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In the fat Age of Pleasure, Wealth, and Ease,
Sprung the rank Weed, and thriv’d with large Increase.

Alexander Pope writing in the 18th century states it for our own cultural moment: Rather than a Renaissance, the “rank weed” thrives.

Seen over time, September 11, 2001 was but a pause in a wave of raunch unleashed in the “fat age” of the 1990s. Now, three years since that catastrophic day, rather than the heights we skim the depths, the detailing at which discretion blanches but will outline: When a musical called Urinetown wins a Tony award; when a performance piece called The Vagina Monologues continues to win rave reviews and spawns Puppetry of the Penis; when a producer’s “golden gut” tells him his TV series Skin will go No. 1; when stripper classes are offered at the local mall—dare we hope the nadir was reached at the last Super Bowl when a pop singer popped a breast?—the rank weed has leapt the fringes and taken over the garden, the mainstream.

Equally rank is the narcissism at the weed’s root, reflected in the moment’s emblematic figure—the avatar of “cool”—he pridefully posing with mean look, she in what can only be called the slut look, putting it to us (and the world as we “liberate” it): “Are you hot?”

Yech. This, from us, beneficiaries of unparalleled personal choice? In a culture with impressively inventive artists? And, most unsettling, chosen after the collective glimpse of our better selves on 9/11?

Seen in its historical significance, 9/11 was the day the world crashed into America. The fateful question became—and remains: Would the self-absorbed superpower finally turn outward and relate to the world? Hope ran high we would. But gauging by the cultural fare at the moment, there is scant “Aha” of recognition that we in our humanity connect with that of the world—except at a very low level. Instead the narcissism deepens, the rauncherie ramps up, with an even tighter focus on skin and the nether parts.

Flash! The New Yorker scores breakthrough photos—of “serious” actor Kevin Kline grabbing his crotch and of a female rocker showing us her pubic hair. Just a few hairs, mind you—slippery slopes are teased by the centimeter—but yes, the venerated magazine goes for the “money shot.” Cool.

Flash! The descent accelerates: The New Yorker sacks the incremental approach and only months later brings us two actors in full nudity. Wa-a-ay cool. And Nobel laureate in literature Sir V.S. Naipaul graces us with a pornographic short story. Small relief that he did not indulge his usual form, the novel, and go longer.

One would like to joke “Who knew?”—one really would. But a fever of three years is no joke, all the less so given our need for transcendence. Certainly, in the shock of 9/11, distraction was needed (“Singer, sing for us”); the elevation of Mozart’s Requiem could not be sustained forever; we sought cheaper thrills. But with time, cheapened habit becomes character—and we are being revealed. Truly, is a rank weed the best we can do? Thrust by 9/11 to defend the front lines, we are fighting for—what?—dysfunction?

Flash! We are fighting for dysfunction: U.S. Commerce Secretary goes to China to “kick butt” over bootlegging of revenge film Kill Bill. Point: Violence (along with “cool”) is a major export, so hands off. Meanwhile, “standards minder” Jack Valenti says of the film, “Even an impressionable child would say they’ve seen worse on Wile E. Coyote.” Question: Why, if fare of this ilk was deemed “inappropriate” by the industry in the aftermath of September 11, is it now not only appropriate but officially defended?

And another question, to be asked in front of the mirror: Is it any surprise that a culture of raunch and revenge might yield the depredation of an Abu Ghraib, of American soldiers engaged in the torture, often sexual, of Iraqi prisoners—and laugh while doing so?

On this point, The New Yorker performs a true public service with Seymour Hersh’s exposes of the shame at Abu Ghraib. But does this offset the raunch cited above? (No.) Sadly, The New Yorker is not the only prestige venue to engage in this moral hypocrisy.

America, it is clear, has taken a moral fall—a steep one—of which the raunch is symptomatic. There are flashes of beauty and health, to be sure; in the main, though, raunch now rules. But to note this moral fall—even to raise a moral question—is, both for citizen and artist, to be seen as rude, or unpatriotic, or, equally damning, “uncool.”


Surveying the wreckage, the precipitous fall, thoughtful citizens feel insulted and angry, especially those trying to guide children in their growth. Others, depleted in spirit, despair for America, fearing we are beyond recovery. And too many, heartsick and “past caring” or feeling “uncool” and thus benched, have undertaken what Soviet citizens did in the Communist era: “inner migration.” One such friend is rereading the novels of George Eliot and Henry James—specifically for the joy of their characters’ inner moral struggles.

Myself, I cannot migrate inward. With America in crisis on two fronts—its security and its Soul—serious artists must engage, no matter that America historically has not engaged serious art, nor that few “serious” artists protest the present rankness—perhaps because they have contributed to the rankness, seriously. So compelled, I study a postcard on my desk of an ancient amphitheatre, the one at Ephesus, and I wonder: Will the American superpower succumb to the tragic fates that befell Greece, Rome, Mesopotamia-now-Iraq?

Or can we, dynamic and reinventive, counter the fall—and create something higher?



A hypocrite comes clean, sort of.

Frank Rich, in his recent column “Everybody Hates Don Imus,” performs the useful and unusual public service of unmasking himself as a hypocrite. As a repeat guest and longtime listener of the shockingly hateful shock-jock’s show, Rich, with his weighty chops as a lead political columnist and former lead drama critic for our lead paper The New York Times, acknowledges that he helped make Imus a cultural icon. Forthrightly admitting his hypocrisy, Rich puts it this way: “[O]f course I was aware of….his obnoxious comments about minority groups,” but he says, “I wasn’t seriously bothered by much of it…because I saw him as equally offensive to everyone,” noting that Imus’ “crudest interludes struck me as burlesque.”

Rich then describes his epiphany: when he beheld the human beings in question, the Rutgers women’s basketball team in their press conference. Belatedly connecting Imus’ slur—it hurts to type it: “nappy-headed hos”—to these young African-American women—”exemplary” as Rich rightly describes them—Rich confesses: “You couldn’t watch it without feeling that some kind of crime had been committed.” Indeed: some kind of crime has been committed—in plain view and for a long time.

Going wobbly, however, Rich then sighs that “the biggest cliché of the debate so far is the constant reiteration that this will be a moment for a ‘national conversation’ about race, sex, and culture.” Cliché? Crying need may be cliché, but still, it’s crying. Seeking cover in the plural pronoun, he ticks off an agenda that “we” need to address—misogynistic hip-hop lyrics, the anti-Semitism of the film Borat, etc. Yes, Mr. Rich, “we” need to do this, and some of “we” have been at it a long time, but welcome to the Resistance anyway.

What a disappointment, then, that Rich closes out his confession in full defensive mode, with this kick-off to that overdue “national conversation”:

“And the fewer moralizing pundits and politicians, the better.”


Knocked flat on my “moralizing” back, I’d fire back: “And the fewer morally crippled hypocrites, the better, Frank Rich!” Pulling myself to my feet and assembling wits, I would add: Two-faced and riddled with bad faith as they are, hypocrites do not—repeat: do not—get to set the terms of the national conversation. Of all the types in the human parade, hypocrites anger me the most: they show the public a moral face—in the end, the most important face, as hypocrites craftily know—while, privately, they roll their eyes (or do worse). A “straight arrow,” I object to the moral weaseling. I object doubly because I have admired Rich’s astute post-9/11 columns on American politics and culture.


More likely Rich resorted to the “moralizer” epithet to ward off being force-fed the castor oil associated with moralizing—an association so potent in this culture that it silences many a sensibility. Funny, though, that in his mea culpa for one epithet (the h-word, “ho”), Rich employs another (the m-word, “moralizer”). (Also funny, Don Imus, instigating epithet-monger, now offers to take his medicine: “I dished it out for a long time and now it’s my time to take it.”) For those of us who speak out on things moral in this Weimar of an age, the toughest task is cudgeling our brains for the words and images and forms and historical parallels that won’t make teeth itch and won’t trigger the wallop that Rich delivered. As for my own credentials check: Consider me another flawed pilgrim trying to steer down the Road of Life with moral compass.

But, forget castor oil, enough with credentials. On with the conversation.


Of all the gin joints in all the towns in the world, she walks into his—again—this time alone. Why?

We are in Rick’s Café Americain, in Casablanca. It’s after hours. Rick sits at a table, totaling receipts. Ilsa enters, wearing white. Sam, polishing the piano, sees her first.

SAM: Miss Ilsa!

At the sight of his beloved, a look of pure joy crosses Rick’s face. But this is Rick and life has taught him to be guarded. Besides, his beloved is married, to Victor Laszlo, freedom fighter and, dammit, nice guy. Flashing into Rick’s mind is their farewell scene, a benediction it was, at the airport: Rick, sacrificing their love so Ilsa could help Victor continue his work, their final destination—where: America? Mainly Rick remembers Ilsa finally accepting the sacrifice, blessing him, that last look in her eyes—of pure love—which he sees again now, plus something more…. The lovers look at each other, transfixed, so it’s up to Sam to get this reunion moving.

SAM: Sixty years gone by—no, sixty five!—and you’re still looking beautiful, Miss Ilsa. The world’s done changed—don’t recognize it at all—but you haven’t changed, Miss Ilsa, not a bit.

ILSA: Neither have you, Sam. Or you, Rick. Just as I’d hoped. It must be…magic.

RICK: Magic, it definitely is…..

ILSA: Rick, I need to talk to you, about two things—

RICK: First, there’s one thing I need to ask. (Pauses) There’s no polite way to ask this, so I’ll ask straight out: Are you alone? Is Victor with you?

ILSA: Victor died, two years ago, in America. I’m alone—oh it’s so good to see you two again, I could cry!

As Sam turns to play “As Time Goes By,” Rick and Ilsa fall into each other’s arms. Rick plants one—a deep, long kiss—on Ilsa, reclaiming his beloved. Just like old times. Sam’s playing is swelled by an orchestra joining in, which frees him to go to the bar and set out the Champagne.

SAM: This calls for a celebration! Sure is good to see you again, Miss Ilsa, after so long. As time went by (laughs). Yessir, since you left, the world’s gone downhill (pops cork). World War Two was supposed to set things right, but then there was Korea, Vietnam, the heebie-jeebies of the Cold War. And the neighborhood around here—whew, the Israelis and the Palestinians, Iraq, Sudan…sad. And child soldiers: criminal, just criminal….. But we’re fine, Miss Ilsa. After you left with Mr. Victor, we went to Brazzaville, with Captain Renault—remember him?—and set up there, a place like this. But the Captain—he’s no waiter, so when Casablanca quieted down again, we came back. The Captain is back to policing, and we reopened Rick’s Café Americain. We follow world events—first Internet café in Casablanca is right here—and we make a good living, ’cause people like to play.

Sam brings the tray to Rick and Ilsa, now seated at a table.

SAM: His feelings for you haven’t changed a bit, Miss Ilsa—

RICK: Have some Champagne, Sam—and give your throat a rest.

SAM: You were too busy to do the update, Boss. Don’t worry, I poured myself a glass—cheers.

Sam returns to the piano and resumes playing, with the orchestra continuing.

RICK (toasting): Here’s looking at you, kid…again.

ILSA (toasting): Oh, darling, I’ve waited and waited and waited for this moment…..

Ilsa dissolves in tears—happy tears, sad tears. Rick puts his arm around her.

ILSA: At last, safe harbor again…. We were so relieved to learn you were back in Casablanca, safe.

RICK: Casablanca hasn’t always been quiet. But yeah, I’ve been…safe. Now, what was it you wanted to talk about?

ILSA: First, about America. Things are bad there, Rick, very bad.

Rick stiffens slightly, lights a cigarette.

ILSA: I know you’re not political, Rick, not outwardly. But I was hoping my fellow American would hear me out. I’m an American citizen now.

RICK: I’ve never been back. Never felt the need.

ILSA: Then let me tell you how it goes there, please…..

RICK: (takes a long puff): All right, go ahead.


In a tough Inaugural Address that served as a set of marching orders, President Barack Obama painted the starkness of our historical moment—the “raging storms” of economic crisis, two wars, national decline—and laid blame all around: on the Bush administration and on the American public.

To rally us in this formidable struggle—history is short on nations reversing their decline and rising again—President Obama closed by reaching back to George Washington.

Setting the context of General Washington’s bulletin from the front—our revolution was in the balance, with the capital captured and our troops freezing (“the snow was stained with blood”)—President Obama chose these words to quote: “Let it be told to the future world…that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive…that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [it].”

“When nothing but hope and virtue could survive…..”

As if to say that, if all you have in your kit bag is hope and virtue, you not only have enough, you have everything the human heart not just wants but, going deeper, needs.

The hope part was familiar from the campaign; arguably, it was the hope mantra that got Mr. Obama elected. Millions of us, ashamed of the Bush administration’s malfeasances, had been sunk in despair; we’d been years without hope. Audaciously clinging to it in his own rise, Candidate Obama appealed with a call almost no American can resist: to hope.

But virtue? Defined as moral excellence, righteousness, goodness, virtue is a word and concept not only not current in American culture, it is mocked (along with prudence and temperance, other qualities President Obama invoked in his speech). How antique, how un-hip, how—God forbid—moral.

Yet, how exactly right for the new President to ring the note of virtue, because the crises raging about us stem in large part for moral and ethical lapse. For the inescapable truth is this: Our age is, to use a word of Shakespearean weight, corrupt—politically, financially, morally corrupt. And not to a small degree, but spectacularly, ruinously corrupt. Far from golden, our age is tainted brass.

Politically, our age’s corruption is bracketed by two “bad” wars, Iraq and Vietnam, both begun on morally indefensible grounds and maintained by official lies. Compared to a “good” war like World War II, an epic struggle of solidarity waged in a noble cause, Iraq and Vietnam, lacking such high motive, sundered us at home; the double tragedy was that the lessons of the first bad war did not forestall the second. During the Iraq war, and unconscionably for a civilized nation, torture became U.S. Government policy, backed by tortured legalism at the “Justice” Department and—the height of bad faith—committed in God’s name; thus was surrendered our moral standing in the world……

And now the financial corruption of our age is unmasked in almost daily scandals: banks in effect robbing their customers and investment houses robbing their investors, not by gun but by sleight of paper; CEOs pulling down obscene salaries and heedlessly pulling down their companies and employees with them; and, shredding all trust, the government’s multibillion-dollar rescue package(s) used by these institutions not to restart credit markets, as Congress intended, but to buy other financial entities and stoke executive bonuses. Has nobody in high finance heard of probity?

How did we get to this low point? Corruption being a matter of moral de-gradation, we got here step by step by step.

And, sorry to say, it was my generation—the boomers—who took those steps. Early on, the more conscientious of my cohort took on the Greatest Generation’s “oversights”—racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, stigmatization of the handicapped—hoping to equal our parents’ achievements in war and peace. But a good start was undercut by Vietnam—bad wars spawn bad ethos—and by my cohort’s less conscientious majority, whose excesses, narcissism, and lack of seriousness now brand boomers as the generation who dropped the baton.

Elemental to the boomers’ fall was the majority’s disinclination—its allergy—to things moral. You were thought a fool to ponder moral questions or claim that charting a moral life is our most important life task. Virtue? “Don’t be so righteous, don’t be a party-pooper, lighten up!” A person of virtue was beyond belief, simply not believed to exist. (And don’t even mention probity.)