F.R. Duplantier reporting Behind The Headlines
Week of:
March 12, 2000
Politics and Culture of Destruction

F.R. Duplantier

by: F.R. Duplantier

The Victorian era is looking better all the time.

"The politics of personal destruction," observes historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, "is a symptom of a much larger and more dangerous phenomenon, the culture of personal destruction. This goes beyond the political into a personal realm that was once thought inviolate," says Himmelfarb. "It is now one's nearest and dearest, or what were once assumed to be such, who are the objects of this kind of destruction: a parent, spouse, or a friend. On the most vulgar level," she observes, "we find this in television talk shows where the most private and disreputable features of a person are trotted out for exposure and derision."

In a recent issue of ex femina, the newsletter of the Independent Women's Forum, Himmelfarb examines "another mode of personal destruction that gives the appearance of being more sophisticated and elevated. This is the memoir, often of a person of distinction, written by a close relative who is presumed to be in a position to speak with authority about that person. Here," she notes, "the denigration is more subtle and the violation of privacy more nefarious."

The Mommy Dearest tattle-tale trend is one of the more disturbing signs of the times. "The confessional mode used to be focused on one's own failures or sins," Himmelfarb recalls. "Today it is more often a confession of other people's failures and sins, or fancied ones. A psychiatrist might be tempted to describe these as acts of aggression," she suggests. "An old-fashioned moralist would speak of them as acts of impiety and indecency."

Himmelfarb affirms that such words "now sound archaic, but so do a great many other words that used to be part of our civilized vocabulary. The very language of morality has been debased," she asserts, "so that once honorific terms have become pejorative. To pass moral judgment is to be moralistic and judgmental. To engage in moral discourse is to moralize and preach. To pronounce upon moral affairs is to wage a moral crusade, or worse, a religious crusade. Reticence is equated with Puritanism and Victorianism."

Many's the time I've been accused of being "moralistic" and "judgmental." No, it's true! Though I cheerfully plead guilty to the charges nowadays, I was flabbergasted when those terms were first applied to me, some twenty years ago, on two separate occasions that I remember distinctly. In the first incident, I made the mistake of taking polite exception to an unusually fatuous remark about "gentrification" made by a friend's fiancée. "You're making a value judgment," she objected. Perplexed as I always am by statements of the obvious, I conceded as much and confided that I often used my brain for that purpose. In the second incident, not long after, an acquaintance from college described with evident pride how in his first court case as an attorney he had successfully defended a man he knew to be guilty of breaking and entering. When I expressed certain reservations about the merit of that accomplishment, he promptly accused me of being "moralistic." I was guilty, of course, once again -- guilty of being innocent.

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