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A Toxic Culture for the Heart

June 27th, 2009

Governor Mark Sanford’s public meltdown and Americans’ reaction to it are good evidence of a basic illness in our popular culture (and our political culture as well). Actually, let’s just call it an illness in our culture as a whole.

I suppose that most of us (me included) have been somewhat amused by but also horrified at the totally inappropriate public performance of a guy who until now was a go-getting man of alleged principle. It’s been both riveting and cringe-inducing.

But really, why do we have this reaction to him? Our outraged or amused or uncomfortable reaction to him is in total contrast to the kinds of movies and songs and stories we all make popular.

In “High Fidelity,” Nick Hornby is on to this oddity:

People worry about kids playing with guns, or watching violent videos, that some sort of culture of violence will take them over. Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands, literally thousands of songs about heartbreak, rejection, pain, misery and loss.
Think about this comment from the other side of “love”. We don’t worry about our kids (or us) watching movies or listening to songs that cajole us into “following our heart” and searching for true love, or looking for and finding our “soulmate.” Disney and other studioes churn this stuff out by the bushel, and we eat it up.

And yet when we are confronted by a guy who actually did this, the reaction is “What a loser!” or “How horrible!” or “What a hypocrite!” or “This is hilarious!” And we want to know all the details so we can stomp on the guy.

I’m not defending Sanford, and I know that this mess is having a terrible effect on his wife and children. Families and spouses and children are never the same after this kind of thing happens.

Sanford is a self-indulgent guy at this point in his life. His affair and then his shrink-session-style press conference are evidence of that. His abuse of the language of religion and faith is at least as unforgiveable as his infidelity is.

It’s just that I think we all participate in some kind of bait-and-switch for the heart.

In Disney movies, we often cheer people who shun convention and “dull” long-term commitments to family and chase the whims of their hearts.

In political life or other important arenas, we give them the “tsk tsk” and a sneer, and we feel superior.

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