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Our vulgarized culture corrupts us all

Why is it, each time I think about this ugly season of violence in America, that certain words and phrases keep popping into my head? “Nobody’s guilty.” “Words are not at fault.” “Nothing leads to anything else.”

One can, of course, assume infinite varieties of mental and moral breakdowns on the part of individuals behind actions like the blessedly unsuccessful mail bombs sent to leading Democratic Party figures and the tragic deaths in the synagogue in Pittsburgh. And yet nothing seems to answer the question of “Why?”

First, of course, we have the perfervid denials by President Trump and many Republicans that his words and speeches have anything to do with the recent violence. His vulgar language? His repeated demagogic admonitions to his semi-hysterical crowds to punch somebody in the mouth? His teenage bad-boy joy at the idea of body-slamming reporters, those “enemies of the people”?

No! In his eyes, or at least in his expressions, those acts stand by themselves, alone in time like outposts on the edge of a moral wilderness no one understands, without roots from inside or inspiration from outside. They just sort of ... happen.

Indeed, the president tweeted at the height of last week’s crises, “The ‘Fake News’ is doing everything in their power to blame Republicans, Conservatives and me for the division and hatred that has been going on for so long in our Country.” Then, without missing a beat, he went on to complain that he had had a “bad hair day” when he got caught in the rain.

Nor can one dismiss the idea that President Trump was indirectly politically complicit in the murder of respected Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi when he set the tone for Washington-Middle Eastern affairs through his love affair with the still-retrograde Saudi monarchy. (Remember his joyous “sword dance” in Riyadh on his first presidential trip overseas?)

His behavior – and words – with the Saudis unquestionably gave them the idea they could do anything without the White House even murmuring disapproval. And that’s exactly what they did.

But President Trump is far from the only purveyor of the idea that words and images do not have consequences or that ideas live lone and distant from the inner selves that push us to action – or to better selves.

Many on the liberal side are guilty of similar “sins” against society, but their journey to moral emptiness takes the form of often shocking movies, of sex and violence on cable television that no one could have dreamed possible only 20 years ago, plus the generally vulgarized public culture.

Hence the success of the fight to abolish any form of regulation or moral censorship, as there was with the Hays Code from 1930 to 1968 in movie production.

The liberals are equally willing to say, as Trump does, that yes, there may be movie or television scenes that could be seen as invitations to rape and murder, but, hey, the people “out there” just absorb it all; these scenes have no effect on anyone’s actions, and no one needs feel guilty about anything. Their motto, too, seems to be that nothing leads to nothing.

But what has happened here goes far beyond even Donald J. Trump or the Hollywood liberals. It is that we have lost sight of and feeling for the context of our national life. Context abjures the lonely parts and focuses on the protective weave of a nation’s life; context is the way we are able to understand how one part of our society relates to another; and context is also in part the manner in which we understand how words and actions lead to either noble aspirations or to ignoble ones.

We hear a lot about unity in America today, but much of it is specious, made-to-order by people who don’t believe in it for people who don’t want it and no longer know it.

Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger hit it squarely on its bean last spring in a speech before the French Senate in Paris, when he spoke for “some shared concept of legitimacy” as a test of a nation’s health and viability. But that legitimacy must have as its helpmate a cultural dimension by which the majority of the members of a society hold certain principles in common, even as sacred.

Instead, today we see, particularly on the left and in many center-liberal groups, the idea that personal identity – your political party, your ethnic group, whatever-you-can-dig-up-to-make-yourself-different – looms far above and beyond national legitimacy.

At the same time, largely due to the isolation of social media and the economic globalization that has destroyed so many American jobs, too many Americans have lost the sense of shared purpose that productive work and membership in groups like unions, the American Legion, the Masons, the Kiwanis, the Veterans of Foreign Wars and many others once gave them.

Manners develop over centuries and hold societies together, but they can be destroyed overnight and tear those same societies apart. That is why it is so important for us to understand that President Trump’s words, as well as the words and acts of others, have palpable results, that vulgarity deforms those who voice it and ultimately deforms all of us.