Uncovering unwholesomeness in culture throughout history
50 years from now, when people try to figure out what life was like in the early 21st century, how many will know what the Grand Theft Auto video game series was? Or torture porn movies? Or the sado-masochistic character of much mainstream porn? That's just to pick three examples of the general shift toward voyeurism and sensationalism in the culture over the past 20 years.
It may be hard to remember (even more so if you weren't alive), but back in the '80s there was no lurid violence in young people's entertainment. The slasher flick presented all-American teenagers who were mostly likable, or at least sympathetic, although doing what hormone-crazed young people do (or used to do, anyway). This makes you feel for the victims when they get attacked. When the characters are annoying or downright unlikable, you're actually cheering the serial killer on -- "Finally we won't have to listen to that whining bitch anymore!"
Ditto all of the glorification of crime in video games over the past 20 years. In the video games of the '80s and early '90s, where crime was a theme at all, you played the good guys taking on the bad guys, with little or no gore. Kind of like Lethal Weapon with martial arts. Kids increasingly want to role-play as a hoodlum who deals drugs, steals cars, and kills hookers.
And porno movies then featured a guy and a girl who were hot for each other and felt like getting it on, neither one trying to exploit the other, just smiling and having fun. No shock or sensationalism. More and more dirty movies emphasize domination, degradation, and humiliation, whether of the male ("femdom") or of the female (throat gagging). The prevalence of bondage themes is bewildering. How can so many people be so into such degrading stuff?
Yet when people try to reconstruct life in the early 21st century, I'll bet the turn toward sleaze doesn't make the textbooks or popular accounts. From what you learned in US history class, could you give an even basic contrast between the zeitgeist of the 1880s vs. the 1920s? Professional historians love getting into the nitty-gritty, if anything erring on the side of being too particularistic. But the average person, even the average educated person, just doesn't feel like knowing that much about the variations in the historical record is worth anything today. The past must therefore be homogeneous beyond a certain point in time, either uniformly worse than today if they're a progressivist, or uniformly better than today if they're a declinist.
Aside from the past 20 years, the other highpoint of unseen unwholesomeness was the mid-century, especially the '40s and '50s. I don't mean that there was a "seedy underbelly" to the white picket fence suburbs. It was right out in the open, and everyone at the time would've recognized it -- there could have even been a widespread moral panic about it -- but it hasn't been preserved in the popular memory.
The most flagrant example is the sleazy sensationalism of mid-century comic books, featuring just as much lurid torture porn and sado-masochistic imagery as today's dorky video games. I've read some of the secondary literature on this stuff, but today I finally picked up Seduction of the Innocent, a book that ignited a moral panic over the unwholesome nature of comic books back then, and eventually led to the Comics Code Authority, a censorship board within the industry itself, akin to the Hays Code in Hollywood movie studios.
I plan to post in more detail about comic books in particular, since they really were out there back then, and along with radio they were the dominant form of mass media entertainment for young people, like video games today (movie-going was dead, and TV was either non-existent in the earlier part, or slowly gaining viewers by the mid-'50s). But for now, have a look through an online gallery of comic book covers from those days -- and that's not even including the full story inside. The butt-kicking babe, bondage, gore, role-playing as the clever criminal, the intended lack of sympathy running through it all -- it could be straight out of today's youth culture.
Seduction of the Innocent is also available free online; most of the images are not those from the original book, but similar ones that still prove the point. Skim through the chapters named "I Want to be a Sex Maniac" (about the bizarre sexuality so often shown) and "Bumps and Bulges" (about the ads -- increase your bosom size, use this telescope to peep on your neighbors, etc.). You'll never think of the '50s the same way again.
Last, it should go without saying, but "unwholesome" is a property of the cultural item itself -- it doesn't matter what broader social consequences it has. I'm more aware than anyone else of how the violent crime rate kept falling during the mania for lurid S&M comic books, as well as during the neo-sleazy renaissance of the past 20 years. Whether the crime rate shot up or bottomed out in response to comic book sensationalism, the things themselves can't but strike you as unwholesome and sleazy, something that would appeal to weak, passive, anti-social minds.
Unwholesomeness is deplorable not because of its effects or non-effects on material well-being and safety, but because of what it says about our social and psychological health. It triggers our disgust mechanism, not our harm-avoidance mechanism, but that doesn't make it any less important.