In Not Your Mothers Morals, Jonathan D. Fitzgerald argues that today’s popular music, movies, TV shows, and books are making the world a better place. For all the hand-wringing about the decline of morals and the cheapening of culture in our time, contemporary media brims with examples of fascinating and innovative art that promote positive and uplifting moral messages—without coming across as preachy. The catch? Today’s moral messages can be quite different than the ones your mother taught you. Fitzgerald compares the pop culture of yesterday with that of today and finds that while both are committed to major ideals—especially God, Family, and Country—the nature of those commitments has shifted. In his witty, expressive style, Fitzgerald explains how we’ve arrived at the era of New Sincerity and why its good news for our future.
“A great, quick read . . . jam-packed with explorations of art, politics, media and pop culture that show how we’ve moved from being June Cleaver’s society to being one that begs you to just tell it to us like it is—flaws and questions and all . . . Jonathan’s book puts all of the proverbial pieces together into one witty journey that will light up any culture lover’s brain.” —The Good Men Project
“Jonathan Fitzgerald is an astute observer of Christianity in Western culture. By turning ‘conventional wisdom’ on its head, he shows us some truth we would not otherwise have seen.” —Tony Jones, author of The New Christians
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God, Family, and Country: The Morality of the New Sincerity
A couple of years ago, I was discussing this idea with my mother (Don't all writers discuss their ideas with their mothers?), and she rightly pointed out that the "mother's morals" I have in mind aren't actually hers, or the morals of her generation. She got all how-old-do-you-think-I-am, and then reminded me that she came of age in the sixties. If anything, her generation is typified by the cynicism that Gardner rejected. Rather, when we think about traditional American values, most of us go back even further, perhaps to the 1950s. While I granted this was true, I told my mom I'm not changing the book title because "Not Your Grandmother's Morals" just doesn't have the same ring.
Still, in the popular imagination — thanks in large part to the television and movies we have from that time — the '50s was a conservative decade. "When men were men," and so forth. Women's place was in the kitchen, children were better seen than heard, and, most remarkably, new people were born even though, apparently, no one was having sex.
Yet, we know that things are never quite so simple. After all, it was also the decade of the Beat generation and the Korean War.
Nevertheless, the '50s have come to symbolize a time of purity and morality in American culture. The phrase "God, Family, Country," I think, is a succinct way to get at the values that we associate with that era. In fact, 1950s stock in conservative American culture is so high that those three key values continue to represent the correct order of priorities for many evangelicals even today. So, with my tongue jammed far into my cheek, I'm borrowing these categories as a way to navigate the new morality of contemporary popular culture. I'm arguing that God, Family, and Country are just as important to us today as we imagine they were in the '50s, but the way we think about them is very different.
I should say that I'm not suggesting that our culture is inherently progressive. That is, the morals that we find in contemporary culture are not necessarily better than those of our grandparents' or parents' generation. Rather, with John Gardner, I'm suggesting that ideas go in and out of fashion — that each generation is influenced by a certain set of philosophical ideas that later come to typify that era. Our fashionable idea, I believe, is the "New Sincerity," in which an emphasis on being sincere and authentic creates a space for frank discussion of morality in popular culture. I'm under no illusions that this is a permanent state; chances are my children will be advocates of something like the "Old Cynicism." But for us, the New Sincerity is at the heart of much of our most powerful popular culture.
So, what does "God, Family, Country" look like in the era of the New Sincerity? I'll answer this question first by elaborating a bit on what I mean by the New Sincerity, and how it made it cool to care, before moving on to each of these important cultural categories and dealing with them in light of specific examples. We'll find that the rise of the "spiritual, but not religious" set presents some excellent opportunities for pop culture moralizing, that family values are changing but remain as important as ever, and that in our globalized world, love of country requires more than posting a flag pole in the front lawn.
Let's go back, for just a second, to that unlikely charismatic Christian community from which I've somehow emerged, if not completely unscathed, then, let's say, only slightly scathed. As hard as they tried, the well-meaning Sunday school teachers, youth group leaders, and church pastors couldn't rid me of my love for popular culture. But what they did manage to do, perhaps inadvertently, was make me acutely aware of the need to consume culture critically.
From that early age, I began to understand why so many of my friends' parents worried about Saturday morning cartoons, WWF wrestling, and rock music. I began to feel for myself popular culture's power to influence, encourage, anger, frighten, and inspire. But most importantly, I came to know that nothing is above (or below) scrutiny. I learned that popular culture, however fleeting and vapid it can seem, is as worthy of criticism as any highbrow literary fixture of the Western cannon. If I had come to this conclusion sooner — say, when I was in college — there's no way I would have ended up an English major. But then, I didn't know that there was such a thing as media studies and that you could just watch movies for homework.
Anyway, I believe that in the twenty-first century, popular culture should be even more closely scrutinized, as it holds much more influence over many more people across the globe than ever before. Further, and finally, this shouldn't be a cause for alarm as many often think; rather, we should view it as a great opportunity. After all, not too long ago, writing about morality in art earned John Gardner the label of dull and unintelligent from the modernist literati of his day. In a response to On Moral Fiction, John Updike commented that he found Gardner depressing and, anyway, he said, "'Moral' is such a moot word."
Today, however, many of our greatest storytellers consider questions of morality throughout their work. It was, in fact, David Foster Wallace's brilliant essay "Consider the Lobster" that awoke me to this reality. So, in the spirit of Wallace, and against those crotchety old geezers of modernity, let's investigate the evolving morality in popular culture through the lens of the New Sincerity.CHAPTER 2
The New Sincerity: It's Here, It's Sincere, Get Used to It
I would like to be able to tell you that I invented the phrase "New Sincerity." I've always wanted to coin a word, or be the first person to label an era, and so if I thought I could get away with it, I would absolutely go around telling people that this "New Sincerity" thing is all mine.
But I'll be honest and give credit where it's due. My friend Christopher Cocca, who is an excellent writer as well as something called an "urbanist," introduced me to the "New Sincerity." In a blog post he wrote for the newly created Huffington Post Religion page back in 2010, he observed that when Conan O'Brien signed off on what would be his final show on NBC, he did so in a refreshingly sincere and authentic way.
You remember the saga that unfolded when O'Brien was finally given the "The Tonight Show" (hooray!) only to have Jay Leno take it back less than a year later (boo!). A lot of Conan fans were angry. I was angry. I had spent many nights risking serious punishment by defying my bedtime in order to watch Conan on the tiny TV my parents let me have in my bedroom.
Conan should have been angriest of all, but he wasn't; he was amazingly gracious. On that final show, he got kind of serious, insisting that, for the moment, he wasn't joking as he left his audience with these words: "All I ask is one thing, and I'm asking this particularly of young people that watch: Please do not be cynical. I hate cynicism; for the record, it's my least favorite quality. It doesn't lead anywhere. Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you're kind, amazing things will happen."
As Christopher Cocca observed, Conan's words were a pinnacle moment in the New Sincerity. For many of us, this is the moment the movement coalesced. Conan helped us recognize that it had become cool to care.
The phrase "New Sincerity" had been in use long before 2010 — it has a Wikipedia entry that dates it back to the mid 1980s and locates it within the context of music, film, and literary criticism. Back in 1999, critics pointed to Wes Anderson as part of the vanguard of the New Sincerity in film. But even if New Sincerity has been a long time coming, it has only come into fruition since the turn of the century. Since then, we've been living in a rare moment in which the postures of ironic detachment and cynicism have receded in popular culture and given rise to a spirit of earnestness and authenticity.
If you think about it, this transition makes perfect sense. In the pendulum swing of popular culture, the New Sincerity was the logical next step after decades steeped in post-Vietnam, Cold War irony. I can still remember the cool, detached posture of the teenagers I looked up to as a child in the '80s, and still as a teenager myself in the '90s. To be vulnerable or authentic, to be sincere, was death in those days.
But, around the turn of the century, something began to change. Suddenly the nerd stereotype — always the object of derision in popular culture — became kind of cool. Vulnerability invaded pop music where bravado and posturing once had ruled. Television shows and movies depicted characters determined to do some kind of good in the world. And respected literary authors began writing books about morality again.
All across the popular culture spectrum, it has become cool to care about spirituality, family, neighbors, the environment, and the country. To underscore this point, a recent Knights of Columbus-Marist Poll survey found that among Millennials, six out of ten prioritized being close to God and having a good family life above anything else. For those in Generation X, family was still important, but the second priority was not spirituality — it was making a lot of money. Clearly, a social shift has been underway.
The Best of the New Sincerity
Back in 2010, a number of publications that cover popular culture compiled "Best of the Decade" lists, as they're wont to do. Surveying these lists confirms the assertion that many of the most critically acclaimed books, movies, albums, and television shows created after the turn of the century were infused with the spirit of the New Sincerity, and, as a result, they dared to raise questions of morality.
I particularly liked Paste Magazine's lists, though, I acknowledge, citing them veers dangerously close to confirmation bias. But there's a lot of overlap between their list and, say, Rolling Stone's, and, anyway, I think you'll get the point.
A couple of standouts from Paste's best books list are notable because, in some ways, their emphasis on morality is precisely what makes them noteworthy. The number-three slot goes to Cormac McCarthy's The Road. As Paste points out in its synopsis of the book, it is both a "meditation on the human condition" as well as a post- apocalyptic "adventure book." But each adventure is underscored by the weight it carries, raising questions of morality to the literal level of life and death. As in his 2005 novel, No Country for Old Men, set in 1980, McCarthy creates a space that is devoid of any sense of right or wrong, in which his characters struggle to reclaim their morality and, ultimately, their humanity. I fully expect McCarthy's next book to be called The Department of Motor Vehicles.
McCarthy's books explore questions of morality through fiction, but number 10 on Paste's list, David Foster Wallace's nonfiction collection, Consider the Lobster, as I noted above, parses the issue in essay form. Until about halfway through, the title piece is a beautifully crafted, but otherwise standard, bit of reportage of the Maine Lobster Festival. It's all there: the plastic bibs, the dipping butter, the world's largest lobster cooker. And then, seemingly out of nowhere, Wallace asks his reader (the piece was originally published in Gourmet Magazine) if it is "all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure." And with that, a conscience is thrust into the reporting and the actual feelings of a crustacean are considered.
A more recent release (not on Paste's list), Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer, extends Wallace's question to include all living things and, along with "Consider the Lobster," illuminates one of the more interesting aspects of this trend toward moralism in the era of the New Sincerity. Look to the places where claims of morality are made the loudest, and often most convincingly, and you will find that they are not typically voiced by the traditional sources of moral indignation: religious organizations. Rather, the issues at the forefront of contemporary moral consideration are the environment, marriage equality, access to health care, and the responsibilities of wealthy countries to their counterparts in the developing world, to name a few.
Books by literary authors may seem like a natural place to consider contemporary morality, but more readily consumed media such as television, film, and music are just as likely to do so. Sticking with Paste, their list of top twenty television shows of the decade reveals intense interest in questions of morality played out in diverse genres, from science fiction (Battlestar Galactica, which dealt weekly with issues ranging from discrimination to suicide bombers), to animation (The Family Guy crowds the space that The Simpsons continues to occupy), to talk shows (The Daily Show and The Colbert Report). And, as you'd expect, standout, thought-provoking dramas such as The Wire,Lost, and Mad Men made the list as well. What did not make the list: any "show about nothing."
As for film and music, Paste offered fifty of each, but the list-toppers serve to illustrate the point. In film, Fernando Meirelles' City of God took the number-one spot, and in music, the album Illinoise by Sufjan Stevens, an artist many Christians hail as one of their own, claimed top ranking. So, you know, in both genres the Good Lord came out on top.
What's So Moral about Sincerity? (Or, Lady Gaga vs. Madonna)
Overall, this renewed interest in moral storytelling has come about through a de-emphasis on image and irony and an open embrace of the virtues of sincerity and authenticity. But this begs the question: is there anything inherently moral or ethical about sincerity and authenticity? Sure, people feel free to be true to who they are (or whatever), but is that in itself a good thing?
For an answer to this question, let's step for just a moment out of popular culture and into the world of overgrown beards and difficult-to-parse word play — no, not Indie rock, but philosophy. Charles Taylor, probably most famous for his massive tome A Secular Age, touted by hipsters, pseudo scholars, and legit philosophers alike, wrote a much smaller book titled The Ethics of Authenticity. In it, he argues that authenticity is more than just the fleeting "do your own thing" mentality or the resultant moral relativism that many people assign to it. He acknowledges that in many places in our culture, authenticity is manifest in such self-serving ways, but he goes on to show that authenticity also has rich moral implications for how we live our lives.
The importance of being true to oneself, Taylor would argue, doesn't affirm the right of a person to make her own choices simply because she can. He calls this "soft relativism;" rather, there is a "moral force" to authenticity that insists that individuals understand their originality. But even this we don't do alone. We discover who we are and achieve this kind of self- fulfillment in relation to other people and, ultimately, in relation to something "more or other than human desires or aspirations," as Taylor writes. I'm pretty sure he's saying that yoga alone won't do it.
What I'm arguing here isn't necessarily that authenticity and sincerity are high moral virtues in and of themselves, but rather that their emergence in popular culture has created opportunities to discuss moral questions openly and honestly. If an artist can, without fear of recourse, explore issues of faith and family, environmentalism and politics, and come to definite conclusions about the morality or immorality of these things, then there is inherent value in authenticity.
And this is exactly what has been happening in pop culture. If we weren't comfortable with people being genuine and vulnerable in their art, those "Best of the Decade" lists mentioned above would have looked a lot different. They might have looked more like lists from the '80s or '90s, perhaps. Try to imagine someone as sweet and sincere as Taylor Swift being as popular as she is in the era of the Spice Girls.
But the "New Sincerity" rules the day. Consider what might seem an unlikely example: Lady Gaga. Lady Gaga didn't make many of those "Best of" lists in the aughts, but this decade has seen her star rise. While critics often draw comparisons between Gaga and Madonna — particularly early Madonna — and certainly there are similarities, they often miss the vast differences between the two.
Early Madonna aimed to shock, to seem larger than life, cool and unapproachable. Lady Gaga, who you might think would be reaching toward the same through her outrageous costumes that harken back to the era of glam rock, actually accomplishes just the opposite. By making herself freakish and even ugly, she becomes simultaneously more relatable. Her costumes are often monstrous and she refers to her fans as "Little Monsters," inviting them to take pride in their own monstrosity.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Not Your Mother's Morals"
Copyright © 2012 Jonathan D. Fitzgerald.
Excerpted by permission of Bondfire Books, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Introduction: Why Listening to the Devil's Music Didn't Destroy My Soul,
The Morals of our Stories,
God, Family, and Country: The Morality of the New Sincerity,
The New Sincerity: It's Here, It's Sincere, Get Used to It,
The Best of the New Sincerity,
What's So Moral about Sincerity? (Or, Lady Gaga vs. Madonna),
God: Or, You Know, Whatever You Call Him,
How Rock Music Got All Sincere,
The God of Comic Books,
Family: From Happy Days to Happy Endings,
All in the Modern Family,
Freaks and Geeks and Funny People,
The Big, Happy, New Sincerity Family,
Country: How it Became Cool to Care about America,
From Cold War Cynicism to "Yes We Can",
Caring About Trash,
It's Cool to Change the World,
Afterword: Everything You've Just Read Is Already Irrelevant,
About the Author,