Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Rebellions And Devolutions

     Fred Reed is characteristically blunt:

     American culture now drinks deeply from the ghetto, and there is no turning this around either. The country has achieved the dictatorship of the sub-proletariat. Someone said that when the lower orders found that they could vote themselves the treasury, they would. They can also vote themselves the culture, and have.

     There is no solution. Complaining about degraded music, semi-literacy, and barnyard taste accomplishes nothing. Soon there will be none left who remember what has been lost. Once broken, the chain cannot be repaired.

     It is over. Putrefaction is irreversible, either by Ronald or Lucretia.

     Fred’s vision, though bleak, is clear. It’s also largely accurate.

     Century after century, the West ascended. Its people became ever more capable. Their expectations of themselves, their fellows, and their progeny rose ever higher. Their appreciation for the unwritten laws that guide the hands of wise legislators became clearer and firmer. The first derivative of Civilization appeared to have set a lower bound below which it would not dip – and the second derivative seemed positive as well.

     Then came the Twentieth Century.

     Cultural devolution swept Europe first. In part that was because of the First World War and its effects on Europeans’ self-confidence. However, it was also because the orgy of death and destruction the Old World had barely survived left it disinclined to criticize cultural rebels and insurgents, much less punish them. For the first time in Westphalian history, those who violated public norms did so with no fear of reproof.

     The musical Cabaret, derived from Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin, tells of the time’s ongoing cultural devolution in a light, musically ornamented format. Yet the story is grim, and remains so today, for the rise of Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist German Workers’ Party was made possible by Germany’s descent into the cultural gutter. In brief, many saw it as a necessary, cleansing force, while those who differed had been too greatly weakened into an undifferentiated, uncritical “tolerance” to put it down.

     World War Two – what Barbara Tuchman called “the Second Round” in the epilogue to her award winner The Guns of August – further weakened the general inclination to defend the gains of Westphalian Europe. What remained of the Old World’s civilizational confidence vanished. “Tolerance” of crudity and filth in culture (to say nothing of deadly nonsense in politics) became effectively universal. Worse, it infected the huge contingents of Americans sent to Europe during and after the war and sailed home with them to infect others.

     America, weakened by a decade-long depression and the export of its youngest and fittest men for a foreign war, would shortly embark on a European course.

     Please allow me, in kindness to an old man weary from unpleasant reminiscences, to pass without comment over the last seventy years of American cultural history. We all know it for what it is. Suffice it to say that the very idea of cultural quality has been anathematized. As Fred Reed said, we have drunk deeply of the ghetto: its animalistic rhythms, its predatory instincts, its willful mindlessness, and its embrace of squalor. Rather than capitalizing on and advancing from the cultural plateau of the early Twentieth Century – a height that innovators such as Steinbeck, Faulkner, Gershwin, Aaron Copland, and Irving Thalberg recognized and respected – contemporary fiction, music, visual art, and the new media of cinema and television have embraced the lowest of the low. Respect for decency and taste have become the exception rather than the rule.

     The reason is not hard to find: those who have rewarded the depravity of such offerings with their money and applause have cowed those horrified by them into silent acceptance. The catchphrases are “cultural relativism,” “respect for ethnic and racial identities,” and of course “tolerance.” When a development is widely celebrated while criticism is absent, we can only expect it to increase. As interest in the higher-minded culture of the prewar West has dwindled, our technology has spread its replacement to every corner of the globe, imbuing it with a staying power the older arts lack.

     The rebels have become the establishment.

     Having said all the above, I must also say this: There is no such thing as an irreversible trend. Reversal might be supremely difficult, but as long as men possess free will, it will remain possible to undo anything their predecessors have done. Fred Reed and I differ to that extent.

     There are some hopeful signs. The independent writers’ movement shows promise. There have been minor indications of a resurgence of interest in representational art. The musical genre called progressive rock, or more concisely prog, has delved into symphonic forms and century-old literature for inspiration and direction. But the tide of crudity and filth has not turned. It may yet swallow those bits of constructive rebellion against our all but totally devolved culture.

     What we patronize, we’ll get more of; what we ignore will wither away. There have been vanishingly few exceptions to that pattern.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I've been telling people since I was a teenager that I live in the wrong century. I can't stand, as you so accurately described, the coarsening of the culture, and I wish there was a way to reverse the decline, but I don't see it. I also think it scares me more than I can say, the future I see for my kid and his generation.