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Sam Smith: Blowin' In The Wind Of Cultural Decay

The Quiet Storm: Blowin' In The Wind Of Cultural Decay

By Editor Sam Smith

Thomas Jefferson saw it coming. He warned, "From the conclusion of this war we shall be going down hill. It will not then be necessary to resort every moment to the people for support. They will be forgotten, therefore, and their rights disregarded. They will forget themselves, but in the sole faculty of making money, and will never think of uniting to effect a due respect for their rights. The shackles, therefore, which shall not be knocked off at the conclusion of this war, will remain on us long, will be made heavier and heavier, till our rights shall revive or expire in a convulsion."

Among the conceits of our elite and media is the assumption that America, in the form that they wish to imagine it, is immortal. Part of this is the arrogance of the big, part comes from an admirable if naive faith in progress, part of it is pathological delusion. For a host of reasons, beginning with our own survival, it is long past time to permit the question to be raised: is America collapsing as a culture?

It is easy to forget that history is strewn with the rubble of collapsed civilizations, entropic remains of once sturdy cultures, societies we now remember only thanks to a handful artifacts guarded in museums.

Our own country was built on the wreckage of Indian culture. Guatemalans use Timex watches rather than checking the Mayan Calendar. The European Union is a covert chapter of Empires Anonymous. And in the Peruvian desert there are huge spirals in the earth and straight lines that stretch for miles whose origins are totally forgotten.

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Some sixty years ago, anthropologist Alfred Kroeber noted that elements of a culture do die out, "dissolve away, disappear, and are replaced by new ones. The elements of the content of such cultures may have previously spread to other cultures and survive there. Or their place may be taken at home by elements introduced from abroad. Or they may survive, with or without modification, at home, in the different configuration that gradually takes the place of the old one as a successor culture." Thus even if American democracy dies here; pieces of it may survive somewhere else, or we may become the largest latino culture in the world and, in any event, the Thais may keep the faith of the Ipod alive regardless of what happens to us.

Using ancient Egypt as an example, Kroeber says that there came a time when Egyptians had clearly attained "the greatest military might, expansion, wealth, excellence of art and development of thought. The inherent patterns of their culture may be said to have been fully realized or to have been saturated then. After that, with pattern potentialities exhausted, there could be only diminished or devitalized repletion; unless the patterns can be reformulated in the direction of a new set of values - which would be equivalent to recasting the civilization into a new one or into a thoroughly new phase of one. This latter did not happen in Egypt; so more and more sluggish mechanical repetition within the realized but fully exhausted patterns became the universal vogue."

Does this begin to sound a bit familiar?


Let's take the example of popular music, useful because music is a creative discipline with a mathematical base, thus lending itself to more objective analysis than some of its artistic colleagues. In fact, you can write a succinct history of western music by simply outlining the progression of chords used and their relationship with one another. This is what Ward Cannel, a journalist, and Fred Marx, a classical pianist, did in a remarkable guide, "How to Play Piano Despite Years of Lessons."

Displaying the basic chords - separated by a common distance of notes and placed around a circle like guests at a large dinner table - you can describe the rise of western music by simply checking off which of these chords were being used by musicians at a particular time. Thus with folk music, children's songs, early hymns and Bach's Minuet In G, it was typical to use one chord and its neighbor on either side.

In later classical harmony, composers moved from the base chord to another, say, three or four seats away counter clockwise and then begin a slow procession home stopping at the other chairs. Examples would include Bach's Well Tempered Clavichord. It doesn't seem like much, but in the history of music, it was a revolutionary change.

Along the way, there were other variations such as starting at the second or third chair and moving back towards home as in Honeysuckle Rose.

If you really wanted to be wild, you threw in a chord not on the way home at all, but in the other direction.

Then came a new stage and the game was played on the clockwise side of the circle. Later a tune might work its way entirely around the circle. Or if you want to be really hip, you could leap across the circle to the other side.

Similarly, the baker's dozen of notes in the western scale have been rearranged over time in increasingly complex ways, starting with the simple chords we associate with folk music and moving on to add the 7th, flatted 9th, 13h and so forth.

If you were to take every piece of music in America ever written and categorize it by these standards - the number and placement of chords and their complexity - you would find that musical opportunity has grown with the rest of the republic.

This didn't mean that you had to use all these opportunities to make good music - bluegrass and the blues prove that - only that the potential for musicians and composers were ever expanding, a sign of a thriving culture. As Thelonius Monk put it, "I'm after new chords, new ways of syncopating, new figures, new runs. How to use notes differently. That's it. Just using notes differently."

Unfortunately, however, there are only so many chairs at the table and there are only so many combinations of movement. Eventually you run out of chairs for chords, variations on the order you play them, and their complexity. You reach the point that Kroeber described: "With pattern potentialities exhausted, there could be only diminished or devitalized repletion. . . so more and more sluggish mechanical repetition within the realized but fully exhausted patterns became the universal vogue."

Which is to say, much of the music of today.

There is, to be sure, another major source of change: other cultures. American folk music, for example, is a history of immigration translated into notes. The blues, it has been suggested, originated in a blend of the western and African scale. As early as Jelly Roll Morton, jazz musicians were borrowing from latin sounds with perhaps the most notable recent folk example being the blending of Paul Simon and Ladysmith Black Mambazo in 'Graceland.'

This continues today but in a critically modified form: Jelly Roll Morton and Paul Simon were inventive musicians seeking the best in another culture; Ricky Martin and Gloria Estefan are products of a huge anglo recording company looking for something new to exploit.

I suspect the decay of American music may have begun with the disco drum machine of 1970s, the beginning of percussion mechanicus to go along with Erich Fromm's homo mechanicus. Both share a problem: they aren't human. A live drummer is constantly listening to the other musicians, finding new ways to back them up, discovering a groove by intent or accident, making a two bar point, or just showing off. If you were to analyze the sound with lab equipment you might be amazed at how irregular it actually is - the inevitable result of being human rather than mechanical.

But that is part of the secret of real music. Much of the appeal of jazz, for example, comes from listening to the alteration, manipulation or distortion of the familiar. Thus a singer may hold a note longer than expected or lend it excruciating pain when you were expecting nothing more than a simple B flat. One writer described it as repetition just to the point of boredom - at which something new and unexpected happens.

As amplifiers replaced acoustic sound, there were other changes in music. The recording companies began dumbing down music, reducing the number of chords, replacing melody with repetitive phrases, emphasizing only the extreme end of the dynamic range, and in the end - with rap - doing away with the need for music almost entirely.

This is not to say that there was not merit within these forms - the pain and rebellion of punk, the soul of rap - but rather that for the most part the corporate monopolies had seized control of our ear drums and locked them down in a few tiny cells.

The result is telling. In 2002, ABC asked respondents for the top rock n roll star of all time. Elvis Presley got 38%, no one else got more than 5% and listed in the top ten were such golden oldies as Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, Mick Jagger, Bruce Springseen, Paul McCartney and Eric Clapton. Michael Jackson got 2%.

A Zogby poll in 1999 asked for the best male singer of the century. Again, only one name got more than ten percent: Frank Sinatra, with Elvis Presley in second. Third place went to Garth Brooks, current but in an highly traditional genre. The rest were: Luciano Pavarotti, Elton John, Bing Crosby, George Strait, Nat King Cole, Perry Como, and Luther Vandross. Three were dead, one an opera singer, one a country singer, and Vandross an R&B singer who had been around for years but found a crossover audience in 1989.

A similar poll of women singers was far more current but with the leader, Barbra Streisand, getting only 14% of the vote. Celine Dion, Whitney Houston, Reba McEntire, Dolly Parton, Shania Twain, Ella Fitzgerald, Aretha Franklin, Mariah Carey, and Lorretta Lynn all came in under 10%.

A more contemporary list, to be sure, but heavily tilted towards the traditional sounds of black and country music and voices that, while unique, could hardly be called inventive.

Thus when you ask, what's been happening in American popular music over the past 25 years, a reasonable answer is: not much.

You find similarities in other arts. For example, a Modern Library critics' listing of the 100 best English language novels of the 20th century includes only one written after 1980: Ironweed by William Kennedy, written in 1983.

One list of the 100 most acclaimed films finds only nine post-1980. The American Film Institute's list includes only 13.

One may quarrel with such lists, but a culture that is truly thriving will tend, if anything, to overvalue its own contributions and downplay those of the past. You may argue, for example, with those who claimed to come from 'the greatest generation,' but you can't argue that they felt that way. Now, instead of bragging, we just order Butch Cassidy from Neflix one more time.


A vibrant culture will be spurred by what it considers greatness. This doesn't mean that it necessarily is, but the mere presumption affects how the society behaves.

For example, Victor Davis Hanson recently wrote that "Whether or not you agreed with them, university presidents used to be dignified figures on the American scene. They often were distinguished scholars, capable of bringing their own brand of independent thinking to bear on the operation and reform of their institutions. Above all, they took seriously the university's mission to seek and transmit the truth, and thereby to strengthen the free society that made such inquiry possible.

"But it has been a long time since Woodrow Wilson (at Princeton), Robert Hutchins (at Chicago) or James Bryant Conant (at Harvard) set the tone for American campuses. Over the past year, four university presidents have been in the news - from Harvard; the University of California, Santa Cruz; the University of Colorado; and the University of California, Berkeley. In each case, the curtains have briefly parted, allowing the public to glimpse the campus wizards working the levers behind the scenes, and confirming that something has gone terribly wrong at our best public and private universities."

Of course, Woodrow Wilson spread segregation in the government and James Conant may have done public education incalculable damage by setting it on a course of gargantuan factory-like school districts, but that is not the point. The point is that they were icons of a society that thought it knew where it was going and what it admired.

Today, with Larry Summers at Harvard or Benjamin Ladner at American University - such figures have largely been reduced to talk of their fundraising skill or excessive expense accounts. Few suggest that they are people we should actually admire.

Similarly, in the churches there is a stunning lack of models. This is not merely the fault of the neo-Gantries who have taken over much of American Christianity but of other Protestant sects that say not a mumblin' word about the theological hijacking of the right and who offer little alternative in such areas as social justice and world peace. Judaism, which once helped carry the banner for social change, has largely abandoned that field in favor of raising funds for Israel. As for the Catholics, the best they can do is try to find ways to prove that they're not a bunch of perverts. The best we can do is applaud a bishop from South Africa and a lama from Tibet.

The dearth of greatness is most painfully obvious perhaps in the nation's capital, in its politics, think tanks and media. To be sure, a pantomime is performed, but everyone knows it is just for television. Bush compares himself to Roosevelt, Koppel pretends he's Murrow, but nobody's really fooled. The disappearance of greatness - whether rightly or wrongly recognized as such - is common throughout American society - from football coaches to moral leaders. In the end we are left with Ben Affleck and Oprah Winfrey.

Part of the problem was identified as far back as the 1920s by Julien Benda in his book, The Treason of the Intellectuals: "At the very top of the scale of moral values [the intellectuals] place the possession of concrete advantages, of material power and the means by which they are procured; and they hold up to scorn the pursuit of truly spiritual advantages, of non-practical or disinterested values."

Instead of being outsiders, critics and moral observers, the American intelligentsia have become players accepting many of the values of the system they should be scorning.

Benda listed some of these values:

- "The extolling of courage at the expense of other virtues. . .

- "The extolling of harshness and the scorn for human love -- pity, charity, benevolence. . .

- "The teaching which says that when a will is successful that fact alone gives it a moral value, whereas the will which fails is for that reason alone deserving of contempt."

In my last book, Why Bother?, I wrote:

[Older Americans] remember the victories and their celebrations; they remember Norman Rockwell men standing motionless for the national anthem in baseball stadiums with fedoras held over their hearts; a government that did more than regulate or arrest you; politicians who were revered; newscasters who were trusted; and music that dripped syrup over our spirits and made them sweet and sticky. They remember when there was a right and wrong and who and what belonged with each, whether it was true or not. They remember a time when those in power lied and were actually able to fool us. They remember what a real myth was like even when it was false, cruel, deceptive, and the property of only a few.

Now, despite the improved economic and social status of women and minorities, despite decades of economic progress, despite Velcro, SUVs, MTV, NASA, DVD, cell phones, and the Internet you can't raise a majority that is proud of this country. We neither enjoy our myths nor our reality. We hate our politicians, ignore our moral voices, and distrust our media. We have destroyed natural habitats, created the nation's first downwardly mobile generation, stagnated their parent's income, and removed the jobs of each to distant lands. We have created rapacious oligopolies of defense and medicine, frittered away public revenues and watched indifferently as, around the world, the homeless and the miserable pile up. Our leaders and the media speak less and less of freedom, democracy, justice, or of their own land. Perhaps most telling, we are no longer able to react, but only to gawk.

Too be sure, many of the symbols of America remain, but they have become crude -- desperately or only commercially imitative of something that has faded. We still stand for the Star Spangled Banner, but we no longer know what to do while on our feet. We still subscribe to the morning paper but it reads like stale beer. And some of us even still vote, but expect ever less in return. Where once we failed to practice our principles, now we no longer even profess to honor them.


If this seems like a somewhat backwards approach to naming the real villains, it is intended to be. Our politicians, bad as many of them are, in the end are mainly symptoms of our disintegration. A strong country would not have fallen for as flagrant a fraud as Ronald Reagan or George Bush, nor ones as cleverly corrupt as the Clintons.

It is fair to say, however, that much of our decline began with the Reagan administration and, without exception, has continued since. The evidence for this is strewn across the landscape, but here are just 25 things that have gotten worse in the past 25 years:

1. Real income of Americans
2. Decline in wealth of the bottom 40%
3. Number of older families with pensions
4. Foreign debt as a percent of GDP
5. Personal bankruptcies
6. Housing foreclosures
7. Annual personal savings rate of families
8. Corruption in politics
9. Number of people in prison
10. Drug induced deaths despite drug war
11. Civil liberties lost as result of drug war and war on terror
12. Pensions that include health care benefits
13. Number of families without health insurance
14. Numbers of corporations controlling most of the media
15. Public trust in major media
16. Time children spend playing
17. Divorce rate
18. Increase in wealth of wealthiest senators
19. Decline in voting participation
20. Number of registered lobbyists on Capitol Hill
21. Wages of recent male high school grads
22. Wages of bottom ten percent of workers
23. Ratio of executive to worker pay
24. Decline in real value of minimum wage
25. Harassment of young people for minor offenses

It is particularly telling that in the past thirty years, America has passed more laws than it did in its first two centuries, a sign of a country that has lost its way and trying desperately to compensate by making the results of its failures illegal.


There are innumerable contributing factors for what has happened to America, but here are a few that might escape notice:

ABUSE OF MYTHOLOGY - America has always been a high myth country. Only 13% believe that God was not involved in the evolution of human life. One poll found that 61% believed that Genesis is literally true, sixty percent believe in Noah's ark, and a third believe in ghosts. Americans believe that over half the people in the world speak English (actually it's closer to 20%). Ironically, Americans' mythological inclinations often have more in common with the currently hated Muslims than with many Europeans.

Such myths are not novel developments, so why is it that we find them mattering so much these days? One answer is that while the general populace chooses what to believe, they are heavily influenced by their leaders as to what these beliefs mean. Thus, while ethnic prejudice is a widespread human trait, it takes a Hitler or southern white politicians to give it an actively vicious role. In both cases, the argument blamed society's problems on a minority, pandering to myths and twisting them into a new and virulent form.

Similarly today, we find the Republican Party pandering to religious myths, but also manipulating them to its own perverted advantage to blame groups like gays or women who have freed themselves from traditional roles. We have always had fundamentalist Christians in this country; what is different is that they once voted the Democratic ticket. Today their myths have been rhetorically twisted against their own interests - including their substantial economic, educational, and environmental problems - and turned towards irrelevant targets that deflect the blame from those truly responsible. In a similar way, Hitler used Jews initially as a cause of Germany's economic problems, but in the end had them actually taking jobs from Germans by forced labor in concentration camps. In a similar way, poor southern whites were kept in their place by being convinced it was all the blacks' fault, which helped to keep down the wages of both groups.

Such cynical behavior can come to no good end. And in the process, the culture that accepts such a redefinition of its own myths becomes a prisoner of the myth twisters, causing it to turn - as in the present case - not to Christ but to a Karl Rove or George Bush for an understanding of what faith means. While plenty of cultures have thrived on mythological faith, it is impossible to do so when faith becomes a massive fraud.

TELEVISION - Television is attacked by both left and right for its values, but its deepest threat to American culture actually comes from its omnipresence. As Marshall McLuhan put it to Wired magazine: "The real message of media today is ubiquity. It is no longer something we do, but something we are part of. It confronts us as if from the outside with all the sensory experience of the history of humanity. "

The semiotician Marshall Blonsky called it a semiosphere, "a dense atmosphere of signs triumphantly permeating all social, political and imaginative life and, arguably, constituting our desiring selves as such."

Television makes all values its prisoner, whether the guard is Bill O'Reilly or Charlie Rose; and so ultimately, and inevitably, whatever culture is watching it loses to the tube.

Television has had another bad effect. Before it came along, a good politician was typically someone with high social intelligence, someone who knew how to react to human beings and human situations. TV has largely eliminated that need, favoring (and encouraging) a form of high functioning autism in which political rhetoric becomes a continuous feedback loop often unrelated to the situation in which the politician is placed or the issues being raised. Thus, television has become the means by which leaders have escaped their own culture, and their culture has lost contact with them.

THE CORPORATIZATION OF CULTURE - Increasingly, the language and values of our culture is that of corporations, something that became fashionable in the Reagan administration and has been cursing us ever since. It is so rampant that even the band Metallica pondered whether it should have a mission statement.

Among the values of this corporate culture is the elevation of managers and salespersons to iconic status. Fifty years ago this would have been considered a joke, but today it is widely accepted. Inherent in this bizarre value system is the inference that those who make or create things are less important than those who manage or sell them. In other words, as a matter of government, economic, and intellectual policy, the content of our culture is no longer as important as how well it can be marketed. Any culture with such priorities does not have a long life expectancy.

FAILED COMMUNITIES AND FORGOTTEN STORIES - A functioning culture is full of communities and stories. But the dominant corporate values of our culture are opposed to both. As Wendell Barry told the National Trust for Historic Preservation, "Where we are is a world dominated by a global economy that places no value whatsoever on community or community coherence. In this economy, whose business is to set in contention things that belong together, you can no nothing more divisive than to assert the claims of community. This puts you immediately at odds with powerful people to whom the claims of community mean nothing, who ignore the issues of locality, who recognize no neighbors and are loyal to no place."

When developers announced plans for a neo-traditional "village" named Frijoles near Santa Fe some years ago, Olivia Tsosie wrote in Designer/Builder magazine about the difference between a true village and the proposed project: "A village is an autonomous social unit, with a reason for existing where it is. . . What is a suburb? A dependent social unit with no internal reason for its existence. . . Frijoles lacks work, resources, kinship, political or religious independence, and cohesion. . . A village is a not-for-profit, organic, open-ended, human-scale social event, which becomes visible in its buildings and pathways."

Try telling that to either your city's planning office or the World Trade Organization or even MSNBC.

A functioning culture also needs coherent stories. The struggle for civil rights, for example, gained new heart and substance when the black power movement began telling more stories and demanding that they be heard. But our own culture, as Studs Terkel says, has become one of "forgotten stories." We have developed what he calls "national Alzheimer's disease."


Dismal as all this may sound, we need look no further than the European Union to realize that while cultures may collapse, the life of those in them goes on, absent some more brutal cause such as war, disease or genocide. Besides, as Kroeber noted, "Even before they have come mainly loose pieces or skeleton, another and younger civilization is usually ready to step into their place; or, if there is non such in the vicinity, a new civilization may slowly integrate out of the debris of its indigenous predecessor."

The truly scary possibility - and remember Kroeber was writing long before the rise of television or economic globalization - is that a "single, essentially uniform, world-wide civilization" supplants all the ones of the past: "What then, when the exhausted, repetitive stage is reached, and there is no new rival culture to take over responsibility and opportunity and start fresh with new values. . . ?"

What is tragic about the disintegration of American culture is the promise it held, the freedoms it created, the hope it sustained. The single common thread behind the forces that led to its collapse was greed: national greed, economic greed, lust for a greater audience and so forth. As Jefferson predicted, "They will forget themselves, but in the sole faculty of making money, and will never think of uniting to effect a due respect for their rights."

On the other hand, the scattered remnants are still there - certainly larger in scale, say, than the early American colonies that adopted the Constitution yet still lost in the miasma of the paranoid, prevaricating, gluttonous parody of America the larger culture has become. Those who would preserve the better America and recreate it from its damaged remains are not naive fools; they are the new founding fathers and mothers of a time and place still to come. Nor are they fantasizing. Any place, any community, any gathering can become what Hakim Bey called a temporary autonomous zone, an oasis of freedom, decency and hope, in which a new culture can take sprout. Name it, enjoy it, use it. It's the best we have at the moment.

As for the rest of America, it is long past time to drop the pretense. As I was walking through one of our frightened airports I heard the real motto of our land repeated over and over: "Caution, the moving walkway is about to end." It's true. We're on our own now.

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