George Garrett used to tell the story of a young writer who visited him in York Harbor, Maine.  The writer, who had worked in a prison, wore a cap emblazoned with the letters SCUP, which stood for something like South Carolina Union of Prisons.  Sharing some of George’s sense of humor—which bordered on the wicked—he went through the streets of the resort town, stopped ill-dressed vacationers, and said in his most polite Southern manner, “Excuse me, sir, but I am with the South Carolina Ugly Patrol, and it is my duty to inform you that your attire and general appearance do not meet the standards of York Harbor.”

The bewildered tourist, oblivious of the impression his white running shoes, baggy shorts, Cubs baseball cap, and official Rick Steves travel vest would make on sensitive people, would usually answer with a bewildered “What?”—to which the writer replied, after reciting his spiel a second time, “I’m sorry, but you and your wife will have to get off the street.”  This was, admittedly, a cruel prank inspired by youthful arrogance, but the urgency of the question implied cannot be ignored: “Why does everything today have to be so ugly?”

I could easily fill this space with appalling examples of stupid ugliness, from the paintings of Picasso to the architecture of the Bauhaus to the famous Golden Arches of McDonald’s and the faces of Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus, but the time for satire, whether political or aesthetic, is long past.  When the daily news reads as if it had been concocted by Jonathan Swift in a fit of depression, there is not much left to say except, “You can’t make this stuff up.”

One of my first published essays was entitled “Menc ken, Thou Shouldst Be Living at This Hour.”  The subject was the impossibility of writing satire in a world gone mad on ugliness and stupidity.  In the course of the essay I cited the example of Spike Jones, who had retired from a career as musical parodist (“Cocktails for Two,” punctuated by sound effects).  In announcing his retirement, the bandleader observed that rock music was so much more ludicrous than his own musical parodies that he felt he had outlived his usefulness.  If only I had followed his advice, I should have spared myself and my devoted handful of readers three decades of bitter satire that fell on blind eyes and deaf ears.

Enough already, as we Americans say, borrowing a bit of German by way of Yiddish.  You will hear no more from me on the failings of Hillary Clinton and Ted Cruz or on the wickedness of the Coen Brothers or the collapse of American morals, manners, and education.  Enough already.  We know all that, and only a child walking past a graveyard has to repeat to himself, over and over, “There’s no such thing as ghosts.”  Here in America we cannot even pretend, as the French do, that there is even a ghost of civility hovering over our shopping malls and megaplex church compounds.  When we had the thing as well as the word, civility referred not so much to politeness as to the proper conduct of citizens as well as to the civilization they shared.  In a nation without either citizens or civilization, the word is now applied to people who avoid giving offense, and there are precious few of them left.

As the old joke goes, anyone who reaches the age of 50 without becoming a curmudgeon has not been paying attention.  Any reader who has been living with his eyes open is aware of what we have lost.  Such readers do not have to be reminded ad nauseam that rap and death-metal music are toxic waste for the mind and soul.  Anyone over 35 who has not come to this conclusion is probably beyond the reach of any treatment less drastic than electric shocks and lobotomy.

Satire was once an important literary genre.  Even today, satire commentary can be entertaining as well as instructive, but too much attention to the lesser problems of social and political conflicts distracts us from our higher callings as men and women.  We have become a nation of Mrs. Jellybys, spending so much time saving the planet or defending the family that we have no time to plant a garden or take care of our own children.  In browsing the internet for political gossip and getting the vote out for the candidates who will ignore us if they win, we are betraying the higher purposes for which we were created, and it is not so strange that along the way we betray our spouses and our children, our colleagues and our mentors.  “L’amour,” as the old French satirist sang in the Complainte de Rutebeuf, “est morte.”  Friendship is dead, and with it loyalty and beauty.  Greed and ugliness rule unchallenged.  Friendship and loyalty are the themes of my next book, and their decay in a world made by greed and mediocrity is not surprising: “For where your treasure is, there will be your heart also.”

I once asked an artist friend from Charleston (Charles D’Antonio) why the world was getting so relentlessly ugly.  All one had to do was to drive from lower Church Street up to North Charleston and the Navy base to see the difference between an older world that valued decency and beauty and a new world that produced only ugliness.  Charlie’s answer was expressed in a pithy pragmatic sentence: “Beauty costs; ugly’s cheap.”  In other words it comes down to a question of money.

There is more truth in this simple formula than might at first appear.  It is obviously true that shopping centers and suburban development owe much of their depressing ugliness to the shoddy construction that gives them a life span of less than a generation.  But, as we know, it is not money itself that is the root of all evil, but cupidity.  This is not the vice of a man who works hard in a useful business or profession to make enough money to live in dignity and comfort and offer his children security, education, and the opportunity to cultivate their minds.  Cupidity is a moral disease, like alcoholism and gluttony, which makes an idol out of a lesser good and stunts our growth as human beings.

From our earliest days in Jamestown, when some of the settlers wasted their time searching for the gold that wasn’t there, Americans have devoted themselves to the pursuit of the fast buck.  If it cannot be found in your own backyard, then it is time to look somewhere else, over the rainbow.  Has your farm, shop, or marriage fallen on hard times?  Go west, young man, and make your fortune raising cattle or busting sod or selling liquor to the Indians.  There is always a new town, a new opportunity, a new woman, and a new life just around the corner.  Scott Fitzgerald got it entirely and exactly wrong when he said that in American lives there are no second acts.  I have known old men falling into Alzheimer’s who still dreamed of making another fortune or running for governor.

If we cannot move all the way from Vermont to California, we can be content to desert downtown Chicago first for Oak Park and, eventually, for the remote suburbs, abandoning our cities to welfare dependents and criminals.  Go to any city along the Great Lakes, from Buffalo to Detroit and Cleveland to Duluth-Superior, and you will see what we have allowed cupidity to do a world that was once beautiful.  Greed makes everything vile, much as lust makes human beings ugly.  “Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers / Little we see in nature that is ours.”  That is partly because pursuing wealth for its own sake and making money out of money are unnatural acts.  In the modern world, we call it going along to get ahead.  Aristotle and Saint Paul took a different view and coupled usury and money-seeking with buggery.

So my friend Charlie got it more right than perhaps he, a former stockbroker, realized, but cupidity is only one source of ugliness, and far from the worst.  How, after all, in purely materialist terms, can we explain the billions of dollars spent by the rich on the childish monstrosities of modern “art”?  It is true that people who spend all their lives as corporate executives or Silicon Valley entrepreneurs have never had the time or even the inclination to understand, much less appreciate, the world around them.  The natural world, unless it can be marketed to them as the latest fashion in environmentalism, is a closed book, and if they are impervious to the created beauties of landscape and living things, how much less are they inclined to seek beauty in the imitation of creation in stone or paint?  In San Francisco, a friend took me to meet his uncle, who had become a very successful art dealer.  His success came as a great surprise to his family, since the dealer had never taken any interest in art.  He had, however, figured out a system.  He picked up unknown artists, bought up all their work, then promoted them as the latest craze and made a bundle off paintings that, to his credit, he neither understood nor even liked.

But how, then, do we explain academic art critics who spend their careers championing every nonsensical movement that comes along?  In their defense, they might tell us that those who fail to appreciate the significance of bridges wrapped in plastic or graffiti sprayed on walls are trapped in the sterile world once dominated by white European males.  And, when these progressive arguments—which have nothing to do with art per se—fail to persuade normal people, they would fall back on one of the prime weapons employed to justify the cult of ugliness: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  This is where the Marxist teachers join hands with Misesian libertarians on the theory of subjective value.  Gold and silver are precious metals, not because of any intrinsic value or beauty or nobility, but only because we have been taught to agree on their value.  They must be correct.  Who in his right mind, after all, would not prefer a modern theory to thousands of years of human experience?  Gold or plastic, Brunello or Mountain Dew, Nicola Pisano or Brâncu?i—it all depends on your point of view or personal taste.

It is a strange fact that art teachers and libertarians still turn their heads to watch a pretty girl go by.  Which are we to take seriously—the theories they espouse, or the women they naturally desire?  The contrasting points of view crop up in two popular movies involving apes: King Kong and Planet of the Apes.  In King Kong, the giant gorilla is obviously smitten with the cute blonde (Fay Wray) with a remarkable talent for screaming, while in Planet of the Apes, Kim Hunter, when she kisses Charlton Heston goodbye, tells him, “You’re so damned ugly!”  Which film gets it right?  I am not talking about the aesthetic or erotic preferences of apes, but of aesthetic truth.  Is beauty a universal reality that only deformed or demented personalities fail to perceive, or just a subjective judgment imposed by experience and education?

Hollywood in the 1930’s still understood what Hollywood rejected by the 1960’s, that beauty really is a form of truth.  There are standards of beauty that are natural to the human race as created beings, and while cultures and tastes will vary remarkably, there is a perceptible convergence of opinion that permits us to admire a Chinese vase or a Navajo blanket.  Ancient Indians who saw Greek sculpture employed some part of the Greek sculptural canons in depicting the Buddha, and these Hellenized images went as far as Japan.  And, if I have overstated the diffusion of Greek aesthetic norms, my case is even stronger.  People, flowers, gold, and statues are not beautiful simply because we have been taught to love them.  On the contrary, we love the beautiful because it is beautiful.  The consequence of accepting the subjective theory of aesthetic value is much the same as the consequence of embracing moral relativism: We become alienated from our own nature.

The official culture of modern states cultivates ugliness for its own sake.  If beauty, as understood by Plato and Plotinus and, later, by Christian artists, gives us a glimpse at both Creation and Creator, then artificial ugliness and cultivated primitiveness are the arts of that inferior creature who has set himself against the face of God.  I have never seen a statue of Mammon, but if there were one, it would look a lot more like the work of Brâncu?i or Jacob Epstein than anything of Phidias or Donatello or Augustus Saint-Gaudens.

Little men, whether by instinct or infernal prompting, will always pursue wealth and power at the expense of their better nature, will always betray the greater for the sake of the lesser cause, whether by building shoddy skyscrapers or by palming off pornography as art.  If I thought I could have any effect in playing the part of David against the Philistines, I might buy a ball cap, stitch on it the letters SCUP, and saddle up, crying, “The South Carolina Ugly Patrol rides again!”  Alas, it can do no good.  Don Quixote tilted only at windmills, while we have arrayed against us the might and wealth of the governments of the United States and Europe, the resources of Harvard and Hollywood and Wall Street.  Maybe, when my wife and I return from Sicily in a week, I shall buy the cap and even take riding lessons.  Tonight, however, we are in Palermo, and Navrozov is making pesce spada in umido after we return from attending the opera at the Teatro Massimo.  While we are here, I want to see if the beautiful La Martorana church has reopened and look again at Antonello’s paintings in the Palazzo Abatellis a few blocks from the Casa Navrozov.  Day after tomorrow we go to Siracusa, where I shall come officially of (old) age.  I plan to eat fish at Il Blu, stare as the sun rises blazing on the sea.  There is a series of books, on which I have been toiling for a dozen years, to finish.  On Sunday we shall attend Mass at the duomo built out of and into the ancient Temple of Athena.  “I wasted time, and now doth time waste me.”