A followup to my last screed

The moral degradation of the United States must be even worse than I thought. I’m no Pollyanna about my country’s character, and I never quite feel like I can fully articulate just how disillusioned I am as a result of my own undergraduate experience and its aftermath, so when I say that things look bad, I mean that they look well and truly dire. This stuff isn’t just the sinful nature of man or pedestrian political dysfunction or anything of the sort. It’s a raging clusterfuck. It’s bad enough that if we don’t turn things around within a generation, or maybe even within a year or two, we’ll get blown over an event horizon that we truly do not want to cross.

To my surprise, I’m becoming somewhat less alarmed about the purely civic problems besetting the United States. The recent indictments of homicidal police officers in North Charleston and Baltimore give me the feeling that Bob McCulloch is a one-off racist nutjob (thank God) and that his colleagues are getting the message that they expose their constituents to murderous police officers at their own and their nation’s peril. The TPP and the media propaganda surrounding it are an ugly mess, but the level of popular and Congressional resistance to it encourages my hope that, if its enactment proves as dire as its opponents are warning, its abrogation will be forced.

None of this negates the sheer corruption of most of our prominent national politicians. When Marco Rubio is a beacon of probity and, too bizarrely for words, mental clarity, and when he and Rand Paul are considered dark horse candidates for the presidency, something is ever so badly fucked up with the Republican Party. There’s something differently but equally pathological about the Democratic Party, ostensibly the center-left, being under the overbearing sway of Hillary Clinton. Bernie Sanders is eccentric, to be sure, but at least he stands for positions that would have gone without saying on the labor left before the Clintonistas ran the poors out of the party. Elizabeth Warren’s Cherokee embarrassment is cringeworthy, but it wouldn’t come close to registering on the Clinton scale of sleaze, which runs in a nearly unbroken arc from Whitewater and the execution of Ricky Ray Rector to the private e-mail server and the George Stephanopoulos slush fund scam.

Looking beyond strictly civic realms like politics and journalism, I see things getting even uglier and, I tend to think, more hopeless. The Duggars are an excellent example. As a cultural phenomenon, they’re an unholy mashup of religion, family life, crude authoritarian social controls, celebrity worship, crass marketeering, and, it turns out, think tank influence-peddling. Josh Duggar did not get hired by the Family Research Council through his own merit. It’s unimaginable. The strictly meritocratic hiring of someone who just happens to be a scion of the most prominent couple in the American quiverfull movement into a prominent “family values” policy shop is about as likely as some unlucky bastard getting struck by lightning twice in the space of a week, both times while lying flush with the ground in a dry ditch under clear and calm skies.

The Duggars have to be networked to the hilt on the religious right. It’s inconceivable that they aren’t. They’re one of the most prominent crossover sensations to bridge the cultural and interpersonal gulf that normally exists between religious right groups and secular mass media. Their spanning of this gap gives them and the outlets they engage an exceptional synergy: it gives the quiverfull movement secular social proof, which is easily (and by design) misconstrued as respectability, and it helps secular outlets like TLC market their garbage content to Christian conservatives. For organizations on both sides of the ideological divide, they’re a profitable act, so they’re well-positioned to demand a hearty cut. TLC profits from them directly, and religious right outfits like the Family Research Council profit indirectly by using their television audience as marketing and lobbying targets.

The Duggars are blatnoy scumbags. Maybe I was foolish to be surprised, since the very enterprise of “reality” TV requires a large measure of morality- and attention-whoring, i.e., a great willingness to use untoward sleights of hand to gain undue advantage over the sorts of earnest bastards who insist on competing meritoriously. It’s a pretty ugly environment of moral hazard, if you think about it: there are still plenty of decent people in all cultural realms who insist on being thoughtful and aboveboard in their work, only to see their labors of love drowned in a rising tide of clickbait, seedy hot takes, sponsored content misrepresented as independent work (in violation of the most basic journalistic ethics standards), catfishing schemes, troll jobs, outright propaganda (sometimes from government, sometimes from private corporations, sometimes from both at once), and reptilian con artistry.

Normal, well-adjusted, scrupulous people don’t do well on reality TV. They can’t maintain the necessary artifice. To be clear, this artifice is distinct from acting. Actors are often comfortable playing characters that they personally find reprehensible because (duh) the people they’re depicting are characters, not themselves. Christopher Meloni is not Elliot Stabler, although I’d hate to see the percentage of Americans and Canadians who think that he is. It’s a storytelling craft. Parts of the story may be vile, maybe for compelling reasons, or maybe for gratuitous ones, but in any event, it’s a story, and a really cool one if it’s on CSI, bro. Explicitly saying that something is reality changes the moral calculus. It implies that the story is unscripted: in a sense, that there is no story. Hamming it up for the cameras in the interest of better playing oneself on television is very different from playing any fictional character shy of the very most tragic or depraved. If one’s real self is too nuanced or modest or gracious or calm or whatever to meet the narrative targets of the shysters orchestrating the program, one will be forced to present a false face. TL;DR: Wow Much catfish Such yum Where tartarsauce.

I never assumed that the Duggars were models of plain dealing. I’ve always been leery of reality shows, and the talk of Jim Bob’s “Christian” investment program was a red flag that I never forgot. It’s just bad form to do cite Christ or holy scripture as a moral basis for doing something that is repeatedly, if sometimes obliquely or tacitly, denounced in Proverbs and multiple gospels and epistles and, I suppose, other books, not to mention the holy traditions of various churches.

That said, my default assumption was that the Duggars were motivated by some sort of core ethics that can reputably be called Christian. Raising such a large family seems like quite a sacrifice, and it’s hard to imagine that they started their family with the craven intent of pimping their kids out on a crappy but lucrative television program. Occam’s Razor suggests that there’s at least some residual decency or moral clarity motivating any quiverfull family absent powerful evidence that there is not, and I have no reason to believe that the Duggars are really amoral. I don’t see them on the same moral plane as Joel Osteen. It’s more likely that they weren’t interested in being profane when they set out, but profanity was interested in them. Yes, Mr. Smirnoff, isn’t it a funny country! And you have to figure they’ve been drawn into a fun house moral world by virtue of spending so much time around TV producers and fixers, many of whom are genuinely amoral mercenaries, and that they’re surrounded by exceptional temptation to sell out. You know, God and mammon, thirty shekels, that kind of thing.

This doesn’t explain the corruption of the Family Research Council. TLC is a notorious bottomfeeding operation, the same one that graced us with Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. One might expect Tony Perkins or someone in his brain trust to think that they oughtn’t lie down with dogs, lest they get up with fleas. As I mentioned in my last screed, I always assumed that the FRC had principles. It never struck me as an obviously craven organization, but as one motivated by a sincere, if misguided, interest in the health of the American family. Peddling influence with a family that is in turn peddling its own influence with a noted purveyor of white trash dysfunction porn suggests somewhat more base motivations. Maybe I overestimated the character of the FRC. At this point, I have to assume that it’s an intractable den of nepotism whose real purpose is to provide sinecures to well-connected useless eaters on the religious right.

What I definitely underestimated about the Duggars is their level of clout. I always assumed that they were pikers modestly on the make. It never crossed my mind that they might be working their way into the Cathedral. They looked too goofy and marginal for that. But they weren’t, and they aren’t.

It’s telling that Oprah Winfrey and her staff blacklisted the Duggars in 2007 after they became aware of the taint of sexual scandal. This is one reason why I’m a bit optimistic about the mainstream media. Oprah only acts like a histrionic fool. She’s actually quite savvy, and she has some extremely well-put-together people on her staff, including Susan Casey, an exceptionally intelligent and thoughtful woman who doesn’t act like a self-dealing mercenary in the slightest. What we have here is a television program with a reputation for frivolousness showing the rare good judgment to marginalize a troubled family of self-dealers, while the Family Research Council, with its reputation for self-serious moralizing, hired the man who may be the most troubled member of that same family.

The argument that Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar should have immediately reported their son to the police for molesting his sisters is almost beside the point. They faced an agonizing decision in that matter. That said, they absolutely should have taken action to get him away from his sisters, and they seem to have had the resources, interpersonal if not also financial, to do so without delay. (Just look at the size of their house.) It’s really on them that they didn’t. Not immediately taking action shy of involving the police was a serious lapse of parental judgment and responsibility.

As far as the FRC hiring Josh Duggar is concerned, what’s embarrassing isn’t that it hired a man who was accused of molesting his younger sisters per se. He’s said to have stopped molesting them when he was still fairly young and to be remorseful, and remorseful ex-offenders very much deserve second chances. What’s embarrassing is that he was hired by an organization devoted to publicly inveighing against the most pedestrian sorts of fornication at a time when his molestation of his sisters was a closely guarded family secret. The FRC either didn’t do due diligence or was a knowing accessory after the fact to child molestation. Tony Perkins would have been at home in the old Archdiocese of Boston.

More surreally, Perkins hired a sister-diddler from Arkansas. The jokes practically write themselves. One of the things that’s wrong with the United States is that we don’t have equally cutting and universally enjoyed jokes about Arkie financial predators. Bill Clinton is more notorious for introducing expensive cigars into an intern’s vagina, with her joyful consent and equally joyful hope that Slick Willie would finally allow his own slick willie to take the plunge, than for conspiring to steal the life’s savings of modest middle-class retirees through the codified racketeering of the Whitewater development.

But hey, predatory foreclosure scams are a much less sexy form of immorality than the halfway-sublimated desire to pork the intern. Maybe our government and civil society have been taken over by prurient shitheads, or maybe, contra David Kuo, we get the government and civil society that we deserve.

*****

It’s Memorial Day weekend. A lot of our boys and a few of our girls got dead to protect the rights of the Duggars, Tony Perkins, the Palins, and their whole extended crew to morally prostitute themselves in civilian safety and comfort. Think about that when you’re stuffing your face with wieners this weekend, or don’t. America will still be here in any event. Whether it’ll be worth defending is a matter of personal conscience. Canada will also still be there, cutely, self-effacingly, a bit ridiculously, but all that said, with less of its territory in dire need of direct federal administration, local control be damned, and I’ll still know the way north, just in case. Thirty thousand of my countrymen went before me in the sixties and seventies, and if you take a look around this joint you have to admit that, even notwithstanding the Indochina clusterfuck, they had a point, eh. Canada allows French in the name of federalism, and we allow Arkansas.

Good God, y’all.

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