Monday, January 7, 2013

Review of Not Your Mother's Morals by Jonathan Fitzgerald

Note: Not Your Mother's Morals by Jonathan Fitzgerald will be released on January 8th. You can find it on Amazon or visit the official website for more details..

by Ben Howard

Maybe it’s my own sense of generational pride, but I’ve known for awhile that my generation (aka The Millenials/Generation Y) isn’t nearly as bad as people have made us out to be. Thankfully, with Jonathan Fitzgerald’s new book Not Your Mother’s Morals I now have proof. Well, maybe not proof, but definitely a better argument.

The conversation in Fitzgerald’s work centers on the shifting definition of morality from the idyllic 1950s-style morality invoked by many in the conservative movement (i.e. your mother’s morals, or perhaps grandmother’s to be more precise) to what the author terms “The New Sincerity” of the present day.

Using examples from TV to movies to music to books to politics, Fitzgerald puts forward an argument that cultural trends point toward an emerging sincerity and authenticity in the millennial generation. This sincerity means that far from eliminating morality from the conversation, many avenues of popular culture have moved it to the center. However, the morality in question differs in many ways from traditional moral leanings, or as Fitzgerald puts it, a move from a “moral code” to a “moral posture.”

Fitzgerald adopts a rather tongue-in-cheek rhetorical vehicle to develop this moral posture by utilizing the classical conservative refrain of “God, Family, and Country.”

In the section about God, Fitzgerald examines the role of religion, spirituality, and doubt in popular culture, especially when it comes to music such as indie rock. He uses examples like Arcade Fire and Sufjan Stevens as musical acts who express an interest in theological questions, even if they’re not expressed in a traditional style. He also explores the God-like characteristics found in superheroes both in comic book form and blockbuster-style movies.

The Family section explores how movies and television have helped to shape an evolving view of families. Far from diminishing the value of the family, modern representations actually express a desire for a healthy family life, though that life may look far different than the husband/wife/2 kids/1 dog image many past generations have associated with that ideal. Instead, Fitzgerald points out how the sitcoms of the 80’s, 90’s and 00’s have helped to redefine the expectations of what a family looks like.

Under the banner of Country, Fitzgerald explores how it has become “cool to care” in the world of the New Sincerity. He explores the rise and fall of patriotism in America and the way the September 11th attacks re-energized patriotism in popular culture. He points out that the climactic moment of the New Sincerity’s engagement with politics came during the election of Barack Obama in 2008 when Obama tapped into this desire for sincerity and authenticity with his campaign based on hope and change.

Fitzgerald freely admits that he is not arguing that present-day views of morality are better than previous conceptions, but they also are not worse. They’re simply different. He also jokingly acknowledges that this is a movement of the moment and that his children might write a book advocating the “Old Cynicism” of their generation. However, that’s not a necessary backlash. Perhaps optimism and enthusiasm are here to stay.

As someone firmly ensconced in this culture of sincerity and authenticity to which Fitzgerald is appealing this book certainly reaffirmed many of my own feelings about the developing morality of my generation and culture writ-large. I completely agree with the trends Fitzgerald sees in the development of popular culture. At the same time, I have some concerns which were left unaddressed in the book.

Early on Fitzgerald makes the argument good art is inherently moral. He utilizes this argument to distinguish art and entertainment from more sordid fare such as Jersey Shore. I understand the argument and the appeal to artistic merit, but at the same time artistic culture is not synonymous with popular culture. In fact, what I think Fitzgerald is uncovering more than anything is the fracturing of culture in the wake of the democratization of media.

What does it mean to society at large when the trendsetters of culture (the music, the TV shows, the books, the movies, the political arguments) are so disparately divorced from the mass consumption of culture?

If I have one criticism of Fitzgerald’s work, it would be the length. Published as an ebook, it comes in around 50-60 pages digitally. However, the possible content for such a work is so much larger and I craved more after each time I read the book (I read it twice, it takes about 2 hours).

I would have loved a more in-depth examination of specific movies, shows, books, or musicians. In the section on God, Fitzgerald dedicates a paragraph to David Bazan, one of my favorite musicians, but then quickly moves on to another reference.

Additionally, an analysis of the opposing trends in culture would have been welcomed and given a healthy dose of context to those uninitiated into the world of the New Sincerity.

Ultimately, as with any artistic act, I am left to judge a work on what it is, not what I would like it to be. In that regard this book is charming, well-written, passionate, intelligent, and thoroughly understands the underlying motivations of an oft-misunderstood generation. I would gladly have read another 200 pages and I’m certain you’ll thoroughly enjoy this book.


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