Five years ago a book I wrote was published. The title: Culture Leads Leaders Follow. I looked back, gathered my thoughts, spent a lot of time by myself and then turned the manuscript over to the publisher.
In some ways the book’s theme presented a puzzle. If leaders in the Arts, Professions, Business and Government just follow along, where does culture start? Are there springs that are the sources of the cultural stream or is it all just runoff?
Where I grew up, in a flyover-State, most assumed the culture, and in particular what they didn’t like, was shaped by forces on the coasts—especially in Hollywood and New York City.
What about Washington, the nation’s Capitol? Does culture-shaping start there? Since elected politicians take polls and then try to make a majority happy, Washington is not a very likely candidate. But then it derives its power in the context of the culture. Regardless of how you look at culture it will double back on you. Plus, some things that are claimed to be indices of contemporary culture turn out to have been just trends.
Also, culture-shaping events happen in fly-over-country. Derick Chauvin killed George Floyd in Minneapolis and was convicted of murder by twelve Minnesotans. And the Mayor of Chicago recently said she would only allow journalists of color to interview her. Certainly the George Floyd killing invites a book, not just a chapter, in our cultural past and future.
Washington, of course, wants to be in charge of everything, including parts of the entertainment culture. The Congress has attempted to protect children from “indecent broadcasting” and put the Federal Communications Commission in charge of the definition and enforcement. My entanglement with culture-shaping began when I was Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and faced off with the “shock jock” of the day, Howard Stern. A guy in Los Angeles filed complaints resulting from Howard Stern’s vulgar shtick on his radio show. The FCC acted; in time Stern decamped from broadcast radio, but certainly not from the entertainment culture.
Most observers today point to wide open social media and its addictive characteristics as an overarching problem. If you follow China, then you know that President Xi certainly believes so along with an assortment of autocrats around the world. In other words, too much unfiltered freedom.
The Stern affair loops back to George Carlin’s use of profanity and a famous court decision that excepted “seven dirty words” from constitutional protection. Forty-three years later society seems to have normalized several of those words.
In politics, Donald Trump, exercising his First Amendment rights, suggested Ted Cruz’s father, Rafael, might have been complicit in the assassination of President John F Kennedy. In response, Senator Cruz said, “I’m going to do something I haven’t done for the entire campaign: I’m going to tell you what I really think of Donald Trump…… This man is a pathological liar.” Now Cruz is one of Trump’s “apologists”. Power politics is the real trump in Washington.
In many ways the normalization of crude words and expressions and the rejection of democratic America are two of the most destabilizing changes in the American culture in my lifetime. Let me unpack the latter.
The voters, and then the States, and then the Courts, and finally the Congress on January 6th said that Joe Biden was elected President. But, before the election was certified by the Congress the House of Representatives chamber was attacked by a mob incited by the soon-to-be former President.
Yet, if polls can be believed, a majority of those who identify as Republicans believe Donald Trump’s radically self-serving claim, that he won the election. It is important to understand that to believe Trump’s claim, America’s institutions of democracy must be considered corrupt—its legislatures, its election authorities, its courts and finally its Congress.
A philosopher, widely believed to be the father of modern conservatism, Edmund Burke, wrote about passions. Here is a brief excerpt:
“Society cannot exist unless a controlling power on will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.”
Fetters are chains. Our cultural intemperance is assaulting our freedoms. Are chains or its stand-in to follow?