The history of the decline of American middle-class civilization in the 20th Century remains to be written. From the 1920s to the present, a continuous thread weaves its way through this story. It’s a story that features what one writer has called “the treason of the intellectuals.” It’s a complex tale of what happens when a culture is abandoned by those who were meant to guide it, and who in the end come to hate it.
But let’s start with your grandmother, or perhaps your mother, if you are my age.
Many of you will remember the efflorescence of “higher culture” that characterized America in the 1950s and early 1960s. This was a middle-class phenomenon. Let’s refresh our memories. Those of you too young to have been there can go along for the ride.
America in the 1950s was an exciting place, not at all like the popular caricatures. A rising prosperity following WWII led to more leisure and more disposable income, and Americans decided to do some self-improvement.
Remember the Readers Digest classical music LPs that lined our living room shelves, along with Readers Digest condensed versions of high quality books? Remember The Great Books series that covered every age from Plato to Joseph Conrad? Remember the proliferation of encyclopedias and coffee table books? Remember the inexpensive prints of the great Renaissance painters that began showing up on our parlor walls along with Norman Rockwell?
Remember the crossover music that played on our radio stations in those days, making Wagner and Rachmaninoff favorites of our sisters and mothers, even as the latter learned to play Percy Grainger and Brahms on the piano? Remember the suave Liberace and the mischievous Victor Borge?
Remember the Wurlitzer and Hammond electric organs that took center stage in thousands of American homes in those years? Stay-at-home moms were overnight transformed into the gowned and sequined stage performers of their newly perfervid imaginations.
Sure, there was a popular culture with its Elvis and Buddy Holly, but the same people who listened to Billy Halley and the Comets also followed the arc of Van Cliburn, who enjoyed international status in the 50s. TV shows by the score used as their theme music Tchaikovsky, Reznecek, Rimsky-Korsakov and others. Melodies of Chopin were set to popular lyrics. Charles van Doren, despite later problems, became a cultural hero for his knowledge of Shakespeare and western philosophy on the TV show “Twenty-One.” Bennett Cerf, an accomplished litterateur, was a regular feature on “What’s My Line?”
Today, few people can name the conductor of a major orchestra, but in those days we were all familiar with the names of Stokowski, Toscanini, even the young Leonard Bernstein. The vast majority of today’s technologically savvy generations probably don’t know the name of a single living diva, but we all knew the names of Marian Anderson and Leontyne Price. We had all heard the lucent Mario Lanza sing, and Andre Previn play the piano.
America in the 1950s was the pinnacle of a maturing society. Historian George Marsden considers that decade to have been the apogee of what he calls “The American Enlightenment.’ Two generations in the making, the 1950s were a brief period of brilliance when “an informal Protestant establishment” dominated culture, providing a broadly tolerant secularism that easily coexisted with nonconformity of many kinds. Those who did not care for the young Billy Graham could change the channel to the serene Fulton Sheen.
Political writer Michael Barone dubbed the period “The Midcentury Moment.” For roughly fifty years, Barone writes, America had shared a single, graduated popular culture. High and low were mixed, and held effortlessly in the same mind. By 1955, the millions who tuned in to “I Love Lucy” every week were the same ones who took their kids to the museums and concerts on weekends. This singular culture brought into working class living rooms high-tone TV like “Kraft Television Theater” and “Hallmark Hall of Fame,” as well as the slapstick of Sid Caesar and Milton Berle. Nearly 10% of all Americans tuned into the Metropolitan Opera on Saturday.
America in the 1950s was a more cosmopolitan society than it had ever been, or would ever be again. Servicemen who had been to Italy and Polynesia would never be the same when they returned home. French and Italian love songs, along with Hispanic salsa, filled the airwaves. Air conditioned cars with tubeless tires made road travel more comfortable, while buses became “Scenicruisers.” Sleek new trains crossed and re-crossed the continent. Stylish aircraft based on World War Two bombers made air travel fast and comfortable, even if it was more expensive than most Americans could afford. Who of my generation can forget Ike’s beautiful Lockheed Constellation, or the Boeing Stratocruiser of the movie The High and the Mighty?
The slacker was also born in the 1950s with the appearance of James Dean. Indeed, the idea of the teenager was an invention of the times. High school rebels with duck tails and low-riding Levis were everywhere, long before Fonzi tickled our nostalgia. Though the era is known for the senate hearings of Joe McCarthy, I worked in a factory with a man who was known for his atheism and communist sympathies. He was odd, but he was not ostracized. As for social responsibility, Hollywood was constantly reminding us of our scientific hubris with an endless string of horror movies. In the early fifties we already knew we were polluting the world, at least with radiation.
Still, there were problems, and a host of social pathologies persisted. Anybody interested in a “yes.. but” approach to 1950s’ America will find plenty to justify it. Much of the new Turtle Wax was applied thinly. But there is no denying that the country was developing a more inclusive public philosophy. According to Barone, the two political parties were far more ideologically inclusive than they are today. Compromise was the modus vivendi of Washington, DC. The gentrification of the culture, which I’ve already described in part, was shepherding great swaths of the population in the direction of an American belle époque.
And all of this took place when America’s median income was about $5000 per year. Most middle class families lived on about $400 a month, and mom worked, if at all, only part-time.
There was one group of people unhappy with the democratization of Western Civilization: the intellectual aristocracy, particularly those who considered themselves progressives. This new class, alienated by choice, considered itself the master of the plantation that insured that America hummed along. These individuals detested the suburbs, where this new taste for the arts and humanities was making itself felt. They perfected the institutional sneer that came to be associated with Levittown, “civil religion,” the “booboisie.”
Nobody expressed this better than Dwight MacDonald, in his essay “Masscult and Midcult,” in which he assailed “the enemy outside the walls, the swamp,” by which he meant the new rising middle-class culture. The intellectual priesthood talked of the rise of the “middlebrow,” the man (or woman) with a patina of culture and learning but in fact still largely uncouth.
Books like The Hidden Persuaders, The Organization Man, The Lonely Crowd, and The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit appeared, authored by those intent on deprecating the superficiality and philistinism of American middle class life. Richard Hofstader wrote a best seller, Anti-Intellectualism In American Life, aimed at the despised middle class.
This new literary genre of social critique picked up where Upton Sinclair, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemmingway, H. L. Mencken and Aldous Huxley left off before the Depression and WWII. The intellectual mandarins of the post-war decade decided to throw back the barbarians. In their minds, the middle class was getting uppity.
Whereas in earlier times an intelligentsia had consisted of a small, scattered group of alienated individuals, such as the nihilists in the work of Dostoyevsky or Zola, in the 1950s a much larger group of educated writers and personalities emerged who were fundamentally at war with American and western values. The “professional” intellectual of later years was coming into his own, centered in New York and full of unappeasable indignation. This was the era of Edward Shils, Irving Howe, Susan Sontag and C. Wright Mills. The patron philosopher of this new class was Herbert Marcuse.
There were those who resisted this toxic tide, who understood that a legitimate intelligentsia were motivated by corrective animus rather than a desire to violate, destroy and pillage. One thinks of Will Herberg, Reinhold Niebuhr and Walter Lippmann. Lippmann had noted that the new intelligentsia was collectivist, and that collectivism is always profoundly irreligious. “It is no accident that the only open challenge to the totalitarian state has come from men of deep religious faith,” wrote Lippmann.
But the times they were a’changin’. The intellectuals’ will to power was irresistible, and a full-fledged, secular counterattack along class lines set in. This movement was camouflaged as a political movement, but it was really a class struggle. The Vietnam War was a mere cudgel with which to batter middle-class America, and its usefulness disappeared with the ending of the draft. Any other cause that could be associated with Mills’ ‘Power Elite” would have served equally well.
The aristocracy put its foot down against any notion that the middle class should advance any further into the sacred groves of the intelligentsia. This is the back story of Norman Mailer, Bill Ayers, Mark Rudd, Angela Davis, Jerry Rubin and a host of others who came later, such as Barack Obama, Elizabeth Warren, and Eric Holder. It is the subplot of movies such as Elmer Gantry, The Graduate, If, The Strawberry Statement, Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, the anti-Vietnam movies of the 70s and 80s, and the even later American Beauty.
The rubes who had flocked to the siren call of high culture had to be beaten back, and nothing would serve as well as ridicule. The Bunkers, Archie and Edith, were cast as stereotypical lower middle-class ignoramuses, soon to be put in their place by a multitude of transgressive sitcoms with their casts of ethnic, cultural and sexual superiors.
The “American Enlightenment” that peaked in the 1950s was not yet self-confident, and was effectively smashed by the counterculture of the 1960s. We have not seen its like since. The spirit of rebellion, superiority and perpetual antagonism spread and hardened throughout the decade and was mainstreamed in the 1970s, as David Frum has shown in his book How We Got Here: The Seventies, The Decade That Brought You Modern Life. Frum chronicles the Saturnalia of the ’70s, a shift from faith, classical music and Great Books to pop-psych, religious cults, narcissism, guilt and disco. In short, Frum writes, the American personality was transformed during the 1970s into the postmodern, hedonistic, ironic type so familiar to us today.
But one has to separate the history from the mythology. As the philosopher Nietzsche wrote, ‘those who choose to cast out their own demons must be careful not to enter into the swine themselves.’ The scriptures likewise warn against those who sweep out one devil only to make the home more fit for seven others more evil than the first.
Indeed, the civilization of 1950s’ America was Mycenaean in its magnificence compared with the Iron Age that followed after the mid-1960s. Only one who has lived through these decades can understand what has been forfeited. The 1950s have been parodied for so long as the Land of Ozzie and Harriet that its true character has been lost to a narcissistic age suckled on illusion, chronological arrogance and self-congratulation. A brief Carolingian Renaissance declined into a new Dark Age of well-armed but illiterate barbarians.
Why did this happen?
Much of the answer to that involves the intellectuals. Never before in history had a broadly-based social class of cultural overseers abandoned the very civilization that birthed them, relinquishing their role as conscience of the society in order to become its saboteurs. Without a constructive program to offer, and centered on unending protest of the actual, the intellectuals had little to offer other than unrealistic utopianism and ossified socialism. Many of them did not bother with this side of things, and satisfied themselves with mere destruction of the past.
Joseph Schumpeter, the Austrian economist and political scientist, had warned back in the 1940s that a capitalist economy will create a class of intellectuals who come to oppose and eventually destroy the free market of ideas and enterprise even as they depend on it for their wealth and prestige.
More recently, the history of the continued war of the intellectuals on American traditions and institutions is the theme of Fred Siegel’s The Revolt Against the Masses. Siegel shows that the roots of modern liberalism are in class snobbery and contempt for the middle class, rather than in high principle. Siegel quotes Randolph Bourne, a writer for the New Republic in the 1950s, to illustrate the emerging mentality of the new class of intellectuals; Bourne laments “the downward undertow of our [American] civilization with its leering cheapness and falseness of taste and spiritual outlook, the absence of mind and sincere feeling which we see in our slovenly towns, our vapid moving pictures, our popular novels, and in the vacuous faces of crowds on the city street.”
One might have expected as much from the keening fundamentalists of the right, but few were prepared when the learned classes themselves became the iconoclasts and vandals.
The left is now safely in charge of American culture. But rather than ushering in the Age of Aquarius, the intellectual aristocracy has dumbed down life in this country to the point that art, literature, poetry and even classical music are but appendages of liberal causes and identity politics. Many of the features of Bourne’s middlebrow culture are eerily familiar to us today, but in a new form. Today, a widespread culture of moral relativism, intellectual intolerance, class arrogance, and historical agnosticism coexist with the splendors of technology and the blessings of physical health.
But not everybody is enchanted by the secular empire around us “We see all sights from pole to pole, / And glance, and nod, and bustle by; / And never once possess our soul / Before we die.”