HE WAS a conventional FDR-style liberal Democrat. Other than that, nothing would have recommended him to intellectual elite of his time. They would have seen him -- to borrow from the essay quoted below -- as a member of "the hapless 'herd,' the 'booboisie,' all of whom [Mencken] deemed the 'peasantry' that blighted American cultural life."
Yet one night each week, while we lived on the farm, he . . .
. . . drove into town for a reading club on Homer, Plato, Marcus Aurelius, Dante, Shakespeare, Madison, Darwin, Freud, and others in the Western canon. It was part of a reading program called "Great Books of the Western World." He carried with him books well-marked in pencil.
The "Great Books" program is now dead and few universities still take the view that well-educated westerners need to know their literary and intellectual heritage. Essayist Fred Siegel blames self-anointed "highbrows" of the left for this change. They killed culture, he argues.
It is one of the foundational myths of contemporary liberalism: the idea that American culture in the 1950s was not only stifling in its banality but a subtle form of fascism that constituted a danger to the Republic. Whatever the excesses of the 1960s might have been, so the argument goes, that decade represented the necessary struggle to free America's mind-damaged automatons from their captivity at the hands of the Lords of Conformity and Kitsch. And yet, from a remove of more than a half century, we can see that the 1950s were in fact a high point for American culture -- a period when many of the vast middle class aspired to elevate their tastes and were given the means and opportunity to do so.
Mr. Siegel's argument is too long and careful to summarize successfully here. I will quote a bit more below, but if you are at all interested in this subject, read Fred Siegel, "How Highbrows Killed Culture," commentary.magazine.com, April 28, 2012. More samples:
Throughout the opening decades of the 20th century, American liberals engaged in a spirited critique of Americanism, a condition they understood as the pursuit of mass prosperity by an energetic but crude, grasping people chasing their private ambitions without the benefit of a clerisy to guide them. In thrall to their futile quest for material well-being, and numbed by the popular entertainments that appealed to the lowest common denominator in a nation of immigrants, Americans were supposedly incapable of recognizing the superiority of European culture as defined by its literary achievements.
This critique gave rise to the ferment of the 1920s, described by the literary critic Malcolm Cowley as the "exciting years . . . when . . . the young intellectuals seized power in the literary world almost like the Bolsheviks in Russia."
Mr. Siegel credits two writers -- Jose Ortega y Gasset (The Revolt of the Masses) and Aldous Huxley (Brave New World)-- with laying the intellectual foundation for the "concept of mass culture as a deadening danger."
Huxley, writing in a 1927 issue of Harper's, called for an aristocracy of intellect, and in a slim volume entitled Proper Studies, published the same year, he called for culling the masses through negative eugenics. "The active and intelligent oligarchies of the ideal state do not yet exist," he told Harper's readers, "but the Fascist party in Italy, the Communist party in Russia, the Kuomintang in China are still their inadequate precursors." In the future, he insisted, "political democracy as now practiced, will be unknown; our descendants will want a more efficient and rational form of government." He warned America that while it was still wedded to "the old-fashioned democratic and humanitarian ideas of the eighteenth century . . . the force of circumstances will be too powerful for them" and they, too, would come to be governed by a new aristocracy of spirituality and intellect.
In 1931, as Huxley was composing Brave New World, he wrote newspaper articles arguing that "we must abandon democracy and allow ourselves to be ruled dictatorially by men who will compel us to do and suffer what a rational foresight demands."
Mr. Siegel persists in calling these views liberal, but in fact they are profoundly illiberal. The proper name for the preference for rule by this sort of expert elite is progressivism.
The left's "potent critique of mass culture was suddenly muted in the 1930s by the rise of the Communist party in the United States, which required of the intellectuals who flocked to it a sentimental attachment to the masses.
And it seemed as though it had been discredited to some degree by World War II. The "hollow men" of the middle class, whom liberal [read progressive] intellectuals had been taught to despise by T.S. Eliot's poem of the same name, proved their mettle by defeating the Nazis and saving Western civilization itself.
The 1950s revived "the reactionary vision of Huxley and Ortega," Mr. Siegal argues.
But the target had changed. In the 1950s version of the mass-culture critique, the man and women of America were said to have become alienated from their authentic selves not by the Babbitts of conformity but by a pervasive popular culture that kept them in a state of vegetative torpor. Everything from women's magazines to radio to comic books was implicated in this scheme, driven by the need of American capitalism to keep people in a perpetual state of false consciousness."
Mr. Siegel mocks this emblematic critique from a 1956 book of essays on the dangers of popular culture.
On the surface the Donald Duck . . . cartoons seem merely pleasant little fictions but they are actually overladen with the most aggressive, competitive, and sadistic themes. On the verge of hysteria, Donald Duck is a frustrated little monster who has something of the SS man in him and whom we, also having something of the SS man in us, naturally find . . . quite charming.
The intellectual reins of the movement were then taken by what Mr. Siegel calls the Frankfurt School -- Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse, and (in the United States) Dwight Macdonald, who had famously refused to support the United States against the Nazis "on the grounds that 'Europe has its Hitlers, but we have our Rotarians.'"
Macdonald made himself the chief critic of the cultural category he dubbed the "middlebrow." The great danger to America, he argued . . . was the effort by the masses to elevate themselves culturally. Because of the middlebrow impulse, he said, book clubs had spread across the country like so much "ooze." The result, Macdonald believed, could only be the pollution of high culture and its degradation in becoming popular culture. "Two cultures have developed in this country," insisted Macdonald, and "it is in the national interest to keep them separate."
Another critic said Americans had "lost the power to be individuals. They have become social insects like bees and ants." Mr. Siegel's rejoinder:
And what were these insects up to? They were sampling the greatest works of Western civilization for the first time.
Mr. Siegel here documents the astonishing growth of high culture in America of the 1950s. A 250 percent increase in the number of local symphony orchestras. Thirty-five million attending classical music concerts, more than paid to attend major league baseball games. Three hours of Richard III on NBC television, with 50 million viewers. Ballooning book sales, including a million copies of The Adventures of Augie March. Then there were "The Great Books of the Western World."
By 1951 there were 2,500 Great Books discussion groups, with roughly 25,000 members meeting "all over the country, in public libraries, in church basements, Chamber of Commerce offices, corporate conference rooms at IBM and Grumman Aircraft, in private homes, on army bases," and even prisons. At the peak of the Great Books boom . . . 50,000 Americans a year were buying collections of the writings of Plato, Aristotle, the Founding Fathers, and Hegel at prices that "started at $298 and topped out at $1,175, the equivalent of $2,500 to $9,800 today."
This was the danger against which critics of mass culture, inflamed with indignation, arrayed themselves in righteous opposition.
What happened? Mr. Siegel names Susan Sontag ("Notes on Camp") as proponent of a new sensibility, "a victory of style over content and aesthetics over morality." She "dissolved the boundaries between high culture and mass culture in favor of a new sensibility she described as 'camp.'" She was "saying it was all right for serious people to enjoy the kitsch of popular culture as long as they did it with the correct -- superior and ironic -- attitude.
By 1970 the aim of camp to "dethrone the serious" had all but succeeded. The last remnants of bourgeois morality having largely melted away as part of the national culture, there was little to make even mock cultural rebellion meaningful. The "serious" was replaced by a cheerful mindlessness, and the cultural striving of middlebrow culture came to a quiet end.
The next sentence is the beating heart of Mr. Siegel's essay:
Why should the well-meaning middle American labor to read a complex novel by an intellectual or try to work his way through a Great Book if the cultural poohbahs first mocked his efforts and then said they were pointless anyway because what mattered was living "life as theater?"
This larger cultural destruction, Mr. Siegel argues at the end of his marvelous essay, is of a piece with the barbarism of some sixties radicals in universities -- the lawless occupation of buildings and literal burning, in one case, of a professor's manuscript.
Mr. Siegel says Dwight Macdonald cheered the students on, much as our own Houston Chronicle cheered on the Occupy protestors.
The man who had denounced the barbarism of the American middle saw true barbarism in practice and found it wonderfully stimulating.
"You know how sympathetic in general I am to the Young[. T]hey're the best generation I've known in this country, the cleverest and most serious and decent," he said. And then, speaking words that would mark the disgraceful epitaph of the successful assault on the remarkable American cultural moment of the 1950s, he said, wistfully, "I wish they had read a little."
If you wish to read more about this phenomenon, pick up Jacques Barzun's magisterial From Dawn to Decadence and read how the bourgeoisie (the European term for regular folks), shocked into silence by the horrors of World War I, ceased to object to the degradation of culture by artists and writers of the 1920s and 1930s. Mr. Siegel's analysis of what happened in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s fits perfectly into Mr. Barzun's larger thesis.
And so we have a world where young skulls full of mush in Western universities believe comic books are literature and know nothing of the things my own father studied with such enthusiasm and seriousness of purpose. No wonder that they so careless of the principles of politics and economics and morality associated with Western Civilization and so vulnerable to the vanities of President Barack Hussein Obama and other elitists in Huxley's "new aristocracy" who dare to fundamentally transform that which they neither know nor understand.
If you wish to fight back, a good way to begin is by supporting the Honors College at Houston Baptist University. The core curriculum is the Western canon. This paragraph from the HBU website explains the purpose:
As Winston Churchill said, “The first duty of a university is to teach wisdom, not a trade; character, not technicalities.” There is no better way to get this foundation of wisdom and character than experiencing the challenges and rewards of our Honors College.