“The corruption of man,” Emerson wrote, “is followed by the corruption of language.” The reverse is true, and a century later Georges Bernanos had it right: “The worst, the most corrupting lies are problems wrongly stated.” How pertinent this is about so many matters present, including the use of the word culture. My conservative friends now say that with the monstrous perils of communism gone, the main problems of this country are cultural. They mean multiculturalism, and other allied matters, too: the counterculture, rap culture, pop culture, media culture, the cultural elite, the culture of violence, etc., etc. They mean well (at least some of them do), but their language is wrong and, consequently, so is their thinking. When people speak of “multiculturalism,” what they really mean is multi-civilization, whose proponents want the coexistence of altogether different civilizations within the same country. Only: What kind of coexistence? The same goes for the other terms, which are even more meaningless. Think, for instance, of that current cliché: “the culture of violence.” It is not violence that threatens us; it is the prevalence of savagery. It is not the state of culture that we should lament; it is the breakdown of civilization. This is not a semantic argument. Can one speak of a civilization of violence (or of savagery)? No, because the opposite of civilization is barbarism, whereas the opposite of culture i s . . . well, nature.
. . . The ancients had no word for culture. They had other words: civic and civility, which . . . were the antitheses of barbarity and barbarism. “Culture” . . . meant cultivation. For a long time it was inseparable from agriculture; it was applied metaphorically to the cultivation of minds. “Civilize,” in English, appears first in 1601: “to make civil; to bring out of a state of barbarism; to instruct in the arts of life; to enlighten and refine.” For the present idea of “culture” we may thank the Germans. They developed the idea that Kultur was higher than Zivilisation. German heavy thinkers such as Spengler hammered away at this: Civilization is mechanical (and artificial); culture is spiritual (and organic). He worked on his Decline of the West during World War I, when many Germans were convincing themselves that they were a Kulturvolk, a people of culture, superior to a nation of shopkeepers, the English, who were only civilized. Where this idea got the Germans we know, or ought to know. Where this notion has got us at the end of the 20th century—and especially in America—we ought to think about.
A hundred years ago, intellectuals (a distinct group of people beginning to form then) were inclined to accept the superiority of culture over civilization, for more reasons than we do now. Matthew Arnold suggested it powerfully in “Dover Beach.” What he could not yet see was the evolution—or the devolution—of intellectuals, convinced as the latter were that the superiority of culture over civilization was represented by their superiority over the philistines. Yet we can see that intellectuals may become, or indeed be, even less civilized than are philistines. (Especially when intellectuals promote all kinds of barbarisms of their own.) In any event, American intellectuals —perhaps particularly because of their feeling of isolation from other Americans—were especially inclined to accept and propagate this culture-civilization antithesis: Yes, American civilization may have been the most advanced in the world when it came to housing, heating, plumbing, transporting, producing; but American culture had yet to catch up. Well, American civilization is no longer the most advanced in the world, while—or, perhaps, because—American culture has caught up. Intellectuals have often lamented the inadequacy of American culture, while they surely knew how to profit from American civilization. Among other things, they wished that there were more Greenwich Villages in this country. Well, now there are—sordid enclaves of barbarism, most of them. . . .
The signs of the breakdown of American civilization are all around us. Their illustration would require an encyclopedic jeremiad. More and more people, all kinds of people, recognize what is going on. Sensitive people already exist whose experiences lead them to use the proper term—as, for example, James Prothero, a public-school teacher in Southern California, in a recent article in the New Oxford Review. “Civilization has ceased to exist in the urban area around my high school.” . . .
Unlike in the case of Greece or Rome, the barbarians are not at the gate (though some of them are pouring through). They are inside, and I do not only mean those coming up from the subway. Readers may now suppose that I am thinking only, or mostly, of blacks. I am not. The barbarism burgeoning across this country has been propagated by the culture of whites, and I do not mean slavery. That is long gone. What are not gone are movies, television, talk radio, books, magazines, music, art—yes, art—propagating juvenility, irresponsibility, loudness, corrupt language, sexual prowess, physical brutality, and pornography and leading to a widespread decay not only of “values” and of standards of behavior but of imagination. The worst barbarian talk I have ever listened to was the self-centered, endless monologue of an Italian-American taxi driver from Brooklyn to Manhattan. In 1870, William Dean Howells welcomed Italians to America: “a race that is immemorially civilized.” “Scratch the mask of a modern Italian,” he wrote, “and you will find a polite pagan.” The Irish were the barbarians: “Scrape one of these Yankeefied Celts and you’ll find a savage.” He could not have been more wrong. He may have been right about those poor Italian immigrants 100 years ago. What American crowd culture has made some of their descendants into is another story.
Neither rock nor porn was invented by blacks. (Nor were blues and jazz: Those were fusions of black musical talent and sensitivity with Anglo-Saxon forms of harmony and modern syncopation, at a time when the ambition of American blacks amounted to more than emulation of whites, when their ambition was to acquire their rightful place within an American civilization.) The pictorial and popular culture that celebrates physicality, sexuality, juvenility, self-indulgence, and primitiveness, whether in high art or low (including actors and singers and rock groups who call themselves “conservatives” or who are taken up enthusiastically by “conservatives”) are produced and represented and consumed by whites. (Think only of the happiness on Richard Nixon’s face when he had the privileged moment of welcoming Elvis Presley in the Oval Office.) So are advertisements produced by whites, including their half-naked and stubble-faced vitelloni. . . . When primitiveness is prized, need one be surprised that blacks prove to be good at it and that whites are afraid of them in the streets—which, of course, is the obverse of what white “racism” is supposed to be?
There is plenty of “culture” thrown at children in our schools, but very little of civilization. We now have hordes of young people to whom not only the notions but the very words “civilization” and “civilized” are hardly known—at a time when more people mouth the word “culture” than ever before. And this has a special pertinence to the United States, where our forefathers were convinced of their duty to bring civilization to the New World—a greater task even than its preservation of the Old. . . .
When a civilization functions, so do its public institutions. A hundred years ago, American public schools, public hospitals, etc., were among the best in the world. Since that time the very sense of what is “public” has decayed: Our public schools, public hospitals, public transportation are avoided and shunned by many people. But at least in one important respect there is no difference between those public schools where the young maim and occasionally murder each other and the most expensive of private institutions. All American schools are hardly more than custodial institutions now—to keep young people off the streets and away from home, and not only in the event that both of their parents are at work. . . . Whether in an inner-city school or at Harvard, the young are not taught civilization. I do not mean the teaching of good manners—that disappeared some time ago. (Though Goethe was right: There are no manners which do not have a moral foundation somewhere.) Nor do I mean the older American public-school practice of teaching good citizenship. I mean a respect for life, for an orderly life that is inseparable not only from a respect for learning but from a respect for one’s provenance, for language, and for the ability to read, write, and listen. Almost half of our young now spend nearly 20 years in schools, with the result that most of them cannot read and write and express themselves adequately.
This has something to do with the propaganda about the Information Explosion. (“Explosion,” with its destructive connotation, is the mot juste.) There is a breakdown of communication, part and parcel of the breakdown of civilization, an information “culture” that has nothing to do with in-formation, for that requires listening. Since entire generations no longer know how to listen, we have this widening breakdown of communication (and, thus, of civility) between parents and children, husbands and wives, lovers, teachers and students, and so on. When “culture” can (as it already does) degenerate into mere entertainment, “civilization,” too, can degenerate into mere telephoning.
Civilization includes paying attention to others. Rare that is now, particularly in the world of scholarship—or, as the cliché goes, in “the community of scholars.” There is no such community. There is the old saw about the specialist who knows more and more about less and less. There was nothing very wrong with that. What we now have are academic bloviators who know less and less about more and more, while the majority of their colleagues read less and less and write (or, rather, process words) more and more. If that is culture, then the hell with it. Meanwhile, a professor who says something critical about a Mexican or a Chinese or a homosexual may be punished, having bucked multiculturalism. Another professor who engages in carnal commerce with his students has done nothing wrong. Such judgments are products of a progressively broadening “culture.” They are also the products of advancing barbarism, not of civilization, as in sex education, which, too, has nothing to do with the advance of civilization. It is public instruction for mechanical and antiseptic, safe and sinless carnality, at a time when one of the marks of a broken-down civilization is the decay of privacy—and of a sense of sin (that sense of sin without which sex tastes like egg without salt).
Clothes do not make the man, or woman, but they do illustrate many things. In the past young people looked forward to the day when they could acquire and wear the clothes (together with other rights and privileges) of adults. Now the more “progressive” the professor the more he apes the clothes, habits, words, and sounds of the young. Young men no longer emulate mature men; but since it is in the nature of youth to emulate, they emulate the customs and the clothes of the barbarians they see, often through their determined cult of ugliness. In sum, there is a culture of juvenility, while there is no such thing as a juvenile civilization. There cannot be. Civilization calls for maturity, and our culture now is largely puerile—consider only that the majority of movies and records are made for teenage consumers. This kind of cultural rot has pervaded the national economy—the so-called material basis of our society. As reported in the New York Times last year, four of the five most successful stocks of the previous six years were Coca-Cola, Pepsico, Motorola, and Disney, producers and promoters of juvenile slurping and of puerile entertainment, i.e.. Fizz, i.e., the Youth Culture. Three of the principal “losers” were IBM, Westinghouse, and Ford. This tells us something about where not only American culture but American industry is going, or not going. (Eight months later I read a column in the Times by William Safire, who, a proponent of “free enterprise,” attacked those who object to turning the Virginia battlefields of the Civil War into a great Disney theme park and entertainment center. Safire is a Republican, a “conservative,” and a self-proclaimed “Man of the Right.”) Civilization means the restriction of many a “freedom.” When will our newfangled—and many of the not-so-newfangled—”conservatives” and “libertarians” ever learn? . . .
It is the—often masochistic—contempt of civilized man that marks much of “modern” culture in the 20th century. I will not go so far as to say that Picasso or Klee or Le Corbusier—and, yes, Frank Lloyd Wright—were neo-barbarians (though the case can and will one day be made), even preceding John Cage or Jackson Pollock or the ghoulish Warhol and that example of an oxymoron, the Museum of Primitive Art; they were surely opponents not of culture but of civilization. (I read that Woody Allen is a “cultural icon.” Perhaps, but is he an emblem of civilization?)
We live in a society where the term “middle class” has lost all of its meaning, since nearly everybody is “middle class” in one way or another, including criminals, who are no longer a recognizable or definable stratum of the population. The crime rate rises rapidly, yet the proportion of professional criminals, professional burglars, professional robbers, professional prostitutes actually decreases. Because of the breakdown of civilization, that once grey area, or no-man’s-land, between the habitual (and recognizable) criminal and the common citizen has now spilled over into vast areas of society, and I am not even thinking of the criminality of drug abusers. I am thinking of the awful fact—and it is a fact—that large numbers of part-time burglars and part-time robbers and part-time prostitutes now regard themselves, and are not infrequently regarded by others, as more or less normal and (to alarmingly many people) as more or less acceptable citizens. Why not, since prototypes of many of them are so portrayed in movies, television, etc.? Within that enormous bubble of a national middle class there is now a wide scatteration of barbarians; and the sense of community, which is inseparable from the relations of the sexes (the sexual act in itself meaning the temporary formation of a community of two), has changed. Now it is men and women not of the same “class” but of the same “culture” that seek each other out, which is an interesting and even intriguing development. though it has little to do with civilization, the decay of which has now seeped down deep enough to involve the relations of the sexes. For meanwhile, the insistence on women’s rights proceeds apace with the loss of respect for them, which is extremely damaging to civilization, since women are the natural creators and protectors not only of their young but of the virtues of domesticity and of privacy.
The American ideal of government includes the protection of domesticity and privacy through the maintenance of enough law and order to guarantee the safety of citizens so that they can prosper freely. But we have long forgotten that it is more difficult to be free than not to be free. That depends on civilization. In 1848 Colonel Richard B. Mason drafted a proclamation to the inhabitants of California, after a treaty had ceded it to the United States from Mexico. The United States was bringing civilization to California, with a stable government administering equal justice. “The arts and sciences will flourish, and the labor of the agriculturist, guided by the lamp of learning, will stimulate the earth to the most beautiful production.” Well, civilization in California, as well as in the United States government, is in plenty of trouble now, not the least because of productions of “culture,” not agriculture. Meanwhile “the arts and sciences” have become dependent on the government, with plenty of trouble there, too, because of the absence of cultural “standards.” But this is not only a problem of standards; it is a practical one. Should government promote “culture” at all? That is at least arguable. What is not arguable is that government must protect civilization. When it fails to do so, government, as we know it, dissolves, with first anarchy and then barbaric tyranny succeeding it.
It is possible to exaggerate the virtues of civilization. It is possible to exaggerate the virtues of Babbitts, but the idea of Babbitt is now at least two generations behind us. Yes, there were too many Babbitts in this country at the time of Sinclair Lewis and Calvin Coolidge. But this was a powerful civilization then, with ample and varied opportunities for the tending of culture, when even the Babbitts, innocents as Sinclair Lewis described them, were made to pay some respect to culture, usually through the insistence of their wives. The yuppies are the grandchildren of the Babbitts; they are not innocent; they are “culture-oriented,” except that theirs is a movie culture. The New Yorker, founded during the Babbitt era, was supposed to have proclaimed that its readership would not include old ladies in Dubuque. Well, for some years now the last readers of the old New Yorker, the remnant members of civilization, the true American Kulturträgerinnen were, and still are, a few old ladies in places such as Dubuque, while the New Yorker has become a soft-porn Vanity Fair, with a few culture cookies thrown in, but just about devoid of civilization, and with an emphatic presence of what its editor thinks is a tony barbarism.
I read that Miss Susan Sontag has appeared in Sarajevo, arranging a performance there of Waiting for Godot. What endangers the lives of people there is a breakdown of civilization, not of culture; but that is not my point. I respect the courage of her impulse; but I question the clarity of her purpose. When the Papuans will again practice cannibalism—inspired by what they have seen of it on American television—will their victims be Waiting for Sontag? We face something new in the long history of mankind. One can have culture without civilization. The progressive notion of the great chain of evolution—from primitiveness to civilization to culture—has become laughable.
A longer version of this article first appeared in the September 1994 issue.