses and frailties and exuberant awkwardness - even the self-righteous morally smug ones - but these days they are brainy and dry or they stride across the land like supermen.

Look. I get it. I understand the desire to be healthy and risk-averse. But aren't we taking it too far? Is a little drink, a little over-eating, a little tobacco and a little loss of control really so bad? Aren't they character building? Don't we learn from our mistakes? Are the extra years of life-expectancy worth the misery of the acai-whey smoothies and turkey bacon that will get us there?
This is going to come out wrong but a bad role model is getting hard to find. If professional athletes (and here and here and here and so on) weren't working so hard to show us the virtues of embracing an unhealthy lifestyle, I would lose hope altogether. - Beta.

2. - Vice, Ethics, And Our Modern Age

So, let me see if I have this right...we have less vice today, and we are boringly pure, because we learned from the mistakes made by past generations who wallowed in vice; but we should bring back some of that vice now, because, well, it is helpful to learn from one's mistakes. Right.

But there is actually a much more serious issue here. Because I actually don't think that we (in North America at any rate) are any more free of "vice" today - vice here meaning conduct that is considered immoral, corrupt, or depraved. Far from it, I think our vice is much more pernicious today than it was back in the '50s or '60s. Oh sure, we have sworn off the boozy lunches, openly shagging the secretary, and engaging in flagrantly racist behavior (though given the escapades of Spitzer, Sanford, Craig, and a host of other politicians deep in sexual scandal, vice related to Venus is still very much apparent). But eating granola and working out doesn't equate to being ethical.

On the contrary, we are quite possibly a much more deeply unethical society now than the era championed in Madmen. And consider that Madmen is this generation's view of that era. Back then, the era saw itself in terms of Leave It To Beaver. Neither is likely very accurate, but consider how we represent our own era. Watch any representation of the best serious TV drama, and what do you see? From House, through Law and Order, West Wing, The Wire, ER, 24, CSI, you name it - the best written, best acted and best produced TV - and what do you see?

You see representations of successful people, usually members of professions such as lawyers, cops, and doctors (or the President for that matter), represented as admirable protagonists, engaging in deeply unethical behavior in order to get ahead, to get the girl, to beat the competition, or on rare occasions to achieve a noble goal. But the lesson is that ruthless utilitarian calculus is not only ok, it is in fact necessary for success. It is the basis of the game. People who adhere to values and principles are naive, they are putzs who will get eaten by the sharks, left on the side of the road like so much road-kill. And that is the message from high-value TV. Turn on reality TV, starting with the original Survivor, or talk-show TV, and you get this message on steroids.

And of course, this doesn't just reflect reality, it helps shape it. The U.S. military felt it necessary to approach the producers of 24 to complain that its depictions of torture was negatively influencing the conduct of troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. Meanwhile, lawyers in the Office of Legal Counsel and the White House were busy perverting the law and subverting the constitution, in violation of their personal professional responsibility and code of ethics, in memos that authorized torture, rendition, and a host of other activities that make Madmen look like Little House on the Prairie.

So, next time you are chatting with some effervescent co-worker over a cup of Sensha tea and edamame, wistfully wishing for the good old days of vice as you observe just how wrapped up he is in saving the planet from global warming, his own health and fitness, and his purported liberal views on diversity, just remember that he is plotting how to take you out at the knees, bang your wife, and get the boss' job - just like he saw on TV. - Gamma.

3. - The Golden Age

Ethical societies - like ethical people - are not perfect. They often transgress. What ethics do is make us understand the consequences of our actions. They pull them out of the past and bubble them up. In the U.S. (and, to a lesser extent, Canada) the free press and power of free speech leaves no stone unturned. What you're seeing is not a less ethical world but, frankly, a higher standard than ever before.

Don't fall for the myth of the ethical past. The golden age when the golden rule bound us all. Atticus Finch never existed (and apparently was a racist anyway). For most people caught up in the justice system there was no legal aid, no public defender, limited procedural rights, widespread capital punishment, hard labour, and institutional racism. If none of that got you, there was always the lynch mob. I wouldn't get too worked up about Jack McCoy.

Abu Ghraib was bad. So too was Dick Cheney. And the CIA really shouldn't have been considering outsourcing execution. But it is not new. War crimes, the subversion of the constitution and attempts to kill foreign nationals were practiced with more gusto in the past. They just were never exposed to this extent before. It wasn't that our gin-swilling, ass-pinching, cholesterol-eating, racist, corrupt forebears were better people, rather they could count on being protected by the very institutions that we now rely on to deliver exposure.

As for you? That is an awful lot of television you're watching. Maybe too much. If you got up off of the couch and out into the world, you'll find, once your eyes adjust to the natural light, that things aren't so bad as all that. In fact, although a little boring, they've never been better.

If that's too much to ask, there's always Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. Now those were the good old days, eh? - Beta.



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