--> arlier this fall the literary critic Harold Bloom unloosed a memorable blast in the Los Angeles Times. His target was the National Book Foundation and its decision to bestow an award for "distinguished contribution" to the novelist Stephen King. This award, Bloom noted, had previously been given to such masters of the literary craft as Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, and Arthur Miller, whereas Stephen King's thrillers "sell in the millions but do little more for humanity than keep the publishing world afloat." Bloom saw the decision to honor King as one more episode in "the shocking process of dumbing down our cultural life."
Shortly before Bloom's article appeared, that same paper ran a news story about yet another instance of sliding norms—in this case, involving how the military deals with its deserters. I remember reading about a scholarly conference in Belgium some years ago on the subject of executions for desertion during World War I. One of the participants argued that it would be wrong to regard the fleeing soldiers as derelict in their duty; they weren't deserting, silly, they were "merely exploring the boundaries of consent and personal motivation in a democracy at war" (the boundaries being somewhat to the rear). That argument has now been embraced in spirit by the U.S. Army, which today—even under the Bush Administration and in time of war—almost never prosecutes deserters and, according to the news account, takes a "passive, good-riddance approach to its runaways." In 2001 about 5,000 people decided to simply up and leave the U.S. military. No American has been shot for desertion since 1945.