Defining Cultural Decline


Rufus F.

Rufus is an American curmudgeon in Canada. He has a PhD in History, sings in a garage rock band, and does many things. He is the author of the forthcoming book "The Paris Bureau" from Dio Press (early 2021).

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117 Responses

  1. Avatar NewDealer says:

    Thanks for expanding on my post.

    I’m with you in that I don’t agree with the right or left on whether we are headed towards Gammorah or in a constant arc of cultural progress.

    What if there was always X percentage of any society that was a malcontent class like the newsstories above? Drugs can make this worse, so can dire poverty and a lack of opportunity but I think that even the most prosperous and well-to-do cultures can have malcontents for various reasons. People who will always do what is sadistic and cruel like the torture story above or the men who beat the dad to death because they were looking for a fight.Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to NewDealer says:

      I think it probably is the case that these things have always existed to some extent- at least, they’ve been written about quite a bit since the early industrial period. What seems to me to have changed is how society responds, or more often shrugs and says, “Ah, let the cops handle it.”Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Rufus F. says:


        Your piece is utter rubbish.
        In Harriet Tubman’s day, those kids would have beat her — and suffered no consequences.
        The role of the overseer did not vanish until after the Industrial II era.

        Our society has grown, in that we now do not consider it socially acceptable to brutalize other folks.

        Yes, there are plenty of folks that are dissatisfied with this. So much the better, that they lie in the depths of poverty, or in the “working class.” They have no life skills that are needed, and their personality is rubbish as well.

        Let ’em squall and fight, it’s better than rewarding them.Report

  2. Avatar NewDealer says:

    This essay brings up what rubs me wrong in some Country and Western music and also in Juggalo culture. The proud ignorance and violence and valorization of outlawism.

    This produces a tension between my economic liberalism and my social liberalism.

    On the one hand I sympathize with lyrics about the closing of the factory and hard economic times. On the other hand, there I often perceive a proud anti-intellectualism and proud vulgarity in Country and Western music that turns me off. I am not sure how to deal with these tensions. The same is true for Juggalos. I feel sympathy for their economic plight but I am turned off by their embrace of being vulgar and dysfunctional.

    Though what I do consider cultural decline (though there is probably a better word for it is a lack of caring for high culture in praise of the constant props. Recently a friend said I came from the “same bygone era” as her parents because of my knowledge and true appreciation for cultural literacy and high culture. It seems so many people in my generation don’t care to move beyond listicles of childhood nostalgia. Passed along Buzzfeed pieces with titles like “65 signs you were a 9 year old boy in 1987 who owned a Sega Master System.”

    Alyssa Rosenberg called someone a lit snob a few years ago because he made a statement about having too much adult stuff to read and not being able to waste time on YA and the Hunger Games. I am more disturbed about adults spending all their time reading YA instead of getting challenged by Joyce, Woolf, Millet, Edgers, Lethem, Murdoch, etc instead we seem to have a generation or two whose cultural tastes largely stopped developing at 12-14. Julian Sanchez noted during the Rosenberg essay debate that there was a time when people felt some kind of obligation to tackle difficult and adult art.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird in reply to NewDealer says:

      The problem is that they aren’t even tackling YA and Hunger Games anymore. Why bother? Any book worth reading will be made into a two-hour movie.Report

      • Avatar NewDealer in reply to Jaybird says:

        What age demographic do you mean by “they”?

        There seem to be a large number of adults reading YA fiction. I ask why this is and am told that YA fiction is where all the revolutionary stuff is happening. I ask for examples and am told YA is revolutionary because YA is revolutionary.

        This is a tautology but when I point that out people say I am not being very nice. A large part of “geek” culture seems to be an intense dismissal of literary fiction and anything that can be described as high-culture.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Jaybird says:

        Among the Juggalos?Report

      • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to Jaybird says:

        That’s sort of what bothers me about geek culture too- it’s that the die hard geeks I meet seem to not want anything past that one thing that they geek out about and it always seems to come back to trying to relive the feelings they had when they first encountered it as adolescents. Don’t get me wrong- I certainly enjoy relaxing with bad horror movies from time to time, but not as a steady and consistent diet.Report

      • Avatar James K in reply to Jaybird says:

        @newdealer I wouldn’t care to speak on behalf of all geeks, but speaking just for myself here is a set of reasons why I haven’t really ventured into literary fiction:

        1) Familiarity of a genre improves one’s ability to appreciate it. A Song of Ice and Fire (especially the major twists in books 1 and 3), is pleasurable to me in part because its depends on certain tropes of the fantasy genre, its harder to enjoy a deconstruction if you aren’t conversant in what it is deconstructing (I feel the same way about Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy). This means it pays to specialise in the media you consume, although its certainly possible to specialise too far.

        2) I’m not really looking for “challenge” in fiction books. From a technical difficulty standpoint, I bust through the top of the reading ability scale when I was 6, so I haven’t thought of books as being challenging in that way for 25 years. In terms of the ideas expressed, well I really don’t believe fiction is much good when it comes to presenting challenging ideas. Generalising from fictional evidence is dangerous, and I try to avoid doing it. When I want to consume ideas, I read non-fiction.

        I do agree though that adults shouldn’t spend all their time consuming media made for children or adolescents (though some children’s fiction, like Avatar: The Last Airbender, holds up just fine for an adult audience).

        I also have a weakness for Gilbert & Sullivan, if that helps.Report

      • Avatar NewDealer in reply to Jaybird says:


        I dislike Gilbert and Sullivan. Though they do tend to be geek favorites for some reasons.

        In some ways, I consider Gilbert and Sullivan to be part of the problem because they stick to tropes and seem to be part of the unwillingness of a vast majority of people to leave art that could have existed in the 1950s. I find it interesting and somewhat surprising that Picasso is still considered shocking and modern even though the Armory Show happened in 1913.

        And I completely disagree with you on fiction or art being unable to convey powerful and important ideas. Perhaps it is the difference in an arts-oriented brain over an economics/engineer brain but emotion is important and art. Humans are emotional and psychological creatures. Art like The Age of Innocence and Babbit can cut through the hypocrisy of society and show the violence of social eradication in ways that non-fiction cannot. Name me a piece of non-fiction that conveys loneliness better than Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathaniel West, etc.

        There are other ways art can convey difficult concepts and challenging ideas in ways that non-fiction cannot. Does non-fiction play with form like Joyce did in Ulysses or Finnegan’s Wake? Could you read Joyce or Pynchon at 6?Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to Jaybird says:

        Rufus F and ND, part of the problem is that education is very STEM focused and does a poor job at educating people about the arts and humanities. Very few people were exposed to literary fiction and other forms of high culture in a way that will endure them to it. The other problem is that high culture is demanding, it doesn’t grant instant gratification. You need to listen quietly to the symphony, watch the play carefully, and read intensely. Genre fiction and other popular culture is more immediately fulfilling. You don’t have to worry about whether something is symbolic or not. The level of attention needed is much less. In a culture that favors instant gratification, high culture is bound to be less than popular.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to Jaybird says:

        ND, I don’t think that Piccaso is still considered shocking. Its just that Piccaso is abstract in a way thats more understandable to people than a lot of living artists are. More people can probable appreciate Piccaso than the Cre Master cycle.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Jaybird says:

        Umm… bullshit? Just because someone likes lovecraft and gibson (both challenging authors, gibson in particular prone to assuming you know everything he does).Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Jaybird says:

        “they stick to tropes”
        oh, bullshit. everything’s a trope, including pretending that you aren’t using them.
        (I do know someone fond of completely revamping genres, but that’s probably a trope too.)

        “The other problem is that high culture is demanding, it doesn’t grant instant gratification. You need to listen quietly to the symphony, watch the play carefully, and read intensely. ”

        … you don’t dance to the symphony? I’d say some of the purest expression of new orchestral pieces comes in movies, where you aren’t even supposed to pay terribly much attention to it.

        If you think high culture is demanding… you ought to look at some good trollery. Good writing demands that the audience take a second, hard look at itself.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Jaybird says:

        My problem with “high culture” as expressed in school is that certain teachers of mine insisted on choosing “age inappropriate” works. “Old Man and the Sea” is something that works a lot better once you really understand nostalgia. “Jane Eyre” works better when you’re not a hormonal teenager (and Rose, who really likes the author, agrees with me on this point).Report

      • Avatar James K in reply to Jaybird says:

        @newdealer I suppose it was my mistake to try ands get on your side with Light Opera 🙂

        I agree that literature can convey emotions, but emotions aren’t ideas. I have a flat affect, so while I have been moved emotionally by things I’ve read, it’s not usually something I look for in the media I consume as most emotional work will leave me cold.

        Art like The Age of Innocence and Babbit can cut through the hypocrisy of society and show the violence of social eradication in ways that non-fiction cannot.

        No it can’t. Because it is a work of fiction you cannot rely on what it is conveying. A literary work can “show the violence of social eradication” whether there is any social eradication happening or not. This is the danger of fiction, its persuasive, but has no necessary correlation to reality. Fiction can add texture to ideas you already have reason to believe are true, but if you rely on fiction as a source of ideas, you open yourself to the risk of being convinced of things that aren’t true. The same is true of emotive content that attempts to persuade, invoking emotion to make your ideas more plausible is manipulative, and the defences I’ve built up over the years against that kind of manipulation mean I find it very hard to read fiction books about ideas, even if I agree with the ideas.Report

    • Avatar NewDealer in reply to NewDealer says:


      I just read about the Juggalos and it makes me shudder.Report

      • Avatar Glyph in reply to NewDealer says:

        I totally have The Bugaloos’ theme in my head now, except with Juggalos.

        Nathan Rabin wrote a few good pieces at AVClub about The Gathering.Report

      • Avatar dhex in reply to NewDealer says:

        i’m a big fan of saying “no anime and no juggalos – not in my house” but at the same time they, by and large, are nonviolent doofuses. they seek no legislation to hem their fellow man nor generally throw bottles at people. they make their parents a bit sad no doubt but getting hard into a subculture tends to do that.

        after all, think about how badly you’d feel if you found out your kid was a theatre major. 🙂Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to NewDealer says:

        dhex, so by opposing hemming their fellow man, your saying that the Juggalos are opposed to fine clothing?Report

      • Avatar dhex in reply to NewDealer says:

        “dhex, so by opposing hemming their fellow man, your saying that the Juggalos are opposed to fine clothing?”

        in all kindness to the juggalo massif, i’d say that’s pretty dang obvious.Report

    • Avatar greginak in reply to NewDealer says:

      I think there have always been people who were into being vulgar and proud of their dysfunction. We just hear about more now. People tend to feel more affection to their own affection since its theirs, there doesn’t really need to be much more reason than that. We’re Americans after all, we don’t’ like being told what to do or think. We want to be ourselves even if that means doing things we agree are stupid and hurtful.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to greginak says:

        Has this always been in the case? It actually seems like something that happened because of the 1960s. During the 19th and most of the 20th centuries, there was a great pressure to conform to societal standards in America. This was especially true if you were middle-classed. Rufus wrote about this in his post on Babbit. I’d argue that it was actually worse during the mid-20th century than any part of American history. One aspect of the Hayes Code was that correct standards of living had to be depicted on film and Hollywood was very good at creating conformity.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to greginak says:

        Fox still had requirements for Arrested Development. “Family moments” and all that jazz.
        ProTip: giving comedians “requirements” like that leads to many, many incest jokes.
        Comedians hate “requirements”.

        Simpsons used to get routinely yelled at for making dead baby jokes. I think the censors actually managed to get them to stop.Report

    • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to NewDealer says:

      In the movie version of Lolita, and probably the book which I admit not to have read, there is a seen where Lolita’s mother is trying to impress/seduce Humbert Humbert with her knowledge of high culture. Naturally, as a sophisticated European intellectual, Humbert Humbert is underwhelmed.

      However, the seen got me thinking. There was a brief time in the 20th century where knowledge of high culture was something required in middle class society in the Western world. Otherwise you were a rube. It might have been phony, it might have mainly been a status symbol, and most people might have been over their heads but you were expected to know something about art, literature, and other aspects of high culture. This usually got derided as middle-brow. Maybe middle-brow was a good thing though since it required that people have at least a superficial knowledge of high-brow culture.Report

      • Avatar greginak in reply to LeeEsq says:

        I think knowledge of high brow culture has been something people have wanted for a long time. I think it is much more of a recent belief that education is all or mostly about signalling. Poor and middle class people pushed their way into colleges because education was something they valued and aspired to. That may have been because they just wanted to be like those rich folk over there or it may have been that lots of people have valued education for itself AND because of the greatly improved job opportunities.

        Back in the days of gold rushes around the country, and often the world, newly rich cities would build opera houses.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to LeeEsq says:

        Greginak, but did they actually enjoy the opera? 19th century accounts are mixed on that subject. A lot of the support of arts from the newly rich was done because they were doing what they thought rich people should do. By signaling I didn’t mean anything bad, I just meant that people pursued these things because they saw them as part of their class.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to LeeEsq says:

        Remember people saying “Give me the Reader’s Digest version”?

        Reader’s Digest had “condensed books” that, instead of forcing you to slog through S. Morganstern’s version of the story, gave you William Goldman’s “Just The Good Stuff” version. Books that everybody who was anybody had read… only abridged. Mocked as being the height of middlebrow then, but what’s replaced it? Oprah’s bookclub?Report

      • Avatar greginak in reply to LeeEsq says:

        Beats me how many people really enjoyed going to the opera or reading serious lit. But the actions of generations of people searching out classical music or opera or lit and education it seems to me they were showing they valued it. Signaling certainly happens but its also a common and, i think, easy crutch for everybody to throw out. Not that you were but it comes up a lot in arguments about culture and education.Report

      • Avatar NewDealer in reply to LeeEsq says:



        Lee and Greg,

        Interesting points on what the rich build to signal their class. One of the many things that old Bay Areans dislike about the tech rich is that they don’t support the old arts. Here is a good article about it:

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to LeeEsq says:

        I didn’t see middle-brow as “high culture for low culture people” as much as “accessible culture”. “Opera” wasn’t middlebrow, but the 1984 version of “Carmen” was. Life magazine’s treatment of celebrity news, Look magazine’s treatment of architecture, and the Saturday Evening Post’s reliance on the art of Norman Rockwell, of all people.

        “Middlebrow” was (is) a greatest hits mixtape of culture.

        The highbrow people will snort and say that, sure, maybe the middlebrow stuff is good… but it’s not as good as the obscure stuff and, anyway, we knew about that stuff decades ago.Report

      • Avatar greginak in reply to LeeEsq says:

        The 1984 version of Carmen??? I thought i was familiar with all of Orwell’s works.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to LeeEsq says:

        ND, the article was interesting. I wonder if conditions were similar with the new money during the Gilded Age. There were some differences since the fortunes of the Gilded Age generally took much longer to build. Cornelius Vanderbilt started working at seventeen and a lot of his kids were adults by the time he made it rich. John Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie took several years to build their fortunes. Morgan was born wealthy even if he increased it over time.

        At the same time, I think that the tech rich aren’t supporting the arts mainly because they weren’t socialized into philanthropy and like many people of our generation, don’t have the education background.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to LeeEsq says:

        Jaybird, I’d categorize the original Carmen as mass entertainment and probably more towards the low-brow, albeit a very beautiful one.Report

      • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to LeeEsq says:

        I have a great love for the middlebrow, probably because my grandparents were the sort that told me, “you’d better sit down and read these books” in the same way they said “you’d better get out there and cut that lawn”. They had the Harvard Classics anthology, which probably did more than anything to get me interested in the rest of the stories. This is why it sets my teeth on edge when people talk about the “elitism” of high cultural institutions, when so many of them were so radically egalitarian in their mission. I remember reading some nitwit complaining not too long ago that regular folks don’t go to museums, they go to baseball games, so why should the elitists who run the museums get tax money? I thought “wait, who’s the elitist here?”Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to LeeEsq says:

        Rufus F., its probably something that can’t be known for certain but it appears in mid-20th century America, a larger percentage of the population felt at least somewhat obligated to know high culture. How much the actually understood is debatable but the impulse to get some of it was there.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to LeeEsq says:

        God damn, can we leave off the nonsense that Opera was high brow?
        Opera was the entertainment of its day, and it was consumed by the lower class (with stolen music and singers who couldn’t carry a tune) just as much as by the upper class.
        [And yes, my sources are circa Verdi, which means the 19th century].

        High brow appears to be defined increasingly as “what our parents liked (or their great grandparents)” or “what nobody except the pretentious likes.” As such, I find it terribly banal and eurocentric to boot. There’s good in Beethoven, surely… but there’s also fantastic in Tori Amos or Love Solfege.Report

    • Avatar Brandon Berg in reply to NewDealer says:

      I am more disturbed about adults spending all their time reading YA instead of getting challenged by Joyce, Woolf, Millet, Edgers, Lethem, Murdoch, etc instead we seem to have a generation or two whose cultural tastes largely stopped developing at 12-14. Julian Sanchez noted during the Rosenberg essay debate that there was a time when people felt some kind of obligation to tackle difficult and adult art.

      Was that really a good thing, that people felt obligated to read literature that they would not otherwise read? It’s not like learning calculus or computer programming, where effort is expended to acquire a practical skill. Either you like it or you don’t, and I don’t see much moral or practical benefit either way. People talk about “enrichment,” but this has always seemed kind of hand-wavy to me. Does it make people measurably smarter? Better citizens? Anything at all, other than bring their tastes more in line with those who have appointed themselves the arbiters of good taste?

      I can’t stand hip hop. I see no esthetic value whatsoever in it, and it mystifies me that other people—grown men and women, no less!—actually like it. And yet, other than life being somewhat more aurally pleasant for me personally (which isn’t even an issue for literature), I can’t think of any significant way in which the world would be better if people just stopped listening to it altogether.Report

    • Avatar Chris in reply to NewDealer says:

      I am more disturbed about adults spending all their time reading YA instead of getting challenged by Joyce, Woolf, Millet, Edgers, Lethem, Murdoch, etc instead we seem to have a generation or two whose cultural tastes largely stopped developing at 12-14.

      Two things: one, it seems to me that you’re getting hung up on the idea of young adult fiction as really just being for kids, instead of being mostly about kids (I see nothing inherently wrong with adults reading about kids; at least, I don’t see it as a sign of immaturity). Two, is it really the case that fewer people are partaking of literature (pronounce “LIT-ra-choor”) or whatever label you want to apply to Joyce and Woolf and whoever the hell those other people are, or is it just that more people are reading? I mean, my own experience is that vastly more people are reading regularly than 20 years ago, they’re just reading easier stuff, because the easier stuff is what brought them to reading. I mean, if Joyce and Woolf are your entry into reading, as they were for many high school and college students once upon a time, then if you find Joyce and Woolf extremely unpleasant, then moment you don’t have to read, you ain’t gonna.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to Chris says:

        ND and I were voracious readers since we were kids. Our reading tastes when we were younger were always at the geeky end. Fantasy and science fiction novels, comic books, and manga. We discovered literary fiction in high school and liked it but we were reading before that. Our tastes changed as we grew up.Report

      • Avatar NewDealer in reply to Chris says:

        I suppose I am on the other end of the famous CS Lewis essay on criticism. There is a famous passage in which he compares the literary and non-literary reader. The non-literary reader does not need the writing of Woolf and Joyce and likes the simple communication of a sentence like “his blood ran cold”. Lewis argued that getting people to read for writing is like selling something they don’t want or need.

        I am the person who wants and needs the writing of Joyce.

        Are people reading more than they were 20 years ago? I was only 12 then so I can’t say for sure. What I can say is that in the 1960s, Nabokov’s Ada or Ardor appeared on the NY Times bestseller list. Maybe most people did not complete Ada or Ador but there was at least a sense that it was important to try and crack that very difficult book. Perhaps it is snobby but I think it is says something good about society when people feel it is important to attempt to comprehend and appreciate the difficult in art and literature.

        Why are there no more Leonard Bernsteins that can bring audiences to classical music? We have video game and movie nights that are massively popular but this doesn’t make people try for Ravel or Mahler or Shostakovich or even Bach and Mozart.

        And I am not sure that it is better that people are reading if the content is candy or fluff or in some cases wildly incorrect. I’d rather have people watch the Real Housewives of Whereever than read Glenn Beck. There is more content in the Real Housewives.

        We would say that a person who only eats junk food and candy and whatever comforted them at 8 is not doing their body service and they need more fruits and vegetables and to expand their taste buds. Why is it snobby to say the same about art and culture? Why is it acceptable for people to stay completely within the realm of their childhoods in this regard?Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Chris says:

        “Why are there no more Leonard Bernsteins that can bring audiences to classical music? We have video game and movie nights that are massively popular but this doesn’t make people try for Ravel or Mahler or Shostakovich or even Bach and Mozart. ”

        There are. I’ve even recommended some on here. Tori Amos is a brilliant concert pianist, for example.
        But to say “nobody listens to Mahler anymore!” is to discount the inherent majesty in our current soundscape. It’s fair to say that Brosius achieves a level of immersion that Mozart could never have hoped to achieve — but really, to evaluate them on the same playing field is a mistake (Bernstein, on the other hand, can be fairly evaluated against Brosius, although I haven’t seen On the Waterfront, so I’ll refrain).Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to Chris says:

        I’m of two minds here:

        One, I worry that art as a consumer good inevitably becomes less sophisticated, but on the other, I’m excited if people are reading, period. I have a hard time getting snobby about more people reading; I don’t have a difficult time getting snobby about the fact that there don’t seem to be any obvious Nabokov’s writing books so that they could end up on the NYT Best Sellers list.Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to Chris says:

        Ugh, that came out wrong: It should read: I have a difficult time getting snobby about more people reading, I do not have a difficult time getting snobby about the quality of the top-end writers these days.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Chris says:

        I can’t help but remember a handful of “the emperor ain’t wearing any clothes!” moments I had when reading “important” lit-rit-chure. I was surrounded by smart people, talking smartly, about a book (I’m pretty sure it was “House of Leaves” but it couldn’t have been because I was still in college (it was right before the Sokal Affair) and House of Leaves didn’t come out until 2000) and I was sitting there saying “this is nothing but silly pretentious crap.”

        If you’ve ever been burned by something like that, you’re going to be *REALLY* suspicious about books that “feel” a particular way a couple of chapters in.

        Perhaps Duchamp was a great artist after all. He got us to try to think about whether we were just looking at a urinal.Report

      • Avatar NewDealer in reply to Chris says:


        I suppose I am largely of two minds as well. I personally dismiss the Emperor is not wearing clothes story. That feels just as hackneyed as Tom Freidman starting a column by talking about a taxi driver.

        Or perhaps this is just my NYC-SF pride and regionalism showing.

        Keep in mind that I had no idea what twerking was until this week. So clearly my priorities are away from pop culture.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Chris says:

        Surely you can find a few recent books better than Twain, or Stevenson?
        I do feel like the urge to look towards the past blinds us sometimes to the present.Report

      • Avatar NewDealer in reply to Chris says:


        I am not a post-modernist so I am embarrassed by the Sokal affair but I don’t think it makes studying engineering or science more academic and sound than studying literature.

        And pretentious crap is a relative concept. I find that Tolkien is a woody and Victorian writer is pretentious and worthless in his attempts to copy old English and Icelandic sagas. I’m sure plenty of people would burn me at the stake for this. I also think that most music in Fantasy and SF movies is rather pretentious, dull, and tells you what to feel and exactly when. I hate the melodrama of it all. It is third-rate Carl Orff and Carl Orff was second-rate Wagner. Every time I hear the music from big SF and Fantasy movies, “We like pompous music” goes through my head to the tune of Carmina Burana.

        Pretentious is a great attack word because it conveys a feeling without offering any substance. How could you tell that the people discussing were only reading to signal instead of sincerely enjoying it.

        This is a bit of a sore point for me because I do get a lot of people telling me that I can’t sincerely like my reading and art choices because a lot of people simply see them as unenjoyable and that a person only reads Wharton to seem smart and look artistic and literary and what not. Are there people who signal this way? Probably but I think most fans of “highbrow” culture do sincerely like the stuff.Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to Chris says:

        Probably 1 out of every 10 novels that I read was written after 1950, so at least in literature, my connection to pop culture is tenuous at best. However, when I read novelists who people say I should read from the last few years, I am almost always disappointed. That’s why when I find someone like Richard Flanagan, Pat Barker, or Victor Pelevin, I latch onto them and don’t let go.

        Oh, and read Gould’s Book of Fish, Wanting, and Life of Insects.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Chris says:

        New Dealer,
        “This is a bit of a sore point for me because I do get a lot of people telling me that I can’t sincerely like my reading and art choices because a lot of people simply see them as unenjoyable and that a person only reads Wharton to seem smart and look artistic and literary and what not. Are there people who signal this way? Probably but I think most fans of “highbrow” culture do sincerely like the stuff.”

        I’m not going to say you don’t like it! Jeepers, you’re allowed to like what you like! But, dude, why do you like it? (honest question)

        People like pulp because it’s heartpounding, thrilling stuff (London’s pulp, so’s Twain).
        Other people like… pointed literature (trolling, in other words, like Swift!)
        There’s reflexive literature (like Arrested Development — which I’d need to consider why I like as much as I do).Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Chris says:

        Here’s a story from the restaurant. We had just finished a dinner party and the people had been eating dessert. The cake was a chocolate layer cake with caramel between the layers and the layers themselves were three kinds of chocolate: white chocolate, milk chocolate, dark chocolate. The frosting was dark chocolate and there were milk chocolate shavings on top.

        One of our patrons, afterwards, said that kids wouldn’t appreciate that cake. They could eat a Snickers bar and be just as pleased.

        My problem is *NOT*–absolutely not– with people who like stuff that they like. That’s awesome. Go nuts.

        My problem is with “I enjoy what I like on a much deeper level than you enjoy what you like. My enjoyment is of higher quality than your petty enjoyments.”

        It’s like there is some hidden category between “matters of taste” and “matters of morality” when it comes to the aesthetic. Like “better” people enjoy “better” things. This cake, for example… and the kids wouldn’t appreciate it. They’d eat a Snickers and be just as happy.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Chris says:

        I can sympathize about finding some music overbearing.
        I think you’d like “Castle in the Mist” though (the song).Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Chris says:

        I hear you on that. Wine snobs really tend to piss me off, because when I explain what I like, they call me unsophisticated. I like the taste of grapes, sue me! I don’t want to taste butter when I’m drinking a wine. That’s not tasting your drink, that’s getting some sort of weird hallucination (which is fine, but it’s not my taste).Report

      • Avatar NewDealer in reply to Chris says:

        I like Hesse and Wharton because I think they are good writers. I think Wharton is very good at very subtle parody of her time and class and culture. I like the writing because it creates a whole world in the first page that dives you in. The sheer brilliance of opening paragraphs of The Age of Innocence, Narcissus and Goldmund, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis and Sputnik Sweetheart, and many other books are amazing.

        I find the message/story of the Garden of Finzi-Continis (escaping from the ultimate hell by being exiled from the Garden of Eden) to be more interesting than a story about magical rings and swords. Same with the story and ideas behind Tender is the Night and The Great Gatsby.

        I like Richard Serra sculptures because of how they change your interaction and perceptions of an environment. Hockney’s paintings please me.

        Beckett understood the absurdity and pain of modern life and the universal follies of desire. Play is interesting in its form.Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to Chris says:

        <Narcissus and Goldmund made me cry. Damn that book!

        Jay, I think society is better for having better art, because good art can be transformative (sometimes transgressive). To that extent, I think one could make an argument that liking better art is a moral good, though I don’t know if I want to actually make that argument.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Chris says:

        We all got into this argument a few years back and the example that comes most readily to my mind is Velvet Underground’s “Heroin”.

        Is that an immoral song? I waver.

        It sure as heck ain’t a moral one, though.Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to Chris says:

        I dunno. I think the morality of art, generally, and the morality of a piece of art, specifically, are separable questions (unless all of the specific ones come out immoral), but I’m reticent to speak on the immorality of a piece of art unless it creates unnecessary suffering (as, say, art that blatantly incites racial hatred might be).Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to Chris says:

        Jaybird, I agree with that arguments about liking something on a deeper level are silly and snobby but I don’t think that relates to what ND and Chris are writing about. Take something like Star Wars. Lots of people like Star Wars but don’t venture beyond the movies. A serious Star Wars fan can argue that he appreciates Star Wars on a deeper level than others because he reads the novels, writes fan fiction, and cosplays. Its about pop culture but the elitism is still there.

        What good art does, as Chris points out is transform people. Sometimes a painting is so beautiful that it creates a feeling of rapture and ecstasy in the audience and can captivate them and hold them silent for hours. The other thing is that art as you said can be immoral or Chris said transgressive. This art transforms the audience by challenging the audience in their assumptions and getting them to think about things differently or question what they believe. Art doesn’t necessarily have to be transgressive/immoral to do this though. Narcissus and Goldmund isn’t particularly immoral or transgressive but it is challenging.Report

  3. Avatar Fnord says:

    It’s been said before but it bears repeating: violence, by just about any method you care to measure it, is the lowest it’s been in decades.Report

  4. Avatar Cascadian says:

    I’m not sure it’s important but what city and whose culture? Are you writing about Ontario California but have an example at the end of a city in the province of Ontario?Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to Cascadian says:

      It would be Ontario, Canada, and it probably does make some difference. A friend of mine went out for a walk the other night a few blocks from my house and witnessed a man dying in the street after having stumbled out of a house where a friend stabbed him in an altercation and one of my thoughts was that they have probably have more stabbings here than shootings (like other cities I’ve lived in) because of the Canadian gun laws. It also probably makes it easier to talk openly about these problems happening in this city because it’s overwhelmingly white.Report

    • Avatar Cascadian in reply to Cascadian says:

      @rufus-f Thanks. I was a bit confused.Report

  5. Avatar NotMe says:

    The VMAs the other night is certainly a sign of cultural decline. The same thing with those Juggalo losers. But what should we expect after 40+ years of liberal social policies? This country will just keep slouching towards Gomorrah, heck it seems like we are now jogging.Report

    • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to NotMe says:

      “The VMAs the other night is certainly a sign of cultural decline. The same thing with those Juggalo losers. But what should we expect after 40+ years of conservative economic policies? This country will just keep slouching towards Gomorrah, heck it seems like we are now jogging.”Report

    • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to NotMe says:

      I think it might be best to refer to the Bible when talking about slouching towards Sodom and Gomorrah. According to Ezekiel 16:49, “Only this was the sin of your sister Sodom and her daughters:arrogance! She and her daughters had plenty of bread and untroubled tranquility; yet she did not support the poor and needy.”

      Basically, the Bible isn’t saying that the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah wasn’t cultural decadence, it was that they lived by “FYIGM” and that they refused to live as a community that cooperates and supports each other. That sounds more like a displeasure with conservative economic theories.Report

  6. Avatar Dale Forguson says:

    What bothers me most about the OP is a disconnect I think I see. I had a visceral feeling of frustration and of being deeply disturbed by my thoughts after I read it. I seem to see teenagers and young adults everywhere who seem so completely disconnected from adult life. It seems like they don’t see an avenue for them to go mainstream they seem to be reacting to this by going in the opposite direction as far from convention as possible. It seems to cut across race, gender, and social stratum. They just seem angry. “so hot it could burn you” as Rufus says. I’d like to hear Kazzy comment on this because I’ve thought about how to help kids become successful adults. I’ve seen it fail despite the best of intentions and effort and wondered why. Even though I’m old enough that I should have some wisdom to impart on this subject I’m afraid I don’t.

    I know that values change across generations. Maybe I’m just ready for the handoff to the next generation, you know – “you’re problem now”. What I remember now about when I was young seems so different, naive, we went through that late 60’s thing and there was lots of rejection of our parents values but I didn’t see the total disillusion I think I see now. It was the opposite then, everyone thought they were going to remake the world. Well, that didn’t happen we just became adults with kids and mortgages. I hope I’m wrong but I see too many young faces that seem hopeless and angry about it.Report

  7. Avatar Damon says:

    “but that ever-present anger so hot it could burn you, lord does that ring true. ”

    Hell yeah. Seen that too.Report

  8. Avatar Burt Likko says:

    I’ve never understood Toronto to be a particularly violent city, and Fnord’s point that statistically, violence is down is well-taken. Yet in the OP and in the comments two horrific murders are described. Could it be that you just live in a bad part of town, Rufus?

    While the flavors of violence within the culture are new — video games and UFC — the presence of violence in the culture is not. Boxing, dueling, jousting — in most phases of history and in most cultures globally there have been forms of ritualized violence channeled into socially-accepted forms of competition. So too with art exploring both the sublime and the grotesque.

    What is different about the post-war world is the massive commoditization of certain forms of media used to convey the culture. But we’ve always had violence in art and sport, always had unappealing aesthetics, always had substance abusers, just as we’ve always had singing and dancing.Report

    • Though in Southern Ontario, Rufus isn’t in Toronto. I won’t pretend to be an expert on his hometown, but it is definitely a rougher town than TO (his city has the most violent crime in the province). Historically, it was a steel town, but a lot of industry has closed down, one cause of much of the social and economic malaise he describes.

      Don’t get me wrong, he’s not living in some Mad Max dystopia, but his city is different in nature from other major cities in the province.Report

      • Avatar NewDealer in reply to Jonathan McLeod says:

        Sounds like a classic rust belt city.

        There are a lot of towns like that in Western Mass. The areas around Amherst are okay because there are a lot of colleges in the area but college towns are very weird economies.Report

      • Actually, what’s most interesting to me about Hamilton is that there’s one street downtown that’s supposedly leading the “cultural revival” of the city. Lots of Torontonians moving there, art galleries, festivals with tepid indie rock bands playing music that sounds like it belongs in Ikea commercials. Yet, it’s wedged between the crack block and the street that’s known for prostitution. One moment of cultural dissonance happened when I was at a club seeing a musical performer with the crowd of university students and two pimps and a prostitute chased a john who hadn’t paid two blocks down the street into the club and started a fight.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to Jonathan McLeod says:

        Rufus F., I think that gentrification usually starts in the worse areas of town because property is cheaper and rents lower. Gives you more money to spend sprucing up the place.Report

      • Avatar NewDealer in reply to Jonathan McLeod says:

        Rufus F,

        If gentrification holds it will switch. I live in a gentrified neighborhood. 20-30 years ago it was a neighborhood where you dared not tread. It began improving about 10 years ago but drive by shootings were fairly common as recently as 5-6 years ago.
        When I moved in to the neighborhood, you would see a lot of cars with busted windows.

        Now you have one or two “sketchy” buildings in a largely gentrified neighborhood.Report

      • Apologies to Rufus re: my confusion of Hamilton with Toronto.Report

      • Yeah, I’ve read a fair amount about the downtown revival in Hamilton, but I keep hearing about stories like the ones you’ve highlighted, Rufus. Hopefully, this revival kind of takes.Report

  9. Avatar NewDealer says:


    I think the middlebrow thing is part of a problem. Those old Harvard Classic tombs were democratic up to a point. Just like a MOOC course is democratic up to a point. You get to say you attended an MIT class but they are still credit free and you don’t get the advantages of an MIT and Harvard degree. A cynic could say this is Harvard and MIT promoting their brand and prestige. I also think a lot of the backlash against elitism comes from people who criticized middlebrow culture like Dwight MacDonald.

    As a former geek I agree. A lot of die-hard geeks just seem very happy as children and adolescents. But this is considered acceptable as culture.


    You are the last person in this community who should ever call something bullshit considering the vague and out there nature of most of your posts and your absolute refusal to clarify and speak clearly when challenged on incomprehension. And I firmly disagree with the very fandom-friendly idea that everything is tropes and nothing is new under the sun.

    I will concede that some books in the HS reading list might be age inappropriate but this does not mean that adult or heavier stuff does not belong. HS students should read Shakespeare, they should read Fitzgerald, Wharton, Zora Neale Hurston, the Beats, Hermann Hesse, Jane Austen, the Greeks along with Salinger and more age appropriate stuff. What do you propose for a HS reading list that will encourage people to seek out that sort of material later in life?


    Good point on Picasso. Though I still think people have a bias towards representational art that I do not have but you are right that Picasso probably has more fans than Matthew Barney.Report

    • Avatar Kim in reply to NewDealer says:

      Mark Twain wrote some rollicking good books (though they’re just as good for the younger set).
      (I’d go so far as to say, if you don’t like Twain, there’s something wrong with you.)
      Shaw springs to mind.
      Dostoyevsky, while tough, was still pretty good.
      Moliere is a much more suited to adolescents study in wit and satire than Austen.
      Dickens, that old hoary master of pulp of yesteryear.
      Swift’s always readable and engaging.

      But one ought to take it as a given that the best writer isn’t from the past, but the present. The craft has improved in the meantime, as has access to the materials on which to write.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Kim says:

        Jack London, Joseph Heller, Robert Louis Stevenson, Steinbeck.

        Adolescence is a tumultuous time, and adolescents are likely to enjoy vivid, bright books and other media.

        Hesse is withered, the crinkle of dry parchment in an autumn breeze. And Fitzgerald’s point has been done far better in different media.

        It is objectionable, the idea that folks should not consume media of all sorts — those who insist on raising books above all other media deserve scorn.Report

      • Avatar NewDealer in reply to Kim says:

        Narcissus and Goldman was one of my favorite books from Senior Year English class.Report

      • Avatar Cascadian in reply to Kim says:

        Hesse was my absolute favorite. Narcissist and Goldman was good but the Glass Bead Game and Steppenwolf were life changing for me at 15.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Kim says:

        I liked Jane Eyre. I’m deliberately leaving it off a young adult reading list, because all the guys hated it.
        Did everyone else like Narcissus and Goldman (which, fwiw, was not the book I read of his)Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Kim says:

        On further consideration, it was the theme of the book of Hesse’s that I disliked (roughly: there is nothing new under the sun, and you can’t change that.) Skimmed a bit of Steppenwolf, seems like something I’d like a bit better.
        Will read.Report

      • Avatar Cascadian in reply to Kim says:

        @Kim Steppenwolf is great but a bit male adolescent perhaps for someone older. I’d suggest The Glass Bead Game. It took his whole career to write so it’s a bit more “mature”. N&G is pretty interesting but more from a Jungian appreciation, the separation between the academic and artistic sides of an individual.Report

    • Avatar Kim in reply to NewDealer says:

      Oh, and I do believe you’re missing the point on tropes.
      It’s not that things can’t be new (certainly Dwarf Fortress pioneered new gameplay — post forthcoming, I hope).
      It’s that immediately thereafter, people start copying them.Report

    • Avatar Cascadian in reply to NewDealer says:

      Oh, man, dissing the Harvard Classics? I was a bibliomaniac when I was a kid. I got a leather bound edition for my sixteenth birthday instead of a car. Dante, Two Years Before The Mast, The Thousand and One Nights, Aesop, Grimm, Darwin these are all great books in the HC without getting too meaty.Report

    • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to NewDealer says:

      ND, if you want more people to appreciate high culture than you need to give them an accesible way to get it. Sink or swim isn’t going to work as a method for getting people to like high culture. Middle-brow is one of the best ways to get people to appreciate high culture.

      I agree that most people like representational art but its more the same reason that Picasso is more appreciated than Barney, its graspable. High-brow isn’t a good thing in itself. At its worse, high-brow culture is incredibly obtuse and self-refrential in a way worse than geek culture.Report

  10. Avatar NewDealer says:

    @chris and @rufus-f

    Kim and Jaybird as well.

    I think part of the issue is that current culture for a variety of reasons tends to valorize silliness and embracing your inner-child. Part of this might be economic. I know a lot of young adults who say they hate all the bill and job paying aspects of adulthood and want to return to being cared for children again.

    There are other parts though.

    I think silliness can be important but people tend to over do it. The geeks I know are fond of a CS Lewis quote that riffs on the New Testament. The add on is that it is a childish desire to have the overwhelming desire to be an adult all the time. This might be true but I think a lot of people go too far in the other direction and forget about the pleasures of being an adult.Report

    • Avatar Chris in reply to NewDealer says:

      Eh, I think this trend’s antithesis, which I see a lot among certain segments of the population among whom I find myself all too often, though rarely by choice, is a trend to fetishize the complex, obscure, and opaque as a means of self-aggrandizement, without any real indication of genuine aesthetic sophistication. I don’t mean to imply this is what you are doing, or what anyone here is doing, but when I do see it, it drives me absolutely bonkers, and I’m tempted to go off on a rand about aesthetics any time I think about it, but it would be only for my own benefit, so I’ll refrain, or at least try.

      This may be part of what Jaybird was expressing with the mention of postmodernism up there, but I think this trend, which has a much broader following than the postmodernist lit crit/theory crowd (in fact, I think I see it most among a set of people who would emphatically insist that they hate pomo, and they might even call it pomo), is slightly different.Report

    • Avatar Patrick in reply to NewDealer says:

      I know a lot of young adults who say they hate all the bill and job paying aspects of adulthood and want to return to being cared for children again.

      There is a simple solution to this.

      It also begs the question: how can it be cultural decline if a large part of the problem isn’t the current generation?Report

  11. Avatar Pinky says:

    I’d suggest everyone read The Jacksonian Tradition, an influential article by Walter Russell Mead. I think it’s a great starting point for any discussion of American culture, both red-state country and blue-state black. It sounds like it applies to Canadian culture too, more than the average Canadian may want to admit. For the purposes of this conversation, browse through the beginning and jump down to “The Jacksonian Code”.Report

    • Avatar Cascadian in reply to Pinky says:

      Oh my that was painful. Sorry, I couldn’t make it to the end of even the one section. Jacksonian isn’t “American” it’s Southern. To steal from Fiddler on the Roof, “May the Lord bless and keep the Jacksonians far far from us.”Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Cascadian says:

        Dude, don’t mess with a joke you don’t understand.
        It’s much funnier in the original russian.Report

      • Avatar Pinky in reply to Cascadian says:

        As Thomas Sowell noted in “Black Rednecks and White Liberals”, the American black culture derives from the Southern culture. As I noted in my comment above, or meant to, the country-and-western culture is a driving force in “red” America, and the black urban culture is a driving force in “blue” America. That’s a lot of impact. Jacksonianism isn’t just Scots-Irish anymore. The most interesting development in recent years is the way that Mexican / Central American culture in the US has identified with the Jacksonian “macho” sense of honor and family loyalty.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Cascadian says:

        1) hispanic culture has always had the sense of macho. Hasn’t changed one whit.
        2) PLEASE stop confusing ScotsIrish with Cavalier Culture.
        3) African American culture was a determining factor in Cavalier Culture. To simply say that “the blacks borrowed the whites’ cultures”… is kinda racist, don’t you think? Well, frankly, it ain’t true either, so stop saying it!
        4) Don’t be a goober. ;-P (Yes, I like linguistic jokes. Take it as a lagniappe…(yes, that’s another riff on Southern culture))Report

    • Avatar Kim in reply to Pinky says:

      Albion’s Seed is a better treatment of what ScotsIrish is all about.
      Ditto Born Fighting.
      Read those instead.Report

  12. Avatar NotMe says:


    What do you really expect after 40 plus years of liberal social policies?Report