Doom and Gloom

The Twilight of American Cultureby By Morris BermanW.W. Norton. 205p $23.95.

Last Christmas a Canadian journal reported that a feminist scholar had attacked the prevalence of the image of Frosty the Snowman on seasonal cards and gift-wrap as an emblem of domineering patriarchy. Frosty, she grumped, is a WEM (White Euro-Male)fat and overstuffed to boot. Exceptional? Not when I recall my years of reading grant proposals at the National Endowment for the Humanities, some of which targeted a vast right-wing WEM evil empire. Like Santa, however, Frosty seems less to symbolize WEM hegemony than what the ancient peoples of the North yearned for every winter: warmth in cold, an unexpected invitation to play, open-armed bounty and generosity. But who am I to quibble with a jihad?

John Leo likes to quibble and would love the Frosty story. Once at Commonweal, then The New York Times, now U.S. News & World Report, Leo is proud of being a (not-yet-dead) white European male. In Incorrect Thoughts, he has assembled his thoughts on politically correct (P.C.) anti-WEM-ism, organizing them by subsections on the media, education, race and gender. Leo is always worth reading for his crisp wit and sprightly tone. Whether he has other virtuessuch as insight into our culture far beyond the range of most Beltway newsmag punditsmay depend on one’s tolerance for differing viewpoints on P.C.


P.C., says Leo, is not simply the belief that there has been WEM hegemony and that its malign effects, where possible, should be repaired. Nor, he says, is it the belief that women and minorities of all kinds have been treated unfairly. Leo avers this in passionate and convincing language. By contrast, what defines P.C., says Leo, is the claim that anyone who disagrees about the means of repairing past wrongs is racist or sexist. If you question quotas, for example, you hate blacks. Often added is the claim, pushed to extremes, that sticks and stones may break our bones but words will surely hurt us. Hence, anyone who is thought to be misusing race and gender terms, or manipulating hegemonic symbols like Frosty, is also racist or sexist.

While most of the essays in the collection attack P.C., the best is on another subject, The Selling of Rebellion. Here Leo traces the links between ads for products that transcend boundaries (e.g., speedy cars) and current disdain (by some) for moral restraints; Obey’ and rules’ are bad. Breaking rules with or without your Isuzu, is good. Automakers have been pushing this idea in various ways since the Dodge Rebellion’ of the mid-1960s. As Leo says, youth loves freedom, and Madison Avenue knows how to coopt its rhetoric for conformist purposese.g., invest in Merrill Lynch (to know no boundaries); see The English Patient (in love, there are no boundaries). Later Leo links this to the vogue for transgress in academia, where no wordnot hegemony, not even phallocentricis more fetishized for its frisson of counter-cultural defiance. Rigid boundary-setting is extreme, but, as Leo points out, life without boundaries is not freedom but narcissism; transgression for its own sake becomes merely another rigid code.

Leo is meaty on smaller subjects too, e.g., the effect of teachers’ unions on public schools or the value of parochial ones (Separate and Unequal), which, unlike Catholic colleges, don’t ape their peers. He details the efforts of the M.L.A. (the hemisphere’s looniest P.C. group) and the National Council of Teachers of English to lower standards (in their view, English is only the privileged dialect). He comes to the amazing conclusion (despite its obviousness, has it been said before?) that abysmal student writing may have a tad to do with the way English is taught. Maybe folks have been too busy nailing Frosty.

In TheTwilight of American Culture Morris Berman, the author of numerous works who currently teaches at Johns Hopkins University, also laments P.C., but as part of a larger battle to sustain the Enlightenmentor what he calls, conceding a half-truth to postmodernism, its brighter side. His book is intellectually ambitious, focused on the broad consequences of education in decline, salacious media and nonstop Muzak and a megamerged, Starbuckized, corporate McWorld. Berman did not invent all these terms; but he marshals them well in an insightful, eloquent, albeit not entirely persuasive thesis. Berman echoes other jeremiads. We are in decline; something is rotten in the state of America; or as Peter Finch’s character in the l978 movie Network put it, I’m mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take it anymore. Afterward came everyone from Allan Bloom (The Closing of the American Mind, 1986) to Jacques Barzun (From Dawn to Decadence, 2000). In The Culture of Complaint, Robert Hughes said this decline-and-fall genre helped turn the Amazon into The general message of such books? America is another Rome; we face a new dark age.

Berman echoes other gloomsters. In the 1850’s at the Grand Chartreuse, Matthew Arnold felt lost between two worlds, one dead,/ The other powerless to be born. Although French revolutionaries had tried to kill this past, Arnold still felt the allure of medieval monasticism, a haven in a time of change. About the same time, Ruskin celebrated the Gothic in art, and neo-gothic towers started popping up, even on Fifth Avenue. Today, as groups like Medieval Baebes chant their soft, erotic versions of O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, Berman seeks his Grand Chartreuse. Brighter tomorrows, he says, depend on a new monastic movement. Iona and other sanctuaries featured in Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization are not just history but also prophecy, he says. New monastic individuals (N.M.I.’s) unite! Berman declares: You have nothing to lose but your credit cards.

He does not mean people should flock to abbeys. Berman is suggestive about N.M.I’.s, eschewing definition but listing attributes (they are creative, nomadic, seek work they love, disdain pop culture; they are an unmonied aristocracy, more like a 19th-century Bohemian elite than medieval monastics). Indeed, the reason Berman refers to monks at all is that they once performed a curatorial task of saving a legacyby accident, he says, not conviction. He preaches a secular version of in the world but not of the world.

He does tell good stories of N.M.I. efforts in final chapters, including a Great Books program run by idealistic teachers for ex-cons and dropouts. Elitism to him does not mean snobbishly flaunting standards but assuming anyone can reach them. However, Berman says one cannot institutionalize such experiments, posing the question: If new monasticism is individual, even anarchic, how can it beget general renaissance?

Many will doubt not just Berman’s solution but also his diagnosis; only time will tell. Who, after this century, wants to go into forecasting? His case might have been better had he employed narratives earlier in the book as well as later. Discourse on the fate of civilization can become dry. In fairness, Berman pledges not to entertain you. But any author should refrain from carrying such a principle too far.

Berman’s take on education, on which he could compare notes with Leo, is dire. He has been a visiting professor at several institutions, including a distance learning college to which he politely gives the alias Alt.U. Is he off base in his generalizing? It is said that America has the best university system ever, although this is mostly said by university presidents and foreign academics who want in. Nonetheless, more people get degrees than ever before; no society has been more credentialed. Never have more people sat in general education courses where they are at least exposed to learning the liberal arts. But then the decline of nontechnical learning that Berman tracesnot among researchers or scholars, but young peopleis a puzzle. Given the emphasis on mass in higher education, we should see not decline and fall, but resurgence.

Admitting more minority students has certainly been a great gain. But if students generally are questioning (or even debating) McWorld materialism, it would be hot news. Perennial reports by education associations warn of a decline of interest in the liberal arts plus an overwhelming professorial focus on research, not teachinga choice not especially helpful at such times. One can argue about Berman’s data, but it is hard to say he is wrong about the decreasing knowledge of history, literature and culture in the last 30 years. Art institutions report an increasing aging of their audience. After the baby boomers, who are now around 50-something, they do not see large numbers coming from the generations who graduated from high school after 1970. He blames consumerism, student demands for better grades and the reduction of academics to entertainment (Captain Kangaroo has 18 honorary degrees, Leo reports). Dumbing down and tarting up, however, do not seem to explain fully how the greatest opportunity in the history of education has been squandered.

Besides Leo, Berman should compare notes with some of the recent papal encyclicalsnot the ones on abortion or birth control, which the press loves to pillory, but those that critique Western materialism and spiritual malaise, which the press ignores. In his argument for a new monasticism, Berman might find support from the tradition that once sustained the old. Why reject the material, unless you believe in spirit?

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