Chilton Williamson, Jr.
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Posted: January 10, 2018

Cultural Notes, in Two Keys

The liberal print media, like all things liberal, are never more themselves than when searching out, discovering, and deploring violence in America—gun violence, police violence, violence against women, violence against children, violence against racial and ethnic minorities, violence against immigrants, violence against Muslims, violence against homosexuals and “transgender people,” violence against foreign countries and cultures, violence against nature—while remaining blissfully unaware of the verbal violence they commit every minute of the day in print and in pixels in their various publications.

So far as I know, the trend began about two decades ago when reporters, columnists, and editorialists discovered and fell helplessly in love with the verb to bash, which apparently appealed to them as le verbe juste, having exactly the connotations of graphic physical brutality, emotional viciousness, and deranged hatred they read into the mildest expression of disapproval or criticism of “gays,” the “gay lifestyle,” and the “gay community.”  Almost overnight, it seemed, “gay bashing” appeared across the media like mushrooms after a spring storm, suggesting wide-eyed devils with teeth like rows of knives smashing in the heads of “gays” with shovels and pickaxes as if they were melons.  Suddenly, the most sensitively phrased hint that homosexuality might be something else than a holy calling and homosexuals its adepts, priests, and prophets provoked the instant charge of “gay bashing.”  Whether or not this sanguinary image caught readers’ imagination by appealing to their highest poetic sense, it certainly captured the fancy of the thousands upon thousands of journalists who discovered they couldn’t do without it.  “When you find a good thing, run it into the ground” was the motto of William Rusher, the late conservative activist and former publisher of National Review.  Unlike so much advice, Rusher’s Rule is pleasurable as well as easy to follow.  So in no time at all the journalistic left was identifying almost anybody who publicly disagreed with, or disapproved of, any member of any social category whose official victim status it recognized as a shovel wielding monster.  Such a person would awaken one morning, sooner rather than later, to learn that he had been officially branded a “basher” overnight.

Journalists as a class are—and they always have been—lazy, poorly educated, and highly imitative people of mediocre intelligence and small imagination.  When one or a handful of them latches onto some new trick of verbal usage, it is entered at once into their tactics and strategy manual until the journalistic brotherhood grows bored with it, usually after the salt has lost its savor for the public.  Meanwhile, they and their colleagues can satisfy their impulse to creativity by widening its field of application—running it into the ground.  Thus in the journalistic idiom of today, no politician, journalist, or public figure of any sort “criticizes” another.  Instead he, she, it, or zit “lashes out,” “slams,” “blasts,” “skewers,” “slashes” (or “bashes,” of course) the person on the receiving end of the criticism, disagreement, or correction, a choice of words intended somehow to moralize and goose what might otherwise be a dullish story, or even no story at all.  The media summon to the reader’s mind the image of a society up in shovels, bullwhips, cudgels, staves, and pikestaffs (but never arms—the boondocks mustn’t be given bad ideas) against itself in scenes evoking Paris during the Terror but on a continental scale, from the White House to the California legislature.  This, mind you, from people who accuse President Trump, the Republican Party, and conservatives generally of “dividing” and “polarizing” the country, and of encouraging a climate of “hate” and violence.

If the media, and the liberal institutions that support, abet, enable, and encourage them, are sincere in claiming that their aim is to “unify” the country by discouraging and prosecuting “hate” and “harmful” language, their fondness for colorful terms useful in enhancing stories about gang warfare in Chicago, Baltimore, and Long Island seems self-defeating at best.

Critics of mass democratic-capitalist consumerist societies since the First World War, and more stridently still after the Second, have seemed to think that “culture” in the capitalist-industrial-technological West should be understood more as a branch of anthropology than as the study of human civilization.  We live in a throwaway world where mass production emphasizes cheapness in quality as well as in price while operating on the principle of “planned obsolescence,” and where products of every kind are discarded the instant they show signs of wear rather than being repaired and mended.  Similarly, what passes for learning and the arts is shoddy and ephemeral, meant to capture and reflect the tastes and enthusiasms of the moment as these are reflected by the vulgar, ignorant, tasteless, and unreflective masses; to harvest the immense profits their creators and promoters crave and expect; and finally to perish, like insects, in a day to make way for new “creative” products from geniuses yet unheard of.  Given the frivolity, shallowness, cynicism, and greed among a category of people who, unlike their historical predecessors, are indifferent to what Aquinas called “excellence in making” and have no ambition to contribute to “the best that has been thought and said” in human history, postmodern civilization is creating nothing of lasting intellectual, artistic, or broadly cultural value, nothing for future generations and civilizations (if there are any) to value, assimilate, and learn from.  A civilization that values nothing, and for which nothing of significance has value, will leave nothing behind of value to be remembered, studied, appreciated, honored, and passed on in turn.  It is a failed civilization, unworthy of the word it profanes.  So the cultural despair experienced by intelligent, educated, sophisticated, and sensitive people is plainly justified.  They may not, indeed, be sufficiently pessimistic in their views.

The culturally fissiparous effects of modern marketing techniques resulting from the identification and targeting of an infinite variety of subsidiary markets, mini-markets, and specialized ones, on the one hand, and, on the other, of mass immigration from everywhere and the intellectual construct called multiculturalism it has produced have been obvious for decades now.  As late as a half-century ago, American high culture, created and supported for the most part by the educated middle and upper classes, was broadly homogeneous.  While perhaps only a relatively small percentage of these people read books at all (as the historian John Lukacs noted when he arrived in America from Hungary in 1946), those who did were likely to read the same books, listen to the same music, patronize the same museums, or at least to have some familiarity with them.  For instance, the novel was still the most popular literary form in those days, as it had been for most of the 20th century.  If you were educated as well as literate, you probably read Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Bellow, Cozzens, and Salinger.  (The Book of the Month Club, middlebrow as it was, encouraged this.  So did The Saturday Evening PostHarper’s, and The New Yorker.)  You could almost certainly distinguish a few bars of a Beethoven symphony from a passage from one of Mozart’s, and you could tell a painting by Goya from one by Van Gogh.  And even if you couldn’t, these things had a resonating familiarity for you.  They were part of the bourgeois atmosphere of the period.  None of this is the case in the second decade of the 21st century, when Western culture has been fractured into uncountable subcultures (or “preferences”), to which have been added the numerous foreign cultures imported by immigrants and encouraged, promoted, and protected by the hegemons of the dominant liberal culture that, inspired by the refugee Frankfurt School, thought up multiculturalism in the first place.  Nowadays, even in the most highly educated circles, a common educational background and common intellectual tastes can no longer be assumed with any confidence.  Cultural references of the sort that, as late as a couple of generations ago, were instantly recognizable are familiar no longer.

The implications this has for the possibilities of cultural transmission are obvious.  Historically, cultural legacies have been determined by the majority culture in any society, though many subcultures have succeeded in passing themselves on as well.  But “many” here refers to the subcultures within many societies, not many subcultures within any one of them.  How can the Americans, or the British, or the French, or the Italians, or even Western civilization as a whole (what remains anyway) transmit their particular cultural accomplishments, and along with these their distinctive cultural genius, when they have been so fractured, diluted, and challenged by foreign elements within and without that they have come to be discredited and superseded, or simply reduced by the relativism of individual choice?  Moreover, it is not only variety but quantity that threatens the transmission of cultures to future generations, and who can say for how long.  When one considers the overwhelming production of print and electronic material today, keeping abreast of the new while remaining in touch with the old is a virtual impossibility.  Hardly anyone reads the “classics” nowadays except college and university students and faculties, and they “study” them chiefly for the purpose of “deconstructing” and mocking them.  Even the “moderns”—Joyce, Proust, Kafka, Conrad, Mann, Eliot, Hemingway, Faulkner, Waugh, etc., etc.—will be as if they had never written within a generation: They are nearly to that vanishing point already.  Their works, though less than a century old, are almost forgotten today, certainly not read (save, again, in academia by students who are almost certain never to pick them up again).  This is not solely because of the decline in serious reading and the “end of books.”  It is also because books are part of a living tradition that was a whole tradition as well, whole in the way that living things are whole, and that the people who participated in that tradition wished to pass forward to posterity.  But today, owing to cultural fragmentation, the number of such people grows fewer and fewer, and the desire to pass on a tradition of which an increasingly smaller minority is even aware becomes weaker and more attenuated.

Until very recently—the last several decades, perhaps—artists of every sort labored (and more often than not suffered) for themselves and their art, for their contemporaries, and for posterity, while hoping for immortal status for their work.  Today, the culturally alert and honest artist who refuses to delude himself can have no such hope.  Nothing of worth that is created today should be expected to survive, because there will be no future interest in anything not of the moment and because a world that churns out oceans and continents of cultural detritus every year will bury and wipe from memory most or even all of what is being, and has been, said and thought—bad, indifferent, and sublime.  In the future, as today, artists, scholars, and thinkers will work solely for the joy of creating something beautiful and true, for themselves, for a tightly circumscribed cultural minority, and for God.    


Originally Published by Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture December 8, 2017

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