Don’t Just Do It

In the late 1980s, a popular ad campaign created by the advertising agency Weiden + Kennedy transcended its given purpose of selling sneakers and lodged itself permanently in the annals of popular culture.

Just Do It.

But what it did was more, even, than become a household phrase. For many in the United States, including those in the small, charismatic church my family attended when I was growing up, it synthesized all that was wrong with the world into three short words.

And Nike wasn’t the only company to turn the sixties credo – “If it feels good, do it” – into a marketing slogan. To this day, the refrain, “Why ask why, try Bud Dry,” echoes in my head, long after Budweiser ceased production of the beer the ad was hawking.

These ads and the countless others espousing the same kind of “don’t think, act” mentality, coming as they did as the twentieth century came to a close, illustrate perfectly what the Irish philosopher George Berkeley put forth in his rather bizarre book entitled Siris, written in 1744. Berkeley suggested, as many others have since, that philosophy, though it may be considered and debated in academia, far from popular culture, actually rises from and informs the culture at large.

Berkeley said it thusly:

Prevailing studies are of no small consequence to a State, the religion, manners, and civil government of a country ever taking some bias from its philosophy, which affects not only the minds of its professors and students, but also the opinions of all the better sort, and the practice of the whole people remotely and consequentially indeed, though not inconsiderably.

That is, “If it feels good, do it,” “Just do it,” and “Why ask why, try Bud Dry” rose to such popularity precisely because they captured he prevailing philosophical wind of the day: modernism. We need not ask the hard questions or consider our actions – the consequences, if there indeed are any, are irrelevant in the face of our desire.

In art, film, and literature, this mentality translated into a visual aesthetic disinterested in beauty, movies that settled deep into the despair of a Cold War world, and books that reveled in the kind of freedom and carelessness that only comes from acting on impulse.

Many fault postmodernism with opening the door to moral relativism, but this “whatever floats your boat” mentality was born of modernist philosophy, and then exposed by those responding to the later movement. The line between modernism and postmodernism, both in theory and in time, is blurred, but one thing is certain: in the last decade, we’ve subtly begun to move away from the lack of interest in morality and the relativism so prominent in the twentieth century.

Is this a result of the simple pendulum swing that writes history? Is it a response to the events of September 11, 2001, when something so evil happened that a moral reaction was necessary, if not inevitable? Has the moralizing of religious fundamentalists – Christian, Muslim, and Jewish – taken hold?

Whatever the reason, the evidence is undeniable. In every cultural corner, moral questions are asked – in film and television, visual art and advertising, comic books and cartoons and literature.

In the last month or so, Paste has published “Best of the Decade” lists on its website (and in its most recent print issue). Surveying the lists confirms this assertion: many of the most critically acclaimed books, movies, albums, and television shows all dared to raise questions of morality.

A couple of standouts from the best books list are notable because, in some ways, their attention to questions of morality is what exactly what makes them noteworthy. As Paste points out in its synopsis of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, it is both “meditation on the human condition” as well as post-apocalyptic “adventure book.” But each adventure is underscored by the weight it carries, raising questions of morality to the literal level of life and death. As in his 2005 novel No Country for Old Men, set in 1980, McCarthy creates a space that is devoid of any sense of right or wrong, in which his characters struggle to reclaim their morality and, ultimately, their humanity.

McCarthy’s books explore questions of morality through fiction, but number 10 on Paste’s list, the late David Foster Wallace’s nonfiction collection, Consider the Lobster, parses the issue in essay form. Until about halfway through, the title piece is a beautifully crafted but otherwise standard bit of reportage of the Maine Lobster Festival. And then, seemingly out of nowhere, Wallace asks his reader (the piece was originally published in Gourmet Magazine) if it is “all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure.” And with that, a conscience is thrust into the reporting and the actual feelings of a crustacean are considered.

A more recent release (not on Paste’s list),Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer, extends Wallace’s question to include all living things and, along with “Consider the Lobster,” illuminates one of the more interesting aspects of this trend toward moralism. This is not a return or a pre-modern kind of soul searching. The questions that are being considered in the twenty-firstcentury are very postmodern concerns. Look to the places where claims of morality are made the loudest, and often most convincingly, and you will find that they are not necessarily voiced by the traditional sources of moral indignation: religious organizations. Rather, the questions at the forefront are about the environment, treatment of homosexuals, access to health care, and the responsibilities of wealthy countries to their counterparts in the developing world, to name a few.

Though these questions make their way into the mind of Americans through books, they enter the popular psyche more forcefully through the more readily-consumed media such as television, film, and music. Paste‘s top twenty TV shows reveal intense interest in questions of morality played out in diverse genres from science fiction (Battlestar Galactica, which dealt weekly withissues ranging from discrimination to suicide bombers), to animation (The Family Guy filled the space that The Simpsons occupied in previous decades), to talk shows (The Daily Show and The Colbert Report;Oprah did not make the list, but is another prominent example). And, of course, standout, thought-provoking dramas such as The Wire, Lost, and Mad Men make the list. What did not make the list: any “show about nothing.”

As for film and music, Paste offered fifty of each, but the list-toppers serve to illustrate the point. In film, Fernando Meirelles’ City of God took the number one spot, and in music, the album Illinoise by Sufjan Stevens claimed top ranking.

I don’t pretend that the first decade of the twenty-firstcentury is somehow a more “moral” decade than its predecessors. (I’m not even sure how one would make that assessment.) But while in the recent past, questions of morality have been the exclusive territory of religious organizations, a veritable non-issue in the ivory towers of academia and the popular imaginations of American artists, they are being asked again with increasing fervor and a tremendous range of concerns.

A recent visit to Nike’s website turned up no sign of the old “Just Do It” mantra. Rather, a different kind of urging (in support of the Product Red campaign) is prominently displayed. It prods the viewer to “Lace Up Save Lives.”

The Curator is an assemblage of original and found essays, poetry, reviews, quotations, image galleries, video, and other media in a continuing commitment to wrestle with all that is in culture, and to look toward all that ought to be in hope.