The Establishment, Still Doing Its Thing
While the difference between Comedy Central’s treatment of Muhammad and every other religious figure is certainly striking, it’s worth noting that Ross Douthat’s recent column on the subject makes a wildly false claim that often manages to pass for conventional wisdom. He writes:
Our culture has few taboos that can’t be violated, and our establishment has largely given up on setting standards in the first place.
All societies and cultures, I imagine, both proscribe and prescribe, and ours is not exceptional in this regard. While prohibitions on publicly mocking Jesus have indeed gone out the window in recent decades, our establishment is no less concerned than it was about setting standards. It is presently unacceptable, though it was once an ordinary part of daily conversation, to attempt to characterize racial and ethnic groups as a whole. A common turn of phrase suggests that while the Victorians didn’t talk about sex, they talked about death, while nowadays we talk about sex but pass over death with meaningful ellipses and gentle phrases about “passing,” which illustrates my point somewhat less clearly than the fact of the matter, which is that Victorians were every bit as infatuated with “frankness” about sex as we are and that our contemporary hesitance to speak about death arose without the compensating loss of any other taboo.
I’m afraid Douthat is buying into a broadly Whiggish view of history, in which superstitions are unraveled and irrational prohibitions lifted. Obviously Douthat would characterize this process less than favorably, but he seems to accept its basic claim: that slowly the old unity of society crumbles before the anarchic, standardless present.
Our culture really does differ from all others in important respects. In fact, I am inclined to think we live in an age of “truly unparalleled social integration,” to quote a favorite philosopher of mine. You might think that a bit hyperbolic, but at the very least it seems unsupportable to suggest that our establishment has gotten out of the standard-setting business altogether.