The Cultural Breakdown
NEVER before in history have so many words been spoken or written that are not worth hearing or reading. Why is it that a swamp of vapid and vulgar thoughts has bogged down the entire world? Is this not the age of enlightenment? Is this not the age when cultural standards should rise to a new zenith? Yet world-wide the cultural standards are breaking down. Some have not awakened to this fact yet. This is because the number of college students grows, the interest in creative arts widens, the circulation of books and magazines expands and the attendance at art galleries increases. Yet culture, which has to do with fineness of taste and thought, is measured not by quantity but by quality. What, then, is the quality of what is popular in literature, entertainment, art and music?
When we take music for an example we find that much of what is called “popular” is less than good; indeed, far less than mediocre. True culture produces music as well as hears it. Today, though, few are the music-makers; the overwhelming many are the quiescent listeners. Thus Douglas Gilbert wrote in his book Lost Chords: “America is no longer a melodic nation. We do not sing any more. We are sung at.”
The whole meaning of culture has degenerated. Even the phrase “man of culture” sounds old-fashioned. And even the word “discrimination” seems to have lost its meaning of distinguishing good from bad and has been narrowed down to racial intolerance. Culture itself has degenerated into pursuit of devices of self-entertainment. Most people spend more time and money on entertainment than they do on self-improvement. This is natural, since culture is believed to be readily purchasable at the television store or the box office. Yet much of what appears on the movie and TV screen develops in its audience a shallow and shoddy taste.
What shall we say of modern art? Just this: it puts more emphasis on perplexity than on beauty. Likewise modern literature has put more emphasis on the abnormal than on what is beautiful. Judging by the popular novels and magazines, millions of people in the world’s most civilized nations are living in a dream world of romantic or lurid unreality. The grim significance lies not just in the fact that people crave escape from reality but in what people want to escape into—childish sentimentality or physical unrestraint. Before World War II Germans were reading Tarzan; he was their favorite. But Tarzan is mild compared with the heroes of modern novels, especially the heroes of drugstore libraries.
Novels used to bring warmth to the heart. Now the more soul-chilling the book is the more likely it is to succeed. When one critic reviewed a novel in the New York Times here is what he said: “The author in the past has frequently been crippled by too much loving compassion. . . . Lately a new and healthier sinister note has crept into Mr. Morris’ novels. . . . His charming native types, his average husbands and wives, have grown slightly monstrous; his homely domestic circles have come to resemble the lairs of female animals strewn with the carcasses of men. What was once warming to the heart is now chilling, and with the change Mr. Morris has acquired new meaning and stature as a novelist.” Why the new stature? Because of a “healthier sinister note”! The whole world has gone psychopathic; so perhaps to many the “sinister note” really is healthy and normal. What a delusion!
What of the newspapers? They are a tremendous potential for raising cultural standards. Yet the tabloid that features sex and crimes becomes a nation’s best-selling newspaper. If cultivated people object, the tabloid editors have a ready-made answer: they print only what the public wants. And so it is that one of the standard questions for determining a person’s culture and intelligence (what does he read?) can almost be narrowed down to what newspaper does he buy? So degrading has the press become that one writer went so far as to say: “If one were searching for the best means to efface and kill in a whole nation the discipline of respect, the feeling for what is elevated, one could not do better than take the American newspapers.”
But the cultural breakdown reaches far beyond America. The newsstands of Europe bear this out. Recently Dennis W. Brogan wrote: “Progress has been the same in Britain as in the United States; as mere literacy has spread, so apparently have taste, decency and the power of reflection diminished.” Yes, the cultural breakdown has illuminated the present war against reflection and solitude. If one remains alone to meditate and read, he is believed to be antisocial. The advent of the cinema, TV and the portable radio has reduced the possibility of anyone’s being left prey to his own thoughts.
Today liberal arts, subjects studied for culture rather than for immediate practical use (literature, languages, history, etc.) are in full retreat. Agreeing with this, Princeton University’s president Harold W. Dodds declared: “America’s vast system of tax-supported secondary education is not fulfilling its duty to the mind. . . . Its greatest weakness has come from playing down academic scholarship.” Most of America’s postwar expansion in schools has been vocational. But are not the graduates of today’s schools vocationally competent and mentally alert? Yes, but as one educator put it: “Those who look beneath the surface of these attractive graduates find limitations in mental self-discipline, humane values, firm ethical concepts, historical perspective, qualitative standards and depth and accuracy of knowledge.”
Long ago a writer of depth and understanding explained how important it is for men to fix their thoughts on whatever things are righteous, chaste, lovable and of good report. Yet today’s mass mediums of communication, with the people’s zestful consent, seem devoted to fixing public attention on whatever things are trivial, ugly, vulgar, lewd and of ill report. Clearly, the cultural breakdown is here. It had to come. For we are in the “last days” of a destruction-bound, evil world whose god is Satan the Devil. So another part of the sign of the old world’s end is before our eyes: ‘Know this, that in the last days critical times hard to deal with will be here. For men will be without love of goodness.’—2 Tim. 3:1-3, NW.