Two Cultures

From the November/December 1979 issue of Chronicles.

I am occasionally reminded (some would say warned), by people whom I respect, that the Chronicles’ polemical tone carries a seed of zealotry. This may result, say those who remind me, in unreflective rejections. If this is the case, I must have misguided my messages, as narrow partisanship was never my ambition. I do not want to become a cause of showdowns, in either word or deed. But I do want to stir intellectual emotions.

We all feel that the divisions of the last two decades must be defined in ideological categories. The liberal/conservative dichotomy befits those categories. These days, a liberal is one who has no qualms in accepting that everything around him is deteriorating into what he sees as a better world. The conservative stands aghast at the sight of everything improving for the worse. Along these lines of confusion, there is emerging a rift between two American cultures which may determine the future of this country.

Such duality was noticed long ago by the Greeks—the inventors of both democracy and snobbery, plebeian sloganeering and cultural sophistication. Ever since, sages and socialites have been talking about culture and folklore, court culture and the vulgar one, high- and low-brow, pop or mass culture. To be true, the Middle Ages witnessed a situation when an intense Christianity transcended borderlines and different tastes: Gregorian chants moved to tears the feudal squire and his serfs alike; both the lowborn and the knight admired Giotto, Cimabue and the Chartres Cathedral. Thereafter, the dual cultural pattern was delineated at the peak of the Renaissance by Castiglione in The Courtier, and from then on it has been susceptible to ambivalences and perversions. Early romanticism fed on folk legends only to fashion attitudes of modish melancholy quite alien to the bustling reality of folksy capitalism. Karl Marx turned his socioeconomic teachings into a moral proposition; it was soon transformed into a morality play, and as such is still staged in the Central Park West salons of the wealthy. Bertolt Brecht and Rene Clair created great art from proletarian street ballads, only to contribute to the highbrow cultural souffle, though it would be unfair to claim that its consumption was limited to millionaires’ drawing rooms. Abstract painting found its way onto Woolworth’s neckties. D. H. Lawrence, a coal miner’s son, wished to speak about the conscience of the common Englishman, only to become the minion of literary gourmets. Today, with television in almost every American household, the demierudite tube priests daily convey highbrow concepts, dryroasted and pre-packaged according to the liberal recipe. Truckers debate Freud and Sartre in turnpike diners without even knowing it, Mahler is passed on to the masses via movie scores, and telephone installers look as if they have just come from Vidal Sasson. The ideological ivory towers of the modern court culture became social conscience and revolution: dreams about utopian justice achieved through violence, upheaval and blood in the gutters remain the single exclusivity which the masses have left to the literati and cognoscenti. If the contemporary American farmer and worker is quite able to acculturate himself to every fad and antic of the establishment, the one he refuses to ape is the establishment’s ravenous appetite for fuzzy idealism at someone else’s expense, one that is rooted in self-hatred, neuroses and psychic debilitations.

Court culture was not always radical; most often it was supercilious, exclusive, contemptuous or just enamored with dimwitted mendacities, like bergerettes in the Petit Trianon. The last 200 years have been a variety of oddities: 18th-century Jacobin bankers from New York City, 19th-century populist terrorists of patrician wealth from Massachusetts, Anita McCormick Blaine from Chicago squandering the International Harvester fortune to support Henry Wallace and communist papers, and the latest California “radical chic” which makes pro-communist stars and movie moguls pour their millions into the cultural advance machine for revolution. And the masses refuse to follow. The promiscuously fondled social conscience reached its climax in the 1960’s on the infamous cover of the New York Review of Books—an organ of highbrow cultural elitism: it featured a diagram for how to make a Molotov cocktail for the benefit of the liberal establishment’s sons and daughters at Ivy League schools who might have felt like bombing a bank or a precinct. Thereby, the court culture of the USA has reached a degeneracy known to other ages, but never so sordid as it is now. Its decay was hastened by journalistic maggots who permeated the new pop-mass-cultural amalgam of the 70’s with venom and insanity—when a letter to the editor could begin, in all seriousness: “I am a normal 19-year-old bisexual woman …”

Not long ago, Lord Snow declared that court/elite culture versus folk/pop culture is an ancient story, whereas the duality now posits science against the humanities. Mathematicians of genius know all about the metaphysics of nuclear physics but have never read Kafka. This has its cause in the effort necessary for specialization in our epoch. But I doubt that this conditions the dichotomous reality in which we live, and, whether we like it or not, we must call the two opposing cultures liberal and conservative. The crucial questions therefore are: What are their similarities and differences? Where is the epicenter of cultural power in today’s America? Who holds the levers? How are the gears operated?

These are difficult questions to answer. Gulf & Western is a mammoth corporation which should stand for capitalism, profits and a free market. Yet its subsidiaries—publishing houses, record companies, Paramount Pictures—publish books, sell albums and make movies which present capitalism as Satan’s invention and openly desire its instant demise. This is nothing extraordinary, as Gulf & Western is also a liberal conglomerate, whose leaders believe in culture as a stock exchange of ideas where values should float freely and win or lose according to the laws of the market. Under these conditions, cultural commodities earn money—and Gulf & Western is primarily interested in money. Since social conscience is the foremost money-making proposition these days, economy and ethics happily readjust one another in Gulf & Western’s boardroom philosophy, and no spiritual conflict threatens the minds of its top managers. Now, there are many corporate giants which are both utterly liberal and into culture. Together with the liberal eminentos, they form the liberal cultural establishment. Whether their opposition is either organized religion or a solitary American who believes that culture (and its sway over daily life) should be value-oriented and related to our heritage, the outcome of the power game is quite obvious. The liberal culture just engulfs the American culture.

Which, of course, means suppression of the adversary culture. Suppression? In democratic America, where everybody can, thanks to the First Amendment, express his views? No one prohibits anybody from publishing a book, making a movie, launching a TV station. That’s true, but in our technotronic reality, an idea, a defense of a value, or an alternate view is not a matter of expression but of visibility, audibility, dissemination. The media are the modern passkey to human consciousness and they are overwhelmingly dedicated to the liberal culture. That is—the media are committed body and soul to the idea of progress toward an endlessly inferior world. The liberals, proud of their nonconformism, have rebelled against hypocrisy over the centuries; their rebellion has become an orthodoxy and anybody who now rebels against their cant is hypocritically branded a bigot and made the object of either ridicule or stony silence.

The official stand of the liberal culture is that its adversary is culturally inferior. The liberal worldview only is declared respectable, and the culture engendered by it auspicious, wise, worthy of attention. But is that so? Even if conservatives and traditionalists may command the allegiance of more minds and souls in America (and we don’t know if that is the case, since the pollsters are reluctant to let conservative scholars formulate their questionnaires), the media will always make it invisible. They know how to do it. Time magazine, for instance, refuses to print, in its “Letters to the Editor” column, any intelligent rebuff of its liberal biases, favoring, instead, inarticulate and doltish ones, giving them an instant yahoo imprint by innuendo. The media are masters of tokenism so they fraudulently reduce the conservative cultural force to a handful of names. Why is it that the only opinion on hard-working small businessmen comes from Burbank, or Manhattan, where smart alecks are making fortunes by turning the moral satisfactions of decent hard work into a rat race by means of derisive one-liners? Every reader of newspapers knows that Goldwater is a conservative, but nobody knows that Faulkner was our greatest conservative writer. We are sternly instructed by the press and show biz that love is a liberal idea, and faithfulness a conservative one, but to prove that love is ennobled by faithfulness is forbidden. By preaching anticapitalism and chintzy hedonism in the same breath, the liberal culture has lost any title to the moral representation of hard-working, law-abiding, normalcy-and-common-sense-craving America. However, the near monopoly of cultural means and the quasi-totalitarian method of ignoring voices of protest present only the liberal image of the reality.

Which makes the two-culture syndrome in America a system of oppression and abuse. To some, it may seem amusing that punk rock, with all its beastly imbecility, is the plaything of the court culture, while the music of Boston Pops serves the plain folk. These paradoxes are at the core of social aberrations. The pristine conviction that social and cultural power are still in the hands of the old financial establishment is an illusion. The cultural, thus the political, standards are now ordained by what some call the New Class. In the early 50’s, plenty of brainy and fiercely liberal if not outrightly radical-minded people, scared stiff by McCarthy, went from politics into professions—journalism, theater, labor law, publishing, etc. Within two decades, they had monopolized the opinion-making apparatus of the country and gathered fabulous wealth along the way. But their allegiances remained the same, and today a mining tycoon is financing the Institute for Policy Studies, an overtly procommunist research center. Professions whose social basis was the bohemian left (stage setting, fashion photography, sound engineering, etc.) have become sources of financial opulence for left-wing politics. The critics of the New Class locate its members mostly in the academe, bureaucracy, the media; but what about the weight of all that money for left causes that comes from the superaffluent Hollywood cameramen or radical disc jockeys?

Some time ago one could read in the New York Times Book Review that now ideas matter, that intellectual movements are now influencing politics. But hasn’t it always been so? Didn’t ideas always generate political events, only in slower sequence than in the era of Telex and communication satellites? Aren’t the TV anchormen and press editorialists just the tom-toms of the idea producer, only quicker in transmitting the watchword to immense audiences? The highbrow culture enamored by radicalism has been a particular beneficiary of this rapid change.

This brings me to perhaps the fundamental difference between their culture and mine. Great art, poetry, music, literature comes from the struggle against the real enemies of mankind: death, misfortune, cruelty, ignorance, insanity, political conquest and subjugation. It never originates in bantering with minor afflictions, discomforts, boredoms, frustrations, artificially inflated social “sufferings.” An epoch, in which there’s no fight for that which touches the soul of the common folk, engenders a minor culture which mirrors trivia and whose reflections are easily forgotten. When contention is moot because everything is permitted, no creativity flourishes. A reigning culture that pushes books which are nothing but extensions of newspapers is inferior; this—when faced with cultural propositions that speak of moral discipline—it must crush the latter’s superiority by totalitarian means. When Pope John Paul II, who clearly belongs to the contemporary nonliberal culture, preaches antiviolence and antipoverty but culls his spiritual force from principle, tradition, fidelity to canon, he must be denounced, for he proves that humane goals and progress can be found in a conservative impulse. Every ruling set of values which upholds its unassailability by administrative and bureaucratic means begins to rot first in arts and letters—precisely because they are privileged and protected. The liberals in America have not yet attained the Soviet style of protectionism, but a special tariff for the liberal twaddle became a rule of cultural life in America in the 60’s and 70’s. The Vidals, Mailers, Vonneguts, the Hollywood radical cinema may be only occasionally and mildly admonished by the liberal interpreters, but never meaningfully criticized, dissected, evaluated. Their formal shortcomings may be pointed out, their philosophy—never. No one may ask what the Cheevers, Styrons, Hellers, et al. have ever given to America, to mankind, to their fellow
man—except for literary smartness, cynicism touted as inquiry, desperate mannerism, pharisaical or sanctimonious depressiveness, lascivious pseudomelancholy and modish etiolation of characters. The fertile Americanism of the Faulkners, Hemingways, Sinclair Lewises, O’Haras has been abandoned amidst the coquettish squeaks of self-hatred. The old naturalism used to proclaim: “Look how it really is! Isn’t it terrible?”; the neonaturalism of the Irvings and Baldwins now says: “Look how it really is! Isn’t it cute?” Hope, social dynamics, respect for the dignity and heroism of the other, indeed the entire democratic pluralism recedes before the onslaught of the neurotic phobias of the other and capitulates to the other’s freakishness. No one knows any longer in whose name cultural facts are praised or condemned. If nonliberal critics condemn a Capote or a Roth, they know why they do it. But what are the liberal culture’s normative criteria? In Time, Inc.’s in-house leaflet we can find a clue to Time magazine’s critical ethics, as its literary critic elucidates on the subject: “‘When I write,’ he explains, ‘it’s just me and the book. I have two basic responsibilities to an author: to try to understand his purpose, and to evaluate how well he succeeds. The reviewer’s third responsibility,’ he adds, ‘is to be absolutely clear and accessible to the reader.’” Thereby, the “critic” tells me that if he had to review Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, he would have praised it to the skies: Hitler’s purpose was easily understandable, he perfectly succeeded in articulating his message, and Time’s book appraiser would have had no trouble in conveying it clearly and accessibly to his readers. End of Time magazine book critic’s responsibilities.

In contrast to the cultural ethos of Time, central to my culture is permanence and an orderly hierarchy of values. For instance: the individual’s moral obligation and responsibility toward another person, community, society, nation towards civilization and its laws, traditions, institutions. The immanence of human bonds in cultural facts is the norm of our judgment of those facts—ideas, trends, books, movies, intellectual inquiries, etc. These bonds are for me the source of mankind’s two most precious concepts: freedom and human dignity. It seems to me rather evident that modern liberal ideas, as they are embodied in the culture engendered by them and created daily by the cultural production, are neither willing nor able to defend and sustain human dignity; about freedom, they mean something different than I do. During the 20th century, the idea of social equality celebrated countless triumphs: in America, for one, things once accessible only through birth, privilege or money—plenty of food, abundant leisure, factual political leverage—have become standard. But freedom and dignity were trampled in Auschwitz and in Gulags; and in the socially successful America, the vulgarization, depersonalization and dehumanization of private life nowadays reduce them both to mockery. Thus, the defense of freedom and human dignity has become the gist of the conflict between their culture and mine.

We all feel confused and benumbed, sensing the loss of the center on which we can safely hang our ideals, beliefs and preferences. We all feel the urge to defend ethical goods, we sense a sort of salvation—general and private—in upholding them; we vaguely realize that this salvation begins there, in the cultural climate, not in economics, politics or social solutions. Many do not understand the spiritual dimensions of our predicament: in the past, the average American was not confronted with this interpretation of his malaise; he used to leave it to schools, churches, political and social arrangements which were supposed to give him sloganlike explications. Then television, with its power of smirking insouciance, overshadowed them all. The average American does not realize that the breakdown of sexual conventions means not only that people can do to their bodies what they wish but that, sooner or later, it entails the collapse of everything built on rule, custom, tradition, even the social contract itself, that it ultimately cancels both human warmth and those bondings on which his sense of life rests.

So I am trying to express my protest by judging the other culture. Like every protest of those who are deliberately ignored, mine can also be denounced as shrill and overwrought. But is it? I do my best to debunk the false greatness fabricated by the liberal culture and now and then a good man or woman or thought, transmogrified into an icon by the omnipotent liberal establishment and sycophancy, gets hurt. But I do not fling unsubstantiated charges; I do not indulge in self-serving showiness; I do not desecrate anybody’s symbols. I just respectfully disagree with my adversaries. Anything else would be incompat­ible with the most cherished precepts of my culture.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.