John F. Kavanaugh

The New Yorker cover for the new millennium’s first week of March was a perfect cartoon rendition of our culture’s inverted values. A theater marquee, hyping some nameless show, is plastered with rave banner reviews of nameless critics. A New Low! Gratuitously Prurient! Lurid! Rock Bottom! Vulgar! The playbills trumpet that the feature is unabsolvably sleazy, detestable, repulsive, vile, ugly, sordid, obscene junk. The venue is being jammed with crowds of faceless silhouettes, faithfully attending the latest blockbuster.

I was reminded of a phrase, recalled from my graduate school days, uttered by Professor Albert William Levi while discussing one philosopher’s evaluation of another: beautiful rottenness. Levi was worried that the phrase might one day be appropriate for our entire culture. If he were alive today he might say, See, I told you so.

The prettification of evil and the allure of corruption are, of course, nothing really new. They are as old as Homer in the West. But at least the professor knew their devastating effect upon us. These days, evil is rarely unmasked for what it really is. It just gets rave reviews, now with a cleverness, technological slickness and cultural reach through the media never before seen.

The big news at the Grammy Awards was a jerk named Eminem, a marginally talented white guy making it big in a music genre created by inner-city rappers. In a society whose universities have mini-courses on how to speak properly in mixed company, where a supreme court nominee was raked over the coals for having allegedly used suggestive words to a woman, where the utterance of the N word sparks outraged protests, where gender self-construction is construed as a right, Eminem has reached fame and fortune by means of a pouting sneer and acidic lyrics contemptuous of gays, women and minorities.

Instead of outrage, he received a reverent review in a New York Times op-ed piece, which fawned over his impish, instantly hummable beats, internal rhythms and hip-hop unexpected analogies. The writer calls for the music industry to be courageous enough to reward our country’s most hated musician. This is pious bilge. The most hated musician does not sell seven million albums. And it is precisely those seven million that have transformed the music’s rottenness into something beautiful. Madonna, knowing which side her bread is buttered on, offered the pearl that she finds the language of George W. Bush much more offensive than Eminem’s. Think of the loss of her popularity this integrity of hers will cost her among the teeny-shoppers.

It will be hard to surpass the posturing of the Grammy Awards, but if anything can do it, the Academy Awards will. These ceremonies are famous for their beautiful rottenness, not only in their marketing of women as commodities, but in their self-righteous moralizing over pet issues, like the abortionist with the heart of gold, revealed with such adulation in Cider House Rules.

One featured character among this year’s crop of nominees is an artist who boasted, during his short life, of thousands of sex partners. Another is the Marquis de Sade, that enlightened tower of wisdom and integrity who stands alone against the irrational forces of sexual prudery and civil authority. The ultimate victimizer, from whom common language has drawn the word sadism, is now, in the movie Quills, the victim. The pedophile, rapist, sex-abuser, the theoretic justifier of incest and murder, is recast as a wigged, put-upon saint. By the time you read this, we will know whether Geoffrey Rush has given an acceptance speech expressing solidarity with misunderstood sexual transgressors of the world. If so, it will likely be called a courageous speech.

We should not be surprised at such inversions of traditional values in our liberated culture. Larry Flynt, the publisher of a magazine called Hustler, so degrading to women it embarrasses anyone unjaded enough to recognize its sickness, is an icon of the First Amendment, now invited to universities. Government-funded art shows desecrate the most hallowed religious imagery and are defended in a chorus of free speech mantras.

Rave Girl, a national chain store, sells Britney Spears-inspired halters and hot pants, leather and stretch flares to girls seven years old and up. A New York Times review of spring fashion can comment, without gagging, that Galliano has fearlessly embraced the more lewd elements of pop culture, while Versace is alluding to the pornography of anal sex. Maybe the stars will wear Galiano and Versace at the Academy Awards, especially if De Sade wins.

When XFL debuted on TV, it seemed the perfect embodiment of beautiful rottenness. From the introduction of the cheerleaders spilling out of their uniforms to the play for pay teams (Hitmen and Outlaws), it was, as the league’s founder, Vince McMahon, bragged, the right complement of sensuality...and smash-mouth, hard-hitting football. Like McMahon’s culturally cancerous World Wrestling Federation, it delivered, at least for the first night, an audience five times what NBC normally pulled on a Saturday night. As you may already know, the show is becoming a huge flop. But do not take that as a sign of the viewers’ critical powers. By all insider accounts, the XFL is failing because it isn’t beautiful enough and isn’t rotten enough.

John F. Kavanaugh, S.J., is a professor of philosophy at St. Louis University in St. Louis, Mo.