September 1, 2009

We are the people our parents warned us against

Where did it all begin?

Reviewing recent history, the last century perhaps, we can observe a trend leading us socially and intellectually from the steady push upward witnessed in the years following World War II, to a prolonged decline and into a near psychotic, antisocial, anti-intellectual culture.

In America at the turn of the 20th century there were distinct classes; a high, or upper class, and a lower class. Some in the high class were altruistic (patriotic?) and wished to enhance the lives and minds of those Americans of lower social stature. They wished for America to grow and improve.

This manifested itself in a push to educate the great unwashed, and thus we find a multitude of tomes with titles and subjects designed to entice lowbrow society to read. Reading, the highbrows postulated, was the key to intellectual enlightenment.

A great setback came with the First World War. It isn’t easy to educate the masses when you must send them off to foreign lands to do bloody battle. Following that war, highbrow culture rebounded somewhat only to have another war come round. It looked bleak for the goal of enlightenment, but the patrons of literature would not lose faith.

Following World War Two, the literary world experienced an explosion of effort aimed at an untapped market. Thousands of returning troops had spent many lonely hours nursing dog-eared paperback books, some of poor quality and many of dubious subject. This spawned a true revolution in print media, which found fertile ground in a generation hungry for knowledge and distraction. The paperback book industry grew by leaps and bounds, and the collective strength of intellect of the average American grew with it. It was this growth in knowledge that fostered the birth of the American middle class.

The movement to enlighten the lower classes, initially nurtured and kept alive by a high class, benevolent elite, was mostly taken over in the post war years by young, ambitious businessmen seeking profit. The publishing industry was a goldmine, and the goal of educating the masses became secondary to profit. The quality of the writing suffered some, but the revolution managed to maintain.

Unfortunately, the age of enlightenment was transient. Even with contributions from altruistic, intellectual highbrows, middlebrow culture started heading toward a downturn after only a few years. The slide, at first gradual, has over the years become an avalanche.

The first real indication of this downturn, interestingly, coincides with the early era of television.

Books were not the only source of distraction in the post war days. In the years immediately preceding the first television broadcasts, and before widespread television ownership, radio programs provided Americans with entertainment. Many of those early shows were comedy, aimed at a popular audience, but there were also the likes of Playhouse 90, which broadcast high quality drama, and Edward R. Murrow’s regular offering of serious documentaries. The networks let the more popular but less educational programs pay the cost of maintaining the higher class programs at first, but that would not last long.

Murrow was very popular, and made the transition to television without skipping a beat. At first he was able to remain somewhat intellectual in his offerings. The very popular Person to Person show featured hard hitting interviews and solid news.

Playhouse 90, however, soon faded away, and Murrow’s program slowly lightened up; his interviews now with popular black & white film stars and early television personalities rather than serious figures of the time. Murrow seemed to find a niche with this, but the more serious See it Now documentary series didn’t get quite the ratings. Such shows would soon be dropped from TV schedules altogether. Mass entertainment was winning the battle over mass enlightenment.

The late 50’s to mid-60’s saw the final documented corruption of middle class enlightenment with the advent of the TV quiz show and the scandals that would follow. In the early days of the very popular $64,000 Question program, which had its roots in radio, popular contestants such as Boris Karloff, Jack Benny and Dr. Joyce Brothers wowed middle class audiences with humor and, for Dr. Brother at least, the ability to answer tough questions. Benny appeared only once, and won $1.00 for correctly answering a question about violins. Karloff did better; taking $32,000 with a correct response on children’s fairy tales. Brothers, however, had staying power and eventually took home $64,000. Her final question was about the sport of boxing.

Scandal came later when, at the prompting of the show’s sponsor, popular contestants were not left on their own to succeed, but were instead fed correct answers while the less popular contestants were coached to give incorrect responses.

American anti-intellectualism seems to have followed a parallel with the dumbing down of television entertainment, but there were isolated efforts to stem the slide. The 1960’s counterculture and the Bohemian, coffee shop (later hippie) generation, spawned by a straitlaced society of the 50’s and early 60’s, became the early holdouts in the war against reason. When the American middle class buried its collective head in the sand of entertainment, and later infotainment television, this subculture rebelled.

Graduates of that culture have been branded many things over the years; Stalinists, Trotskyites, commies, pinkos, and just plain criminals. Today the terms socialist, fascist and Nazi seem to be popular. Regardless, as a whole the product of Sixties subculture has been a movement with which the anti-intellectuals and profiteers of ignorance have been forced to contend.

Some of the names from the Sixties holdout generation moved between protest and politics. Some, even today, evoke strong emotion. There are the conservative… and the liberal, but they try to maintain some degree of intellectualism in their respective fields. Take for instance:

Authors and pundits Hunter S. Thompson, Andrew Sullivan, William Burroughs, Arthur C. Clarke, Allen Ginsberg, James J. Farrell, Thomas Frank, Tom Wolfe, James Wolcott, Christopher Hitchens, and George Will.

Scholars and scientists Bob Kaplan, William Shockley, Theodore Maiman, Henry Louis Gates, Francis Fukuyama, Eric Alterman, Joshua Cohen, Ray Tomlinson, Michael Lind, Douglas Engelbart, Paul Kennedy, Paul Krugman, and Alan Wolfe.

Athletes Carol Heiss, Muhammad Ali, Wilma Rudolph, Peggy Fleming, and Don Schollander.

Politicians George McGovern, Jerry Brown, Tom Harkin (stricken by popular demand), John Anderson, Al Gore, Lloyd Bensen, John Kerry, Harold Stassen, and Frank Church.

Then there were the revolutionaries (whose contribution may be very debatable); Bernadine Dohrn, Bobby Seale, Huey Newton, Stokley Carmichael, Malcolm X, Abbie Hoffman, Jane Fonda, Jerry Rubin, Timothy Leery, even the inadvertent Patty Hearst.

Regardless, the Sixties era was replete with counter-culturists intently desirous of maintaining some sort of concern for American intellectualism, and many of them remain today as reminders of the time when some really cared.

Mistakes and missteps have been made, of that there can be no argument. Even the motive of some of these historical remnants may be called into question, but we don’t have to agree with them, or even like them, to admire that for which they’ve worked.

Those left are old, fat, bald and grey, but some of them at least remain keen on the target of an educated middle class; a true middlebrow society and a better America. An intellectual America.

Corporate America, by way of mass media, particularly television, seems to be just as intent on maintaining a low road. I guess there is more profit in ignorance, and ignorance knows no party affiliation.


Rogue Medic said...

Overall, I agree, but Sen. Tom Harkin is one of those dragging us into the dark ages of anti-science.

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Lockwood said...

Very interesting and well-written piece. I might quibble with some details (for example, the working class's desire for education and exposure to "high brow" information dates back to the early industrial revolution; manufacturers and other employers offered access to lectures and presentations as an employment benefit), but I most certainly agree with your central thesis, and generally with your supporting arguments.

This spurs lots of ideas for follow-on discussions, such as the changing attitudes of "the masses" toward being "well-educated," (whatever we take that to mean) and the role of the web in allowing people access to some very fine thought and information... or complete insanity... depending on what the user chooses.

Mule Breath said...

RM, no quibble with your Harkin comment. My point is only that he is of that generation and has remained activist. Al Gore has spread his share of misinformation as well, but is also included. You didn't comment on Harold Stassen ;)

Lockwood, My thesis is condensed to keep under that magic 1,000 word limit. If I covered every aspect of the topic this could have been 10,000 words or more. One of the parts left out that I really wish I could have covered is the demise of print media as a result of the electronic revolution... started by radio, carried to near terminal by TV, and now utterly smoked by the internet.

Well-educated = perhaps at least a basic awareness of science and current events? Perhaps salted with a smidge of skepticism?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for another of your well-reasoned and written posts. My one comment on "reason for the decline": You can't sell anything to an intelligent person.

Mule Breath said...

Is the opposite of intelligence ignorance, or is it stupidity?

Do intelligence, ignorance and stupidity fall on a sliding scale?

Ignorance is curable; stupid, is not... so they say.

In the world today, ignorance is also a choice. Is someone who chooses ignorance stupid?

Is stupidity a condition, or is it a behavior that can be corrected by discipline?

Inquiring minds want to know.

Anonymous said...

Interesting questions.
I have come to look on intelligence as describing and referring to mental ability.
Continuing, I understand ignorance as the lack of knowledge or information.
And thus the term stupidity is a term to describe a person's actions or inactions that fly in the face of rational thought, either through ignorance or inability to think rationally.

All three terms can often loose precise definition, depending on specific events or circumstance. I've known so-called intelligent folks to make decisions that have earned themselves the label of "stupid as a box of rocks," just as I've seen folks generally considered to be "dumb as a post" offer up ideas that solve problems a room full of Einsteins couldn't.
Bottom line: Labeling folks' mental ability is a "proceed at your own risk" activity, but we all do it anyway.
And I agree with RM about Harkin.

Mule Breath said...

So all three terms are conditional?

(by popular demand, Harkin is stricken from the list)

Anonymous said...

I can't think of a way around that statement. Our language isn't known for precision and each of us seem to have somewhat different meanings for a great many words.
In describing a person's mental abilities or the lack thereof, we tend to use a lot of imprecise language. "Sharp as a tack," comes to mind - I bet you would get quite a range if you asked a group of folks to give their definition for the phrase.

I've noticed most of my life that perceived high intelligence is often connected with a negative when someone remarks about it: "Oh yes, Bill is smart as a whip, but he can't tie his shoes." or "You can ask him anything about computers - he just knows everything. But don't take him to lunch - he eats like a pig."
Why is this? Is intelligence feared? Is the majority just jealous of those gifted with intelligence so negative comments become pass words among "normal" folks? I remember an old put-down from first years in school when the abilities of those kids whose parents had exposed them to reading and simple math were always first hands up with the answers - you could count on hearing some kid say "You think you're so smart," in that sneering way they learn so early.

I can't argue that the three terms are not conditional.