There was a time in this country when success meant cultural uplift. Even Al Capone aped the manners of his social betters. But for generations now we have been looking at a nation engaged in a race to the cultural bottom, the downward mobility of an entire society.
I’m not talking about money. There’s a lot of that to go around if you work hard and keep your snout relatively clean. I’m speaking about a culture that prizes miscreants, not scholars. A time of thugs, not artists. Of ideology, not art.
We live in an age when popular entertainers make millions of dollars by catering to the worst and most bestial aspects of human nature. The old verities have slipped away, to be replaced by the notions of the gutter, by the cacophony of a disordered jungle.
How did this happen? What made America welcome ground for the aesthetic sensibilities of vicious mental toddlers and abyss trolling plotters of ruin?
It likely started in the 60s, when adults abrogated their responsibilities to youth by letting them get away with anything in the name of the countercultural avant garde. Which is strange, as in the previous decade cultural envelopes were pushed by urbane grownups who did not whine or bray as did the likes of 60s icons. In the intentionally mischaracterized supposedly somnolent 50s, they created. The music of Charlie Parker, the art of Jackson Pollock, and the writing of Jack Kerouac stand as stark reminders of the last decade the adults were in charge. To paraphrase Louis XV, “After them, the deluge.”
When the flood came the scruffy became au courant. The scruffy led to the depraved and the depraved led to the monsters of the modern era. No grotesquerie, no vulgar act, no pillage of our traditional temples of national consciousness became off limits to these riff raff. It was The Great Negative Emulation, an emulation of the worst in the dark and twisted depths of the human soul.
The French have had a term for it since the 19th century. They call it “Nostalgie de la boue.” It means “nostalgia for mud.” It’s “the attraction to low-life culture, experience, and degradation, found at times both in individuals and in cultural movements.” Jean Jacques Rousseau described it. But it took our age to define it.
Can we pull out of this dive? If ever, not for quite awhile. The scruffians of the 60s command the heights of culture today, especially in education. Thus they will keep teaching their gullible students that Eminem is on a par with Maria Callas and Warhol and Turner are equals, even though Warhol quite admitted what and who he was. And like the Prell commercial of yesteryear, those students will teach their students and so on, and so on, and so on.
Perhaps there will come a rebirth. It’s possible we will come afresh to realize that Debussy is better than DaBaby. Maybe for some now unforseen reason American culture will lift itself off its hocks and once more produce a society that values adult substance over the sadly tempting glitter of garbage. On that day, regardless of our material wealth, geopolitical position, and technological prowess, we may again become a truly great nation.