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September 20, 2007

Dumbing Down

Essays on the Strip-mining of American Culture
Washburn/Thornton, ed. – 9780393317237

This gem is no longer in print, but can be easily found (ABEBOOKS) used, for $4-8, and it’s very much worthwhile to purchase one. It is a reasoned and eloquent attack on the ferocious process of our cultural decline. Neil Postman’s assessment is that it provides “the best picture we have of the declining and embarrassing condition of discourse in America.”

There are 22 separate essays, all by sage and illuminating, critical commentators dealing with subjects for which they are noted. Amongst the essays are those on:

• education in its deteriorative state, and its cultural impact
• the dangerous change from written to aural culture
• the disappearance of “betters” (that is, true role models)
• the decline of the arts and science within the broader culture, with a discussion of the vanishing of high culture and meaningful museum displays, amongst other things
• the difficulties wrought by egalitarianism and diversity
• the “malling of America,” and what it is doing to our culture by eliminating the public square
• the universalization of fast and prepared foods as the ability and willingness to cook, or even to understand cooking, disappears, along with the appreciation of fine food
• the disappearance of the eros and mystique of sex

I ran across a review of this book in random reading and felt it appropriate to apprise you of its existence. I’ll leave the discoveries to you, but amongst the comments there are a few made which I found especially electric.

One realizes that there has been a collapse of the social pyramid in which high-brow condescended to low-brow, while the two joined hands in taking pot-shots at the middle.

• we end up with Madonna, Britney, Paris and Lindsay joining illiterate athletes in being today’s role models in our era of fame by notoriety
• movie moguls who used to control studios and offer an amalgam of talent and experience are now gone, along with most of the seriousness of times past; movies and TV. no longer reflect historic American values or those of the civilized world
• the desertion of authority—it’s no longer of consequence. Everyone is entitled his opinion about everything, while taste, decorum and value are trivialized, individualized and debauched
• museums dumb down exhibits so that those with a sound-bite mentality are not bored--not having fun--and worse, many scientists are now of the opinion that science is in fact opinion, not subject to reality checks; true science is disappearing, and what we consider science is often incoherent
• then there’s voodoo science: the social construction of reality
• the masses actually believe that pulp fiction and writers such as Maya Angelou are talented, and that rock groups produce fine music as commendable as Bach, Beethoven, Mozart or Tchaikovsky
• social sciences are supporting ridiculous hypotheses based upon what they feel ought to be the case, the evidence be damned
• the misdirection of self-esteem from something earned to something simply awarded because you’ve been born, and its impact upon culture—nay, civilization
• gone is “the willingness to defer judgment until we had enough experience and breadth of knowledge to [actually] make a judgment.” Of course, that would be judgmental, and isn’t permitted
• somehow Andy Warhol’s art is equated to Michelangelo and Ruben
• NEA funding of “piss-Christ” and chocolate art is considered of value along with talentless poets and writers with anti-capitalist, anti-middle class, anti-American “whole-earth” cultural antinomianism; since they cannot survive within the honest market, yet they “want to seem cutting edge [and] insist the government they despise should pay for the scissors.”
• there is a dearth of critics, who are superfluous or unwelcome; who’s to judge in this era of no standards?
• there’s even a dissertation on the ubiquity of the “F” word which is quite reflective

The material included is best summarized by George F. Kennan, who “gives a spirited defense of why we must not let equality before the law be forcibly extended into arenas where a natural aristocracy of merit can produce far more creative governances than opinion polling of ‘the public.’” This comment is relevant to all of the subjects discussed.

Matthew Arnold once observed “a man’s life of each day depends for its solidity and value on whether he reads, and far more still on what he reads.” So read this book!

And reread it—reflect upon it and commiserate with the essayists included herein over the decline of the U.S., and of the West in general. I’m not sure what we can do about it, but if enough people try to figure it out someone might come up with a bright answer.

Posted by respeto at September 20, 2007 3:34 PM