Signs of the Times

Television shows related to law and order (police squads, private investigators, courtrooms, federal agents, lawyers, sheriffs, politicians, mafiosos, forensic scientists, etc.) represent a substantial amount of air time. Based on the ratings, we still like shows that pit good guys against bad guys. We like to enter the criminal mind, see how it works, feel our own moral hackles rise, and be reassured, in the end, that crooks and murderers get what is coming to them. This assures us that there is a moral order to the universe and that it catches up with those who defy it. Walter Davis et al., argue that crime shows have become one of our society's premier moral teachers. These shows "define good and evil, teach right and wrong, establish norms and sanctions, and model good and bad behavior."1 They are this and more than this. The basic cop show has matured since the early days of Gunsmoke, Dragnet and Hawaii Five-O. In shows like NYPD Blue and Law and Order the criminals and the cops have become more complex, as have the circumstances of crimes and the implementation of justice. The dramatic-center has shifted away from the action of solving the crime and toward probing into the personal lives of the law enforcers. These new era cop shows have become theaters of virtue and vice.

From week to week, over the span of several seasons, the characters of individual law enforcers, and some of the recurring lawbreakers, are developed so that we come to know their dispositions, habits and prejudices - we become familiar with their moral fiber. We learn which characters are prone to tell the truth or to lie, which are guided by principle and which are driven by appetites or old personal demons, which are on a path of regeneration, and which are slowly unraveling. This is potent storytelling because when handled well, it models how personalities of these different types, given to differently weighted virtues and vices, behave when thrown each new plot development. We see how they react to insults and violence, to innocence and malevolence, to gestures of love or loyalty or gratitude, to incompetence, corruption, pettiness, deceit or senseless sacrifice. The characters function as embodiments of certain moral habits, which are then tested under the duress of life on mean streets. And we see how these moral personality types affect the lives around them. Law and order programming has become one of our most sensitive inquirers into the ambiguities of the human condition, and particularly of the resilience of virtue and the stubbornness of vice. It is an effective conveyor of the view that persons are constituted by the choices they make in the face of moral dilemmas.

Insight into human nature can also be found in different reflections on Generation X. In Life after God, Douglas Coupland bemoaned the fact that while many members of GenX enjoy lives charmed with material comfort, they are bereft of any transcendent ideas - a twin inheritance from their boomer parents. Corroborating this, journalist David Samuels wrote an essay several years ago reflecting on the mode of selfishness unique to his (admittedly privileged) post-boomer cohorts, who "lack any sense of necessary connection to anything larger than their own narrowly personal aims and preoccupations." In the wake of all the social revolutions of the 1960s, he surmises,

"the basic laws of social gravity had lost their pull. We were free to be white or black, gay or straight, to grow our hair long, shave our heads, meditate for days on end, have children or not, drink bottled water, work out at the gym, watch television until 3 in the morning and otherwise exist outside the traditional roles and the close, gossipy communities that had burdened our parents..."

But, he asks, "what if the freedom to rearrange reality more or less to our liking is the only freedom we have?" This feels regretfully vacuous to him, so he probes it further:

It is hard to put my finger on exactly when this change was set in motion, or what the larger forces behind it might be. Only that the old rules no longer apply, and that coherent narratives, the stories that tell us who we are and where we are going, are getting harder and harder to find. There is the decline of organized religion and the nation-state, the failure of politics, the reduction of human behavior to chemicals in the brain, the absence of the sense of common purpose that is often created by large-scale human suffering. There are Lotto drawings on TV. What is left behind is us. Or not us exactly, but a few hundred million loopy, chattering, disconnected I's.2

Samuels finds this freedom of protean selves unattached to anything big or enduring to be disconsoling, inspiring a lingering melancholy. Like the then popular Seinfeld sitcom, he and his friends experience lives that are well-heeled shows about nothing. Tom Beaudoin, a thoughtful interpreter of GenX, claims that while the pressing question for young boomers was "What is the meaning of life, my life?" the pressing question of Xers is "Will you be there for me?" He explains, as an Xer himself, "We ask this of our selves, bodies, parents, friends, partners, society, religions, leaders, nation, and even God."3 In short, while boomers were on a quest for meaning when they were young, Xers with childhoods that have been characterized by fractured families and fragile commitments on every front are on a quest for fidelity. This accounts, in part, for their attraction to tattoos and body piercings. Tattoos and incisions, Beaudoin writes, "stay with us for the rest of our lives. They will be one certain source of continued identity amid the flux of identity. ... They will never leave, which is blessed assurance for our abandoned generation."4

From this quick inventory, it appears that popular culture is sorting through substantial matters related to theological anthropology: the character-forming power of virtue and vice, the melancholy of unordered freedom, the role of fidelity in stabilizing one's identity. These bits and pieces from popular culture tell us much about the way we are made, at least the way we understand ourselves to be made.

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