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Friday, July 05, 2013

Cultural decline

    For nearly two months now, I have been living once again in the Boston area, where I spent nearly the entire period 1965-80.  Much is changed, much is the same.  Public transportation is better than ever and the area has become very bike-friendly.  A large hispanic influx has changed the face of many areas, such as Somerville, which has become a happening place, nearly as unrecognizable as Bethesda, Maryland is to one who first knew it in the 1950s.  Meanwhile, it is still a fine area for movies.  There are three art house multiplexes within a 20 minute drive of my house in Newton, Brookline and Cambridge.  The Brattle, the legendary home of twice-yearly Bogart festivals back in the 1960s, survives, playing a mixture of cheap independent films and repertory.  (I took in a showing of Jaws there on July 4).  But there is something rather striking about the audiences in the art houses.  They appear to be the same people I went to the movies with 35-45 years ago--not the same age group, but literally the same people.  Often one has to search the audience quite carefully to find any people under 40.  All three theaters offer senior discounts, but I have joked that their marketing strategy is backwards: the seniors come out of interest.  They should be discounting the younger folk to get them into the habit of going to the movies at all.

    And this is, sadly, a reflection of what has happened to movies and to the way young people spend their time.  Like everything else in our society, movies as they have come under the control of the Boom generation have become driven purely and simply by market forces.  The studios have been focusing almost entirely on young adults for decades now, and young adults, according to their research, seem to want nothing but action films and romantic comedies.  And indeed, in a tragic reversal of the pattern I and my contemporaries lived through, young people seem to LOSE interest in movies when they go to college.  The Harvard Square, which has been a multiplex for about thirty years, was shut down by the chain that owns it about a year ago and there are no plans to re-open it.  It could not draw enough students on a regular basis to stay alive.   Young parents still take their kids to cartoons and such, of course, but they do not seem to go very often themselves. 

When talking movies began 85 years or so ago, they drew on existing art forms: theater and literature.  Writers wrote scripts, and Hollywood employed many of the best writers in the nation.  Successful books and plays automatically became movies.  All this happens much more rarely now, and virtually every major serious project is heavily compromised by the studios.  Boz Luhrmann's Gatsby is an example: every driving scene has been turned into a car chase, undoubtedly to try to appeal to the young male audience, and the sound track is a mix of great 1920s jazz and hip-hop.  It's ironic that Wall Street, which Oliver Stone made when the GI generation still ruled in Hollywood, is a classic, while Wall Street II, made in the Boomer-dominated era, was a disaster.  Hollywood has spent millions finding the least common denominator of taste.  It seems to have abandoned any serious artistic ambitions.  And ironically, the results are turning out to be disastrous: the industry is reported to be in deep trouble, and Steven Spielberg has predicted that within a few years the only movies left will be special effects spectaculars for which we will have to spend $50 a ticket.

Nineteenth and twentieth century culture was built largely around words--but we are now so awash in words that it is harder and harder for anyone to make a living putting them into print.  The same market-driven culture has transformed publishing, which also pursues the lowest common denominator.  Newspapers are of course in a very serious condition.  The idea that a firm might simply want to publish and market a book because of its quality is still alive, but only barely.  We do not know yet what the impact of e-books is going to be.

A cousin of mine has remarked, quite rightly, that we are living in a great age of television. He was referring of course to the new genre of cable series, from The Sopranos through Six Feet Under to The Wire and my personal favorite, Breaking Bad.  (I exclude Mad Men, which this season confirmed all my growing doubts about it--perhaps on another day I will explain why.)  All those shows succeeded because they reflected the creative version of a single person.  The newer HBO shows, however, are once again skewed towards younger demographics and have been, to me at least, much less impressive. I have tried to get into Girls three times but it is simply hopeless.  I didn't see anything as funny as Lena Dunham's Obama commercial.

Western civilization, as I have said many times, is in retreat on the political as well as the artistic front.  That is the way of the world.  A civilization that takes itself and its art seriously and that devotes time and resources to bringing out the best its people have to offer inevitably commands respect, both inside and outside its own frontiers.  A self-confident western civilization spread its influence over nearly the entire globe from the sixteenth through the twentieth centuries, but I think it's pretty clear that that process has now been reversed.

The book The Closing of the Western Mind still sits unfinished on my "to read" self.  I have been occupied with finishing my own book and haven't had the energy to tackle such a daunting task.  By the end of July I hope to do so.  I am sure the comparison of the aftermath of the Roman Empire with our own era will be a very interesting one.


Unknown said...

Honestly, I think you are almost right.

In a strong sense, the idea of "Western Civilization" as defined by Locke, Mill, and the Founding Fathers will die.

But I don't think we can really compare it to any previous Dark Age, simply because all other Civilizations weren't industrial societies.

A pessimist can say, "Oh, well, Industrialization will collapse!!!"

But I could argue the opposite,
"The MOST Industrialized remnant will rule its neighbors."

I think we are clearly in uncharted territory. The idea of either a Liberal or Marxist society will be as alien as Confucianism or Medieval Catholicism is to us.

We will probably never believe in the idea of "Liberty" precisely because we can look back and see, "if we let the market run society, we will wind up like the American Empire."

But I don't think we are heading toward Barbarism, because even a small West Virginian town with an industrial base could destroy the entire Golden Horde just on Firepower alone...

And industrialization may be difficult, but honestly, even if we "forgot" two hundred years of technology, we are STILL an Industrial society.

(Nuclear War, though, is a different beast all together...)

Bozon said...


Thanks for the update. I have not spent time there since 1980 really.

It once seemed a wonderful place culturally and intellectually, but it already had a lot of the, how to put it, liberal, yet so called intellectual, internationalist, seriousness with blitheness, short comings, that were to bear the fruits you now chronicle in the next period.

The bipartisan market forces that quietly ran that world continued to accrue power, regardless of political party, cultural or community values, or artistic criteria.

They did not worry too much about academic principles, or business scruples, really.

That was window dressing for the plebs.

I should know. I still have a load of the Harvard business school articles from that time in the BU MBA program. Leadership.........

They read like dinosaurs in commercial relations now.

all the best,

Unknown said...

You know, now that I have had time to rum it over, I think Liberty underwent a shift between generations, similar to how the Human Cell grows Cancer.

Liberty really only began to fail when it detached itself from Rationalism and Reason.

Although we tend to imagine Liberty as a product of Finance and Culture, Liberty really only came to be as a methodology to promote Reason.

Hell, Locke is the father of Liberalism AND Empiricism. Both of those concepts together are needed to function.

Once you remove the concept of Reason from Liberty, effectively there cannot be control on a society's behavior, and engages in reckless indulgence.

Put another way, if I can neither force you nor convince you to do what is necessary, then how can any of us survive?

19th Century America may have sucked, but they knew how to get what they wanted. They promoted knowledge and rationality with great skill in their attempt to make a more powerful society.

Since we've abandoned Reason, we've lost the things that makes Liberty possible, such as,

-A strong state to ensure Rights
-Sensible economic policy to prevent suicide
-The recognition of Authority and the ability to work together
-An accumulation of actual knowledge to make better decisions as Free men.

And so I really do think that the fatal, "mutation" from the divorce of Liberty and Reason have probably put Western Civilization in a Terminal Decline.*

Finally, I would like to add that Reason cannot really "die," the same way that "Hope" and "Responsibility" cannot "die" either.

Liberty is a concept that involves a specific relationship. (Do what you want, as long as you don't harm others.)

Hope, Responsibility, and Reasons are states of being, and as such they are too "atomic" to be discredited. (Forgive my over-internationalization.)

I do think that Reason has a future as long as man lives, but we may be in the twilight of Liberty.

*With a fraction of our resources, we could save Western Civilization. However, the Millennial generation's Narcissism is beyond levels unseen in perhaps...ever, and as such it becomes impossible to reform until you stop thinking you are invincible.


Robert Martin said...

I sent your blog to my son who was once a student of Allan Bloom in Chicago. Here is his reply:

He’s kidding, right?

Did I really just read Kaiser lamenting that movies and publishing are driven by market forces, cranking out schlock because that’s what pays? Wow. I’m shocked – shocked! – to find BUSINESS going on inside these two businesses.

When has it been any different? Kaiser talks about the great movies of years past, and it's true that the movies we watch today which were made back then are really good. But of course they are – otherwise we wouldn't still be watching them. People made plenty of other movies back then too. Seems to me I recall hearing that at the height of the Depression there were crews cranking out a movie a week; there were plenty of serials that couldn't have been any better than the stuff that’s produced today but that were churned out to keep people entertained when their daily lives were so grim. We just don’t remember them now because they have been (rightfully and thankfully) consigned to the cutting-room floor of history. For Kaiser to compare the best movies of yesteryear with the average movies of today is at best an example of serious selection bias. And as for the equivalent plaint about publishing, is it maybe enough to recall the two words "yellow journalism"? Or does someone have to remind Kaiser of a long period in this nation’s history when the attitude of the print media towards reporting the news could be summed up (to quote another great old movie) by saying, “You provide the prose poems; I'll provide the war”?

It's a little hard for me to think that Western Civilization as such is somehow “in retreat” in a world where American television shows reach everyone that has a television (i.e., nearly the whole world); to say nothing of a world where Coca-Cola, McDonald's, and KFC are recognized icons on every continent. This is a lowbrow kind of “civilization” to be sure. No argument there. It’s not the kind of “civilization” that college professors patronize or enjoy. But it has ever been so. I’ll bet the guardians of high culture in fifth century Athens were dismayed at the decay of choral performance, when Thespis pandered to low popular tastes by stepping out of his row to talk to the chorus instead of staying in line where he belonged, … then Aeschylus added a second actor doing the same thing, Sophocles added a third … and don’t even get me started talking about Euripides!

I have to admit that I also have a little trouble with the idea of a civilization as a conscious actor, a fitting subject for verbal phrases like "takes itself seriously" and "devotes time" and "commands respect". How exactly does a civilization do these things? I mean, the sentences sound stirring as a piece of rhetoric but what exactly do they mean? If Kaiser is unhappy with the way things are going, what exactly is he asking us – no, let me be more precise: what exactly is he asking ME PERSONALLY, and YOU PERSONALLY, to do about it? And if he’s not asking me and you personally to do anything about whatever ails him, how exactly is this different from krechtzing, “Oy, vas I toisty.”

I had never heard of the book he references, "The Closing of the Western Mind," until reading this piece, but I Googled it afterwards. Is it just me, or does anybody else think that this sounds like a rehashing of the very same argument Edward Gibbon made a while ago, and which historians have been busily debunking ever since? I did find a review (from the New York Times) that says the book is fun to read, but it also cautions against taking the argument too seriously: http://www.nytimes.com/2004/02/15/books/when-the-lights-went-out-in-europe.html

Keith Mills

David Kaiser said...

I will try to respond to your son at length at a later date, but I will comment on the retreat of western civilization. As he seems to understand, western civilization is now so dominated by market forces that that is all we can spread. But meanwhile, I don't see how anyone can take even a brief look at the recent histories of Iran, Lebanon, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Turkey, and even Israel, and not conclude that modern western civilization is giving way to ancient religion in those areas.

Unknown said...

Professor Kaiser,

I would like to respond Mr. Martin's comment, if you would allow it?

What in god's name does Mr. Mills think this is Western Civilization?


Well whatever it is, you are absolutely correct.

But then I ask, why in God's name does Professor Kaiser think this is Western Civilization?


One of these videos is an act of empathy, compassion, and realism.

The other celebrates excess through the open drugging and beating of women.

It's because of the truth. Western Civilization is dead. Long live this new awful culture that lives in the remnants of Western Civilization.

This may be hard to understand, but years of pathological Individualism has created a new epidemic sweeping the land, one in which will ruin the lives of the entire planet for half a century.

It is called Narcissism.


One out of ten Millennials are clinical Narcissists, compared to 3.7 percent of the general population.

Whatever you like to "imagine" this Western Civilization is, all it is is Narcissism, and its impacts will be felt for the rest of this century.

As a Millennial, I will prepare; and I am confident that there will be Opportunity.

But I want you to know, Mr. Mills, that you should be ashamed for celebrating this abomination that has come onto this world.

Kenneth Jost said...

You may be too pessimistic about Western civilization, David, but I agree that the demise of the Harvard Square Theater is very disheartening.

Michael Mills said...

Dr. Kaiser,

I am the son in question (see the previous exchange) and I fear that my comments look a lot more intemperate on the screen than I thought they were when I was writing them as an e-mail. I hope you will chalk up the tone to mere exuberance, since I really didn't mean to shriek.

I would love to hear more, though, about your thoughts on Iran, Lebanon, and the rest of the countries you itemized in your answer to my father. For myself, when I look at those countries I certainly see people quoting ancient religious documents quite a bit; but I'm less convinced that the real way of life they are practising is anything which an ancient could recognize. To overstate just a little bit, it seems as if the trappings of ancient religion have been adopted as a kind of fashion statement or decoration ornamenting a life which is still in some respects irreducibly modern ... and yes, in some respects (surely not all), Western as well.

What do you think of the suggestion made a couple of years ago by ... oh gosh, I think it may have been Ian Buruma but I am happy to be corrected ... who described the current phenomenon of Islamic terrorism as strongly similar to the phenomenon of violent anarchism at the turn of the last century? In each case individuals (often immigrants or displaced persons) adopted an ideology that allowed or encouraged acts of violence against a world where they felt they did not fit; but the real problem was that they were rootless and displaced -- that they did not fit. The ideology was just an overlay. The argument proceeds by pointing out that the people who are today recruited for acts of terrorism often join up in defiance of (and not in obedience to) the express wishes of their families, if indeed they are in contact with their families at all. But surely anybody who had really adopted an ancient or pre-modern way of living would value obedience to the family very highly. The attitude which says, "It's my life and you can't stop me!" comes unmistakeably out of the modern West.

It's just a thought. Naturally there are layers upon layers in this topic. I'll be intersted to hear your further ideas.

Bozon said...


Re the comment, re Gibbon, one response, of many, might be, "What was so wrong with Gibbon, really, re decline?"

My own view is that he may well have been onto some things there, although his analysis might in retrospect leave certain aspects to be better explored later in other ways.

all the best

Bruce Wilder said...

I do hope you caught Fareed Zakaria's interview with Hollywood Producer, Lynda Obst, author of Sleepless in Hollywood", a book explaining the new economics of Hollywood, and why it drives almost ridiculously formulaic sequalitis, 3D everything, and an emphasis on visually spectacular effects, crashes and chases.

She omitted one of the causes I would have emphasized, which is the centralization of industrial structure, but, otherwise, she hits some of the highlights.

Culturally, she emphasizes that Hollywood is producing its high-budget and most salient product for the China market. The Chinese only admit 34(?) American films a year for general theatrical release, and 3D gets priority, so all the American blockbusters are 3D, and all are blockbusters in China, even if they fail miserably to satisfy the American market.

Anyway, much fodder for analytic contemplation.

Bruce Wilder said...

It may seem an odd connection to make, but I sewed a thread in my mind between this post and one by Timothy Burke, titled, The Codes of the Political Class.

Burke starts obliquely referencing the way in which the emergence of newspapers in the 19th century created a mass sense of simultaneity, which informed the revolutions and upheavals of that period. (One sees how being part of a mass whole matters, in the Arab Spring.)

That's what disturbs me about your empty movie houses: we were together, there in the dark. We were together watching Walter Cronkite at 6:30. And, what we watched was produced for us, it was our stories, our news. Culture has to be that, product of and product for.

The movies are no longer made for Americans. And, we don't watch any of it, together. It's all DVRed or Netflix -- private, individually scheduled consumption. Cable news tries to rally the hundred million to watch a single event, and is lucky to get one million.

Burke gets at a critical aspect of this development: the 1% are completely divorced from the 99%, economically, and, therefore, also culturally. They tell us what they want us to believe is happening in the world, but they are no longer focused on us, no longer in common cause with us. The 1% are adrift on the sea of globalization, synthesizing a culture for an other, and deriving great wealth from that relationship. But, no sense of responsibility for, or to, a nation or nation-state, nor any legitimate dependence.

Culture was a national enterprise for a long, long time. There were national museums, national libraries, French cinema; it was a big deal in American 19th century history, when artistic giants began to emerge to write original novels or paint pictures. Even when they were emigres, they were Americans.

The boomers were never asked to build anything. They were never asked to be architects of the future, never told that there would have to be architects, that statesman are designers, or that creation is anything, but imitation of the past. Their parents and grandparents saw the world self-destruct, and (re-)built a world with care for consequences. The boomers' world just happened, and the boomers deny that there could be consequences or responsibility.

It's a scary feedback loop, that leaves the elite dangerously isolated and detached.