Monday, November 05, 2007


Mark Steyn has a really excellent piece in The New Criterion discussing the 20th anniversary of Allan Bloom's book, The Closing of the American Mind.

Bloom's controversial exposé of the shallowness and meaninglessness of American pop culture was a bombshell when it first was published in 1987; and, his analysis seems even more prescient when one considers the evolution of that pop culture over the last 20 years.

Bloom was the quintessential academic and a true liberal intellectual (in the traditional meaning of that word), and he could not help noticing that the university--which used to see its mission as the maintainence and transmission of civilization and learning--was failing in that mission. Instead of countering the pervasively vapid "pop" psychology that passed for deep thought about the meaning and purpose of life, it gave credibility to the emptiness and facilitated and celebrated the shallowness.

Instead of preparing young minds with the great ideas and thoughts that had preceded the modern day and which were the very foundation of western civilization; it was deconstructing those ideas willy-nilly; dismissing those thinkers and invalidating their ideas, because they lacked 'modern' sensibilities.

In a previous post I wrote:

By using the now-common relativistic formula, all individuals and thinkers in the past are ridiculed, demeaned, and scorned because they fail to live up to postmodern and politically correct standards of conduct. Thus, their ideas are considered meaningless and described as "hypocritical"--the absolutely worse possible sin from the leftist perspective.

Thomas Jefferson, George Washington--all the Founding Fathers for the most part--did not have the consciousness of the postmodern intellectual: they were slaveholders! Yet they dared to consider the problem of human freedom, bound as they were to the cultural norms of their time. That they could not entirely break out of the culture of their time, but still could push the envelope of civilization forward is irrelevant to the postmodern left. From the left's perch of moral superiority they blithely dismiss these "white males" as hypocrites with no moral standing. Thus are the foundations and the generationally built constructs of civilization invalidated and destroyed. Is it any wonder that all that is left is the nihilistic garbage that postmodernism deems as "reality"?

But consider, if we do not understand the past; if we abandon the ideas that underlie our values and our morality-- how can we appreciate who we are today? If we are only allowed to think of Thomas Jefferson as a hypocritical colonial slaveholder, then we are forced to pronounce his ideas on the struggle for human freedom as no better and no worse than Hitler's Kampf.

And so, Jefferson's mind-blowing, paradigm-shattering declaration, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness" has no more meaning or worth than Yasser Arafat's statement that, "Since we cannot defeat Israel in war; we do this in stages. We take any and every territory that we can of Palestine, and establish sovereignty there, and we use it as a springboard to take more. When the time comes, we can get the Arab nations to join us for the final blow against Israel." Both are either completely meaningless; or both are examples of freedom-fighters--who cares which? Bush = Hitler; Good = Evil; Freedom = Slavery; there is no way to judge because the nihilistic relativism we subscribe to has taken away our ability to morally distinguish and discriminate between right and wrong.

By disgarding reason and reality; by abandoning the past and embracing moral and cultural relativism, the left has brought us to this place where we are morally and physically paralyzed and cannot distinguish between the deliberate targeting and killing of innocents and the accidental killing of innocents despite herculean efforts to avoid it; between waging war to give people a chance at freedom and democracy; and waging war for domination and imperialism; between standing up for what is right and accepting the consequences, and abandoning one's values and surrendering with "honor" to the scum of the earth.

By mocking intellectual giants like Thomas Jefferson and dragging him through the postmodern mud; by equating Bush with Hitler; or the behavior of the Palestinians with the behavior of the Israelis; the actions of the U.S. military with the actions of the Islamofanatic terrorist thugs-- the left is desperately trying to numb the mind of the West. Who are we to judge? they scream, desperately trying to prevent history from judging their own unbelievable and pathological destructiveness, their own morally repugnant behavior and ideology.

This is their quest. To establish themselves as the arbiters of moral behavior by behaving immorally; of being "reality-based" without the necessity of having to acknowledge reality; of speaking "truth" to power, without being capable of recognizing truth (isn't all truth relative, after all?).

Bloom argued persuasively in his book that the modern mindset is running on empty compared to the ancient and enlighted thinkers of history. His argument struck me forcefully when I first read his book some years back; and it has even more meaning for me today when I consider the complete corruption of the academic world and ascendency of those marxist and postmodern nihilistic forces within it who see education only as a tool for the indoctrination of young minds into politically correct ideology and who have transformed academia into an educational gulag.

The rich complexity and depth of understanding that can be gleaned from studying the classics of western intellectual thought has been swept away by today's almost exclusive emphasis on the more shallow and infinitely more convenient modern ones. And like Bloom's students in the 80's, who were programmed to seek 'relevance', they still can't be bothered to care about the ideas of the past. Today, however, this is also the mindset of the faculty who teach them.

Thus, both students and teachers are cut off from the great history of ideas and are tossed about by relativistic winds like intellectual feathers.

Are human beings created in the image of God and capable of reason; choice and both great good and evil; or are they merely alive to follow their animal instincts; without free will or a higher consiousness; incapable of rational thought and a servant to emotion?

America was founded on the idea that reason rules emotion; that religion and brute force are not primary; and it was the concrete example of the abstract ideas of Enlightenment philosophers such as Thomas Paine, Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and David Hume. These philosophers built upon the ideas of those who had gone before. They questioned the role of religion and the state; but also argued that societies are not sustained by reason alone. And the Founding Fathers were inspired to create a society that promoted life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Bloom's discussions of both culture and values were--then and now--breathtaking in their acuity and insight. As I read somewhere once, we Americans may quote the words of Jefferson, but we have really come to believe those of Nietzsche.

Getting back to Steyn's excellent essay, he notes:
Popular culture” is more accurately a “present-tense culture”: You’re celebrating the millennium but you can barely conceive of anything before the mid-1960s. We’re at school longer than any society in human history, entering kindergarten at four or five and leaving college the best part of a quarter-century later—or thirty years later in Germany. Yet in all those decades we exist in the din of the present. A classical education considers society as a kind of iceberg, and teaches you the seven-eighths below the surface. Today, we live on the top eighth bobbing around in the flotsam and jetsam of the here and now. And, without the seven-eighths under the water, what’s left on the surface gets thinner and thinner.

Steyn next focuses on the part of Bloom's book where he rips apart modern "pop" music:

So Bloom is less concerned with music criticism than with what happens when a society’s incidental music becomes its manifesto. The key to what’s happened is in the famous first sentence of the book. “There is,” writes the author, “one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative.” To quote the African dictator in a Tom Stoppard play, a relatively free press is a free press run by one of my relatives. A relative culture ends up ever shorter of any relatives to relate to. In educational theory, it’s not about culture vs. “counter-culture” but rather what I once called lunch-counterculture: It’s all lined up for you and you pick what you want. It’s the display case of rotating pies at the diner: one day the student might pick Milton, the next Bob Dylan. But, if Milton and Bob Dylan are equally “valid,” equally worthy of study, then Bob Dylan will be studied and Milton will languish. And so it’s proved, most exhaustively, in music.
He recounts an MTV interview of John Kerry in 2004:
The interviewer asks his guest: “Well, we know that you were into rock and roll when you were in high school, and we know that you play the guitar now. Are there any trends out there in music, or even in popular culture in general, that have piqued your interest?”

And the guest—presidential candidate John Kerry—replied: “Oh sure. I follow and I’m interested. I’m fascinated by rap and by hip-hop. I think there’s a lot of poetry in it. There’s a lot of anger, a lot of social energy in it. And I think you’d better listen to it pretty carefully, ’cause it’s important. I’m still listening because I know that it’s a reflection of the street and it’s a reflection of life.”

Really? John Kerry is “fascinated” by rap and “listening” to hip-hop? Think if you broke into the Kerry household and riffled through John and Teresa’s CD collection you’d find a single rap album? I didn’t mind Senator Kerry when he was being mocked as a flip-flopper, but I find him even less plausible as America’s first flip-flopper hip-hopper. You can smell the fear in his answer.

And consider his recitation of rap’s virtues: there’s “a lot of anger, a lot of social energy … it’s a reflection of the street.” That’s something else that happens in a relativist culture. First, if Tupac Shakur is just as good as Milton, then everybody drops Milton. Then comes the second stage: once Milton’s dropped, and Bach and Keats and Mozart, you no longer have a very clear idea of who exactly Tupac Shakur is meant to be as good as. It’s not comparative anymore: he’s all there is. The argument is that, oh, well, you uptight squares are always objecting to stuff: you thought Sinatra exciting bobbysoxers was dangerous, and the Viennese waltz was the mating dance of a hypersexualized culture. No. Benny Goodman, noted by Bloom, was a huge pop star but he could play the Mozart clarinet concerto. Popular culture used to be very at ease with the inheritance of the past. One of the trends of the last forty years is not just the vanishing of “high culture” but of low-culture jokes about high culture—the variety-show sketches in which Schubert’s mates urge him to come down the pub with him and he says “No, I’ve got to stay in and finish my symphony.” It assumes a residual familiarity—from some half-recalled school lesson—with a bloke called Schubert who wrote an “Unfinished Symphony.”

Likewise, P. G. Wodehouse is stuffed with literary and classical and Biblical allusions: “He conveyed to young Mr. Rastall-Retford the impression that, in the dear old ’Varsity days, they had shared each other’s joys and sorrows, and, generally, had made Damon and Pythias look like a pair of cross-talk knockabouts at one of the rowdier music-halls.” Wodehouse assumes you know who Damon and Pythias are: They were best pals back in the fourth century BC. Ran into a spot of bother with Dionysius of Syracuse. You could junk Damon and Pythias and replace them with Damon and Affleck—Matt Damon and Ben Affleck: They’re also best pals, they make movies together. But eventually you dwindle down to a present-tense culture unable to refer to anything beyond itself. You can make the argument that, say, Jerome Kern, the first great Broadway composer of the twentieth century, is at his best as harmonically sophisticated as Schubert. But to do that you would first have to know something about Schubert. I think it’s harder to make the claim to harmonic sophistication in the Beatles, but William Mann, the music critic of The Times of London, gave it a go in 1963, comparing the Aeolian cadence in “Not A Second Time” with the end of Mahler’s “Song of the Earth.” But, as I said, to do that you have to know about Mahler.

And once Mahler’s gone and Schubert’s gone, you can no longer make musical claims for rock and rap, so all you do is hail it for its authenticity and its energy and, as John Kerry did, its copious amounts of “anger.” Thus, the loss of a high-culture aesthetic eventually undermines your pop culture, too

Now, I quoted from Steyn's piece at length (and you need to read it all) because it really captures the relativism and nihilism of postmodern philosophy and demonstrate the consequences those ideas have had on art; and specifically, in this case, music.

Once the genie of postmodern moral relativism was released into Western intellectual thought, it was necessary to undermine history, reality, and truth in order to maintain it.

Without a rational metaphysics--or worldview--that explains the nature of existence and reality; and without an epistemology that says our minds are able to acquire knowledge of that reality; then it is easy for the postmodernists to enforce conformity of ideas (while preaching 'diversity'), totalitarian policies (even as they tout 'free speech'), and 'social justice' (even as they perpetuate victimhood).

Ethics, the study of how man should behave in the world--or, what is good and what is evil--is totally dependent on both metaphysics and epistemology, because it is impossible to make choices without knowledge; just as it is impossible to have knowledge without a reality that can be known and understoody by our minds.

What matters in the postmodernist's convoluted thinking is not truth or falsity--only the effectiveness of the language used. Lies, distortions, ad hominem attacks; attempts to silence opposing views--all are strategies that are perfectly satisfactory if they achieve the desired effect. Ideas and reason must make way for reification of feelings; and freedom is replaced by thought control.

Esthetics is a branch of philosophy that studies art; and it is dependent on metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics. The essence of postmodern esthetics is the destruction, often deliberate, of beauty and meaning--two of the greatest and most significant aspects of art.

In the shallow, nihilistic blackness of postmodern art, all one is usually left with in place of beauty is a pile of negative emotions--usually of the anger and rage variety; and, the place of meaning has been appropriated by the opiate of the neo-marxist masses, i.e., the ever-useful concept of "social justice", which can always be pointed to as the "deep" meaning of the work, be it painting, music, literature, or whatever.

Art can be thought of as a selective recreation of reality. Its basic purpose is to take an abstraction and make it concrete; and thus to bring an idea or emotion to physical life. Since it is 'selective' in its recreation, the values of the painter, musician etc. are key to understanding its meaning.

Music is an extremely powerful medium that unlocks and expresses emotion through patterns of sound.

And, as Steyn comments, "It was twenty years ago today, sang the Beatles forty years ago today, that Sergeant Pepper taught the band to play. Well, it was twenty years ago today—1987—that Professor Bloom taught us the band had nothing to say."

Most of the 'present-tense' culture that Bloom wrote about in 1987 has become even more cut-off from any esthetic and intellectual roots; and is even more shallow, meaningless, repulsive and mind-bogglingly ugly than would have been thought possible a mere two decades ago. By looking at the postmodern evolution of popular music, we can begin to understand the enormity of the cultural problem we face.

I used to get mad at my school
The teachers who taught me weren't cool
You're holding me down, turning me round
Filling me up with your rules.

The children of postmodernism are now the teachers, professors, and administrators who run the schools. How long do you suppose it will take before the recent atrocity promulgated at University of Delaware is elevated and accepted as a progressive beacon of 'intellectual' and 'moral' clarity?

Ideas have consequences in the real world. And very bad ideas unfortunately have very bad consequences. I suspect that fact has something to do with reality, truth, and reason....

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