This is the fifth in a series of essays on the end of the First American Republic, this one mostly written in 2005.
Sam Smith – Thomas Jefferson saw it coming. He warned, “From the conclusion of this war we shall be going down hill. It will not then be necessary to resort every moment to the people for support. They will be forgotten, therefore, and their rights disregarded. They will forget themselves, but in the sole faculty of making money, and will never think of uniting to effect a due respect for their rights. The shackles, therefore, which shall not be knocked off at the conclusion of this war, will remain on us long, will be made heavier and heavier, till our rights shall revive or expire in a convulsion.”
Among the conceits of our elite and media is the assumption that America, in the form that they wish to imagine it, is immortal. Part of this is the arrogance of the big, part comes from an admirable if naive faith in progress, part of it is pathological delusion. For a host of reasons, beginning with our own survival, it is long past time to permit the question to be raised: is America collapsing as a culture?
It is easy to forget that history is strewn with the rubble of collapsed civilizations, entropic remains of once sturdy cultures, societies we now remember only thanks to a handful of artifacts guarded in museums.
Our own country was built on the wreckage of Indian culture. Guatemalans use Timex watches rather than checking the Mayan Calendar. The European Union is a covert chapter of Empires Anonymous. And in the Peruvian desert there are huge spirals in the earth and straight lines that stretch for miles whose origins are totally forgotten.
Some sixty years ago, anthropologist Alfred Kroeber noted that elements of a culture do die out, “dissolve away, disappear, and are replaced by new ones. The elements of the content of such cultures may have previously spread to other cultures and survive there. Or their place may be taken at home by elements introduced from abroad. Or they may survive, with or without modification, at home, in the different configuration that gradually takes the place of the old one as a successor culture.” Thus even if American democracy dies here; pieces of it may survive somewhere else, or we may become the largest latino culture in the world and, in any event, the Thais may keep the faith of the Ipod alive regardless of what happens to us.
As an example, Kroeber says that there came a time when the ancient Egyptians had clearly attained “the greatest military might, expansion, wealth, excellence of art and development of thought. The inherent patterns of their culture may be said to have been fully realized or to have been saturated then. After that, with pattern potentialities exhausted, there could be only diminished or devitalized repletion; unless the patterns can be reformulated in the direction of a new set of values – which would be equivalent to recasting the civilization into a new one or into a thoroughly new phase of one. This latter did not happen in Egypt; so more and more sluggish mechanical repetition within the realized but fully exhausted patterns became the universal vogue.”
Does this begin to sound a bit familiar?
Let’s take the example of popular music, useful because music is a creative discipline with a mathematical base, thus lending itself to more objective analysis than some of its artistic colleagues. In fact, you can write a succinct history of western music by simply outlining the progression of chords used and their relationship with one another. This is what Ward Cannel, a journalist, and Fred Marx, a classical pianist, did in a remarkable guide, “How to Play Piano Despite Years of Lessons.”
Charting the basic chords – separated by a common distance of notes and placed around a circle like guests at a large dinner table – you can describe the rise of western music by simply checking off which of these chords were being used by musicians at a particular time. Thus with folk music, children’s songs, early hymns and Bach’s Minuet In G, it was typical to use one chord and its neighbor on either side.
In later classical harmony, composers moved from the base chord to another, say, three or four seats away counter clockwise and then begin a slow procession home stopping at the other chairs. Examples would include Bach’s Well Tempered Clavichord. It doesn’t seem like much, but in the history of music, it was a revolutionary change.
Along the way, there were other variations such as starting at the second or third chair and moving back towards home as in Honeysuckle Rose.
If you really wanted to be wild, you threw in a chord not on the way home at all, but in the other direction.
Then came a new stage and the game was played on the clockwise side of the circle. Later a tune might work its way entirely around the circle. Or if you want to be really hip, you could leap across the circle to the other side.
Similarly, the baker’s dozen of notes in the western scale have been rearranged over time in increasingly complex ways, starting with the simple chords we associate with folk music and moving on to add the 7th, flatted 9th, 13th and so forth.
If you were to take every piece of music in America ever written and categorize it by these standards – the number and placement of chords and their complexity – you would find that musical opportunity grew with the rest of the republic.
This didn’t mean that you had to use all these opportunities to make good music – bluegrass and the blues prove that – only that the potential for musicians and composers were ever expanding, a sign of a thriving culture. As Thelonius Monk put it, “I’m after new chords, new ways of syncopating, new figures, new runs. How to use notes differently. That’s it. Just using notes differently.”
Unfortunately, however, there are only so many chairs at the table and there are only so many combinations of movement. Eventually you run out of chairs for chords, variations on the order you play them, and their complexity. You reach the point that Kroeber described: “With pattern potentialities exhausted, there could be only diminished or devitalized repletion. . . so more and more sluggish mechanical repetition within the realized but fully exhausted patterns became the universal vogue.”
Which is to say, much of the music of today.
There is, to be sure, another major source of change: other cultures. American folk music, for example, is a history of immigration translated into notes. The blues, it has been suggested, originated in a blend of the western and African scale. As early as Jelly Roll Morton, jazz musicians were borrowing from latin sounds with a more recent folk example being the blending of Paul Simon and Ladysmith Black Mambazo in ‘Graceland.’
This continues today but in a critically modified form: Jelly Roll Morton and Paul Simon were inventive musicians seeking the best in another culture; Ricky Martin and Gloria Estefan are products of a huge anglo recording company looking for something new to exploit.
I suspect the decay of American music may have begun with the disco drum machine of 1970s, the beginning of percussion mechanicus to go along with Erich Fromm’s homo mechanicus. Both share a problem: they aren’t human. A live drummer is constantly listening to the other musicians, finding new ways to back them up, discovering a groove by intent or accident, making a two bar point, or just showing off. If you were to analyze the sound with lab equipment you might be amazed at how irregular it actually is – the inevitable result of being human rather than mechanical.
But that is part of the secret of real music. Much of the appeal of jazz, for example, comes from listening to the alteration, manipulation or distortion of the familiar. Thus a singer may hold a note longer than expected or lend it excruciating pain when you were expecting nothing more than a simple B flat. One writer described it as repetition just to the point of boredom – at which something new and unexpected happens.
As amplifiers replaced acoustic sound, there were other changes in music. The recording companies began dumbing down music, reducing the number of chords, replacing melody with repetitive phrases, emphasizing only the extreme end of the dynamic range, and in the end – with rap – doing away with the need for music almost entirely.
This is not to say that there was not merit within these forms – the pain and rebellion of punk, the soul of rap – but rather that for the most part the corporate monopolies had seized control of our ear drums and locked them down in a few tiny cells.
The result is telling. In 2002, ABC asked respondents for the top rock n roll star of all time. Elvis Presley got 38%, no one else got more than 5% and listed in the top ten were such golden oldies as Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, Mick Jagger, Bruce Springseen, Paul McCartney and Eric Clapton. Michael Jackson got 2%.
Rolling Stone’s listing of top 40 songs found only 8% more recent than 1980.
Thus when you ask, what’s been happening in American popular music over the past 25 years, a reasonable answer is: not much.
You find similarities in other arts. For example, a Modern Library critics’ listing of the 100 best English language novels of the 20th century includes only one written after 1980: Ironweed by William Kennedy, written in 1983.
One list of the 100 most acclaimed films finds only nine post-1980. The American Film Institute’s list includes only 13.
An American Film Institute’s listing of top film musicals found only 12% after the 1970s and none in the 1980s.
The Art Wolf’s listing of top 50 artists could come up with only Andy Warhol and Jean Michel Basquiat as recent examples.
One may quarrel with such lists, but a culture that is truly thriving will tend, if anything, to overvalue its own contributions and downplay those of the past. You may argue, for example, with those who claimed to come from ‘the greatest generation,’ but you can’t argue that they felt that way. Now, instead of bragging, we just order Butch Cassidy from Neflix one more time.
A vibrant culture will be spurred by what it considers greatness. This doesn’t mean that it necessarily is, but the mere presumption affects how the society behaves.
For example, Victor Davis Hanson wrote that “Whether or not you agreed with them, university presidents used to be dignified figures on the American scene. They often were distinguished scholars, capable of bringing their own brand of independent thinking to bear on the operation and reform of their institutions. Above all, they took seriously the university’s mission to seek and transmit the truth, and thereby to strengthen the free society that made such inquiry possible.
“But it has been a long time since Woodrow Wilson (at Princeton), Robert Hutchins (at Chicago) or James Bryant Conant (at Harvard) set the tone for American campuses. Over the past year, four university presidents have been in the news – from Harvard; the University of California, Santa Cruz; the University of Colorado; and the University of California, Berkeley. In each case, the curtains have briefly parted, allowing the public to glimpse the campus wizards working the levers behind the scenes, and confirming that something has gone terribly wrong at our best public and private universities.”
Of course, Woodrow Wilson spread segregation in the government and James Conant may have done public education incalculable damage by setting it on a course of gargantuan factory-like school districts, but that is not the point. The point is that they were icons of a society that thought it knew where it was going and what it admired.
Today, such figures have largely been reduced to talk of their fundraising skill or excessive expense accounts. Few suggest that they are people we should actually admire.
Similarly, in the churches there is a stunning lack of models. This is not merely the fault of the neo-Gantries who have taken over much of American Christianity but of other Protestant sects that say not a mumblin’ word about the theological hijacking by the right and who offer little alternative in such areas as social justice and world peace. Judaism, which once helped carry the banner for social change, has largely abandoned that field in favor of supporting Israel. As for the Catholics, the best they can do is try to find ways to prove that they’re not a bunch of perverts.
The dearth of greatness is most painfully obvious perhaps in the nation’s capital, in its politics, think tanks and media. To be sure, a pantomime is performed, but everyone knows it is just for television. Obama compares himself to Roosevelt, Koppel pretends he’s Murrow, but nobody’s really fooled. The disappearance of greatness – whether rightly or wrongly recognized as such – is common throughout American society – from football coaches to moral leaders. In the end we are left with Justin Bieber and Linsday Lohan.
Part of the problem was identified as far back as the 1920s by Julien Benda in his book, The Treason of the Intellectuals: “At the very top of the scale of moral values [the intellectuals] place the possession of concrete advantages, of material power and the means by which they are procured; and they hold up to scorn the pursuit of truly spiritual advantages, of non-practical or disinterested values.”
Instead of being outsiders, critics and moral observers, the American intelligentsia have become players accepting many of the values of the system they should be scorning.
Benda listed some of these values:
– “The extolling of courage at the expense of other virtues. . .
– “The extolling of harshness and the scorn for human love — pity, charity, benevolence. . . – “The teaching which says that when a will is successful that fact alone gives it a moral value, whereas the will which fails is for that reason alone deserving of contempt.”
In my last book, Why Bother?, I wrote:
Older Americans remember the victories and their celebrations; they remember Norman Rockwell men standing motionless for the national anthem in baseball stadiums with fedoras held over their hearts; a government that did more than regulate or arrest you; politicians who were revered; newscasters who were trusted; and music that dripped syrup over our spirits and made them sweet and sticky. They remember when there was a right and wrong and who and what belonged with each, whether it was true or not. They remember a time when those in power lied and were actually able to fool us. They remember what a real myth was like even when it was false, cruel, deceptive, and the property of only a few.
Now, despite the improved economic and social status of women and minorities, despite decades of economic progress, despite Velcro, SUVs, MTV, NASA, DVD, cell phones, and the Internet you can’t raise a majority that is proud of this country. We neither enjoy our myths nor our reality. We hate our politicians, ignore our moral voices, and distrust our media. We have destroyed natural habitats, created the nation’s first downwardly mobile generation, stagnated their parent’s income, and removed the jobs of each to distant lands. We have created rapacious oligopolies of defense and medicine, frittered away public revenues and watched indifferently as, around the world, the homeless and the miserable pile up. Our leaders and the media speak less and less of freedom, democracy, justice, or of their own land. Perhaps most telling, we are no longer able to react, but only to gawk.
Too be sure, many of the symbols of America remain, but they have become crude — desperately or only commercially imitative of something that has faded. We still stand for the Star Spangled Banner, but we no longer know what to do while on our feet. We still subscribe to the morning paper but it reads like stale beer. And some of us even still vote, but expect ever less in return. Where once we failed to practice our principles, now we no longer even profess to honor them.