The Mainstreaming of Vice

· State of the Union

I’ve been puzzling for a couple of years now about the pornification of America. Take a step back and, at least to me, it’s really quite remarkable and a bit unnerving how casually pop culture 2005 assumes everyone’s comfortable with hardcore pornography.
This is especially true in sitcom-land, where porn-related jokes are a dime a dozen, not just at prime time, but throughout the day on Friends reruns and the like.
There’s a root assumption here, a significant cultural change, which is that porn is sort of a harmless, victimless, personal sin. Which is one perspective. There’s another perspective, however, which is that the porn industry is a gigantic, tragic, victimizing beast of a machine. And that no one really knows what kind of impact routine exposure to hardcore porn is having on the raised-on-the-Net generation.
I guess that (unpopular) perspective isn’t all that funny.
Now someone could easily argue that this porn-is-harmless perspective isn’t new. That it was mainstream in the ’70s as well. But it seems indisputable that there’s been a change — that if you compare a Happy Days script to a Joey script, you’ll see an obvious shift.
Meanwhile, at a coffee shop this morning, I overheard an interesting conversation about the mainstreaming of gambling. And there’s a lot of truth to that too. Poker, of course, is leading the way. All our favorite TV, film, and sports stars have been lining up to play Celebrity Poker. Hell, I happen to love that show. It’s amusing, quick moving, well-edited. And it’s got Dave Foley. What’s not to like?
Anyways, eavesdropping thusly, it occured to me that there may be a connection here. Perhaps there’s something more generally going on in the culture. I mean, maybe there ain’t. But the mainstreaming of vice? Loveable poker? Cuddly porn? What’s it all mean?
A few fairly obvious insta-observations: 1) porn and gambling are both substantially driven by big industries. 2) porn and gambling are both substantially supported by the Internet, with its illusion of anonymous vice in the comfort of your own home. 3) this mainstreaming of vice is happening at the same time the government is (arguably) getting more repressive about issues of free speech, free religion, etc.
What’s it add up to? I’m not entirely sure. The really surprising thing to me is how little has been made of this trend by either the Left or the Right. On the Right, that Ward Churchill — now he’s a real threat. And don’t get them started on gay marriage. Or among the true wingnuts, there’s the way SpongeBob SquarePants and A Shark’s Tale are subtly reprogramming today’s toddlers toward an unwholesome tolerance for ocean-dwelling sodomites. But the wholesale mainstreaming of porn and gambling? These topics don’t get much more than a peep.
The obvious play for the Right would be to trumpet these examples as the height of moral decay. It’s such an obvious play, I find their silence flat-out creepy.
And for the Left I wonder, could there be a real opportunity here? To talk about a cultural trend with (arguably) real impact, vices that actually do wreck lives?
Or do people just not want to hear it? Perhaps there’s nothing to be gained from pointing out to Rome the true symptoms of its decline.
What do you think? Am I wildly offbase here? A typical uptight repressed American? Or there a real mud slide in process and not a hell of a lot of noise beyond the occasional glub glub?