More on the low state of the world and how we got here. I read this months ago and meant to share it with shruggers…..
How Highbrows Killed Culture Fred Siegel — April 2012, Commentary
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 in the vast middle class aspired to elevate their tastes and were given the means and opportunity to do so.
The wildly successful attack on American popular culture in the 1950s was an outgrowth of noxious ideas that consumed the intellectual classes of the West in the first five decades of the 20th century—ideas so vague and so general that they were not discredited by the unprecedented flowering of popular art in the United States in the years after World War II. And, in the most savage of ironies, that attack ended up not changing popular culture for the better but instead has led to a popular culture so debased as to obviate parody.
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.” The writers Cowley referred to—Sinclair Lewis, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson, and Waldo Frank especially—had “a vague belief in aristocracy” and a sense that they were being “oppressed” by the culture of Main Street. But they believed America could be rescued from the pits of its popular culture by secular priests of sufficient insight to redeem the country from the depredations of the mass culture produced by democracy and capitalism. They were championed not only by leftists such as Cowley, but also by Nietzscheans such as H.L. Mencken, the critic and editor whom Walter Lippmann described in 1926 as “the most powerful influence on this whole generation of educated people” who famously mocked the hapless “herd,” “the imbeciles,” the “booboisie,” all of whom he deemed the “peasantry” that blighted American cultural life.
The concept of mass culture as a deadening danger took on a new power and coherence with the publication in 1932 of two major works, José Ortega y Gasset’s The Revolt of the Masses and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Both books, which became required reading for a half century of college students in the wake of World War II, came to be seen as prophecies of 1950s American conformism. Their warnings about the dangers of a consumerist dystopia have long been integrated into the American liberal worldview.
Ortega’s extended essay and Huxley’s novel were written at a dark time for democracy. In the course of the 1920s, first Portugal, then Spain, Italy, Greece, Japan, Poland, and Czechoslovakia, followed by Austria, Hungary, Yugoslavia, and a host of Latin American countries had turned to dictatorship. Fascism was in the saddle in Italy and the Nazis were threatening to seize power in Germany as both The Revolt of the Masses and Brave New World were being composed—yet both Ortega and Huxley saw American culture as the greatest threat to the future.
Read more here.