Channeling T.S. Eliot, Ross Douthat Fears The Loss of Taboo

Douthat’s New York Times column, “Not Even in South Park?” criticizes Comedy Central for backing down when South Park came under some attack by a couple guys who operate a marginal web site called There are some interesting dimensions to this topic but in short Arsalan Iftikhar at said it best when, echoing RD’s Hussein Rashid, he concluded:

Sadly, instead of dealing with the real cases of racism, bigotry and xenophobia regularly injected into our public airwaves by some of our political leaders and opinion makers, we have instead allowed ourselves to get sucked into a faux controversy involving two no-name idiots with a radical website taking on four pre-pubescent, fictitious cartoon characters from South Park, Colorado.

I’m going to follow that sage advice and leave the South Park controversy out of it. Rather than defend the myriad ways Islam is tolerant, rational, and not as iconoclastic as most people believe (see KARAMAH’s excellent example here), I want to come back to Douthat’s underlying premise.

What Douthat is really after is more along the lines of a culture war. His final line makes clear the agenda, “Because if a violent fringe is capable of inspiring so much cowardice and self-censorship, it suggests that there’s enough rot in our institutions that a stronger foe might be able to bring them crashing down.” Bottom line: “Our” institutions are rotten. The problem is not political Islam, but us. (I’ll leave the “us vs. them” rhetoric for another time.)

Why are our institutions rotten? Toward the end Douthat opines, “Our culture has few taboos that can’t be violated, and our establishment has largely given up on setting standards in the first place.” He’s concerned that the only limits contemporary U.S. society draws are those in connection with Islam, forced by Islam’s “radical fringe.” Otherwise, we are free to offend, liberally and often. Taboos have been eradicated, limits eliminated.

But we’ve heard that all before. Writing in the 1930s, modernist poet and essayist T.S. Eliot begrudged a society with nothing left to blaspheme against: “I am reproaching a world in which blasphemy is impossible.” Eliot believed it had all been done: righteous heroes made into laughingstock, the gods have had their twilight, the sacred thoroughly profaned.

Such a suggestion sounds outrageous now, eighty years later. When Eliot wrote this, women’s suffrage had only been in place for about a decade in the United States and Britain, prohibition was still in force in the United States, and Adolf Hitler had just become Führer. How could anyone who takes history seriously say such a thing? Aren’t there always sacred limits?

In ways that might offer comment on the “South Park” controversy, Eliot further suggests:

People nowadays are inclined to tolerate and respect any violation which is presented to them as inspired by ‘serious’ purposes; whereas the only disinfectant which makes either blasphemy or obscenity sufferable is the sense of humour: the indecent that is funny may be the legitimate source of innocent merriment, while the absence of humour reveals it is purely disgusting.

Eliot too believed that there are no (or at least few) limits of decency that can’t easily be transgressed; taboos have been swept out of the corners of modern society. And he implicitly pleaded to reinstate some.

What is significant here is the comparable rhetoric that condemns a culture for having too few taboos to violate. The imagined vision of a limitless, transgression-proof culture produces reactions that quickly draw new lines, hold out nostalgia for the old days when people knew their places, and enforce old borders—perhaps even questioning those who might look like they don’t belong on this side of the border—maintaining homogeneity with “us and them” neatly separated. This too is not to pretend Douthat is complicit with the recent Arizona immigration law either, but rather to bring attention to a broader, even apocalyptic, language that goes far beyond Douthat and into political camps that he would certainly not recognize.

The disturbing rhetoric that occurs again and again is, at heart, this: Watch out for the elimination of limits and borders, beware the mentality of “anything goes,” be cautious of too much taboo breaking. I agree with these warnings in general. But there is a further step that must be taken, and it is this: Look for the newly established limits, think twice about how much of “anything” really does go, find the new taboos.

One of the most obvious places to look here and now is the belief in the right to “free speech,” that most sacred of the modern, secular belief structures. “Don’t tell me I can’t print this!” says the most fundamentalist of the adherents, oblivious to all the lines that might be crossed in the midst of the action. And then we realize we are in the realm of conflicting views of the sacred. This does not resolve the problem, but it puts both players on the same field.

A “world without limits” is a dream: a nightmare for those believing this to be the end of “our culture,” a day-dreamed marketing slogan for credit card companies, a John Lennon song. History itself is made up of limits drawn and crossed. Crucially, lines are always redrawn, taboos reestablished. There is no world without limits, taboos, and sacred cows. The world would simply cease to exist. The challenge is to live on with ever-changing limits and taboos, and to find meaning in the midst of it.