It’s fascinating watching how a society at large and its overculture interact. James Lileks once described the latter as:
That twitchy, cheery, idiot blare produced by a stratum of coastal types who think the rest of America truly gives a shite whether Lindsay Lohan lost her Blackbird at a party last week, and who actually know who Anna Wintour looks like.
As for the former, England’s has certainly undergone a remarkable transformation in the years since World War II. The other day, David Foster of the Chicago Boyz econoblog quoted a wonderful passage from George Orwell, written in 1940, which highlighted, in just three paragraphs, the pluses and minuses of British culture in the early days of World War II:
When you come back to England from any foreign country, you have immediately the sensation of breathing a different air. Even in the first few minutes dozens of small things conspire to give you this feeling. The beer is bitterer, the coins are heavier, the grass is greener, the advertisements are more blatant. The crowds in the big towns, with their mild knobby faces, their bad teeth and gentle manners, are different from a European crowd. Then the vastness of England swallows you up, and you lose for a while your feeling that the whole nation has a single identifiable character. Are there really such things as nations? Are we not forty-six million individuals, all different? And the diversity of it, the chaos! The clatter of clogs in the Lancashire mill towns, the to-and-fro of the lorries on the Great North Road, the queues outside the Labour Exchanges, the rattle of pintables in the Soho pubs, the old maids biking to Holy Communion through the mists of the autumn morning – all these are not only fragments, but characteristic fragments, of the English scene. How can one make a pattern out of this muddle?
But talk to foreigners, read foreign books or newspapers, and you are brought back to the same thought. Yes, there is something distinctive and recognizable in English civilization. It is a culture as individual as that of Spain. It is somehow bound up with solid breakfasts and gloomy Sundays, smoky towns and winding roads, green fields and red pillarboxes. It has a flavour of its own. Moreover it is continuous, it stretches in to the future and the past, there is something in it that persists, as in a living creature. What can the England of 1940 have in common with the England of 1840? But then, what have you in common with the child of five whose photograph your mother keeps on the mantlepiece? Nothing, except that you happen to be the same person.
And above all, it is your civilization, it is you. However much you hate it or laugh at it, you will never be happy away from it for any length of time. The suet puddings and the red pillarboxes have entered into your soul. Good or evil, it is yours, you belong to it, and this side of the grave you will never get away from the marks that it has given you.
That dovetails remarkably well with an article written last year by the great Theodore Dalrymple — who has the clarity of Orwell, along with the blessing/curse of actually living in the era that’s been so worked-over by a half century of the socialism that the pre-1984 Orwell so desired:
When my mother arrived in England as a refugee from Nazi Germany, shortly before the outbreak of World War II, she found the people admirable, though not without the defects that corresponded to their virtues. By the time she died, two-thirds of a century later, she found them rude, dishonest, and charmless. They did not seem to her, moreover, to have any virtues to compensate for their unpleasant qualities. I occasionally asked her to think of some, but she couldn’t; and neither, frankly, could I.
It wasn’t simply that she had been robbed twice during her last five years, having never been the victim of a crime before—experiences that, at so advanced an age, would surely change anyone’s opinion of one’s fellow citizens. Few things are more despicable, after all, or more indicative of moral nihilism, than a willingness to prey upon the old and frail. No, even before she was robbed she had noticed that a transvaluation of all values seemed to have taken place in her adopted land. The human qualities that people valued and inculcated when she arrived had become mocked, despised, and repudiated by the time she died. The past really was a foreign country; and they did do things differently there.
What, exactly, were the qualities that my mother had so admired? Above all, there was the people’s manner. The British seemed to her self-contained, self-controlled, law-abiding yet tolerant of others no matter how eccentric, and with a deeply ironic view of life that encouraged them to laugh at themselves and to appreciate their own unimportance in the scheme of things. If Horace Walpole was right—that the world is a comedy to those who think and a tragedy to those who feel—the English were the most thoughtful people in the world. They were polite and considerate, not pushy or boastful; the self-confident took care not to humiliate the shy or timid; and even the most accomplished was aware that his achievements were a drop in the ocean of possibility, and might have been much greater if he had tried harder or been more talented.
For the first 15 to 20 years after World War II, a middlebrow culture flourished in the media in both England and America. Regarding the latter nation’s post-war media overculture, Terry Teachout wrote in 2003:
Just as city dwellers can’t understand what it meant for the residents of a rural town to wake up one day and find themselves within driving distance of a Wal-Mart, so are they incapable of properly appreciating the true significance of middlebrow culture. For all its flaws, it nurtured at least two generations’ worth of Americans who, like me, went on to become full-fledged highbrows–but highbrows who, while accepting the existence of a hierarchy of values in art, never lost sight of the value of popular culture.
The catch was that the middlebrow culture on which I was raised was a common culture, based on the existence of widely shared values, and it is now splintered beyond hope of repair. Under the middlebrow regime, ordinary Americans were exposed to a wide range of cultural options from which they could pick and choose at will. They still do so, but without the preliminary exposure to the unfamiliar that once made their choices potentially more adventurous. The rise of digital information technology, with its unique capacity for niche marketing, has replaced such demographically broad-based instruments of middlebrow self-education as The Ed Sullivan Show with a new regime of seemingly infinite cultural choice. Instead of three TV networks, we have a hundred channels, each “narrowcasting” to a separate sliver of the viewing public, just as today’s corporations market new products not to the American people as a whole but to carefully balanced combinations of “lifestyle clusters” whose members are known to prefer gourmet coffee to Coca-Cola, or BMWs to Dodge pickups.
The information age offers something for anybody: Survivor for simpletons, The Sopranos for sophisticates. The problem is that it offers nothing for everybody. By maximizing and facilitating cultural choice, information-age capitalism fused with identity politics to bring about the disintegration of the common middlebrow culture of my youth. Let’s return for a moment to those unlettered folks who don’t know who painted the “Mona Lisa.” I assume, since you’re reading this, that you’re distressed by this unmistakable symptom of the widespread cultural illiteracy with which what Winston Churchill liked to call “the English-speaking peoples” are currently afflicted. But it so happens that a great many American intellectuals, most of them academics, would respond to your distress with a question: so what? To them, the very idea of “high art” is anathema, a murderous act of cultural imperialism. They don’t think Leonardo da Vinci should be “privileged” (to use one of their favorite pieces of jargon) over the local neighborhood graffiti artist. And as preposterous as this notion may seem to you, it is all but taken for granted among a frighteningly large swath of the postmodern American intelligentsia.
Which brings us right back to the problem of cultural illiteracy. How can we do anything about it if we can’t even agree on the fact that it is a problem–or about what basic cultural facts ordinary people should be expected to know? The answer is simple: we can’t.
What’s really sad is that most people under the age of 35 or so don’t remember and can’t imagine a time when there were magazines that “everybody” read and TV shows that “everybody” watched, much less that those magazines and shows went out of their way to introduce their audiences to high art of various kinds. Those days, of course, are gone for good, and it won’t help to mourn their passing. I’m not one to curse the darkness–that’s one of the reasons why I started this blog. Even so, that doesn’t stop me from feeling pangs of nostalgia for our lost middlebrow culture. It wasn’t perfect, and sometimes it wasn’t even very good, but it beat hell out of nothing.
And shows about nothing are pretty much all England has left. Somewhere between the 1970s and the 1990s, the culture that so intrigued Dalrymple’s immigrant mother and George Orwell evaporated — slowly killed off by “Start From Zero” elites who saw little in its place worth keeping. Mark Steyn takes the pulse of British culture in his latest Maclean’s piece:
Earlier this week, David Cameron, the British Conservative Party leader and probable next prime minister, was “cleared” of “breaching” “the broadcasting code” by the country’s TV and radio regulatory authority, Ofcom. Back in July, Mr. Cameron had been appearing on the morning show at Absolute Radio, a national rock station, and had, apropos the political class in general, observed that “the public are rightly, I think, pissed off.” To a question about why he was not using Twitter, the Tory leader replied, “Too many twits might make a twat.”“That seemed to go okay,” reckoned Cameron as he left the studio. “Apart from the language,” responded his press secretary, Gabby Bertin.
“Oh, yeah, ‘pissed,’ sorry about that.”
“No, it was the ‘twat,’ ” said Ms. Bertin.
“That’s not a swear word,” insisted the heir to Thatcher, Churchill, Lord Salisbury and Disraeli. My dictionary says:
“noun [origin unknown] (1656): VULVA—usually considered vulgar.”
On the other hand, an Ofcom report from 2005, Language And Sexual Imagery In Broadcasting: A Contextual Investigation, is more ambivalent, concluding only that “twat” is “very polarizing . . . offensive especially to British Asian females and some women from other groups, but many especially men think it is an everyday word.”
Nevertheless, Ofcom felt obliged to spend two months investigating David Cameron, prompting lefties to advance the theory that the Tory honcho deliberately said “piss” and “twat” on the radio in order to appear “cool” and not your usual uptight conservative like . . . um, well, names no longer spring easily to mind in the British Tory party. But imagine Mitt Romney going on the radio and saying “muthafucker” to look cool, or Stephen Harper revealing he has nipple piercings.
If it wasn’t a focus-group-generated coolness op, Mr. Cameron might reasonably wonder why in the United Kingdom of 2009 his on-air effusions should merit a two-month investigation. I am a wee sensitive soul and so, when in Britain, try to avoid turning on the TV. A couple of years ago, I forgot myself and switched on to find in progress a game show in which the male contestants were required to remove the female contestants’ brassieres without using their hands. This was on the BBC. Which is funded by a poll tax: if you own a television set in the United Kingdom, you are obliged to pay a licence fee of £142.50—or about 250 bucks Canadian—which goes to fund the BBC. This is necessary, so it is claimed, to prevent the airwaves being clogged with hideous down-market trash of the kind that infects American telly by enabling the BBC to produce quality programming the market would not support. Like televised bra-removal competitions. Although, if that’s not commercially viable, it’s no wonder capitalism is dead.
Anyway, speaking of “everyday words,” and indeed of vulvas, last year I forgot myself again and switched on for my annual 15 minutes of BBC quality programming. This time I caught an episode of Mock the Week. This is one of those shows in which comedians say funny things about the news. If you’re thinking, “Ah, you mean like Air Farce or 22 Minutes?”—not exactly. If you’re faintly irked by those shows’ cozy relationship with the political establishment they’re meant to be afflicting and the party leaders showing what good sports they are by appearing in toothless sketches, that doesn’t seem to be a problem at Mock the Week. The host, Dara Ó Briain, asked the panel to suggest things Her Majesty the Queen would be unlikely to say during her Christmas message.
The show’s star, Frankie Boyle, replied: “I’m now so old my pussy is haunted.”
In the London Times, Jeremy Clarkson sounds like he would agree with Steyn, concluding, “Cleverness is no more. This is a dumb Britain”:
Today my encyclopedic knowledge of everything Python is seen as a bit sad. Former fans point out that Cleese has lost it, that Jones is married to an eight-year-old and that Spamalot was a travesty. Worse. Liking Python apparently marks me out as a “public-school toff”.
There’s a very good reason for this. Nowadays people wear their stupidity like a badge of honour. Knowing how to play chess will get your head kicked off. Reading a book with no pictures in it will cause there to be no friend requests on your Facebook page. Little Britain is funny because people vomit a lot. Monty Python is not because they delight in all manifestations of the terpsichorean muse.
When you go on a chat show, it is important you tell the audience straight away that you were brought up in a cardboard box and that your dad would thrash you to sleep every night. If you want to get on and to be popular you have to demonstrate that you know nothing. It’s why Stephen Fry makes so many bottom jokes.
And then you have my colleague James May, who says that, occasionally on Top Gear, he would like to present a germane and thought-provoking piece on engineering. But I won’t let him unless his trousers fall down at some point. I’m ashamed to say that’s true.
It’s also true that today no one ever gets rich by overestimating the intelligence of their audience. Today you make a show assuming the viewers know how to breathe and that’s about it. It’s therefore an inescapable fact that in 2009 Monty Python would not be commissioned.
Indeed — pioneering blogger Steven Den Beste wrote about that topic in 2002:
The series couldn’t be made now. It is very politically incorrect; it’s full of racial slurs and stereotypes; it uses a lot of foul language and it even has nudity (and I don’t just mean the nude organist). In “The Attila the Hun show” Idle dresses up in blackface and does a 40’s American minstrel part as the butler for the Hun family. One of the things which was nice about Python was that it was dangerous. They accepted no limits; they’d cross any line; but not for shock effect, just because what was on the other side was funny.
It seems to me that the only reason that Python can still be shown is that it’s considered a classic; it gets a “by”, it’s grandfathered. Even the politically-correct liberals enjoy Python. (Maybe there’s hope for them.) In particular, all the fag-baiting that the show does: no-one would ever do anything like that now. (“Precision flouncing about” by a squad of soldiers? Yeesh.) I wonder whether gays now look at that and cringe, or if they’re as amused by it as the rest of us? (The fact that Chapman was gay makes it all particularly surreal.)
If Python were first run now on a major American network, it would result in a flood of protest letters from the very first episode, and would have been cancelled after six (if it even got that far). Which may well be the reason why I haven’t watched a regular show on any of the major networks for more than fifteen years.
In a way, the timing of Monty Python Flying Circus makes it pivot point of sorts in the liberal overculture. Their show debuted in 1969, after the mid-’60s era of Swinging London, and as the Beatles were melting down and ultimately breaking up as a musical group. But the Pythons’ TV series ran in an era that was pre-multiculturalism and pre-Political Correctness. The Pythons may have been nihilists (“Life’s a piece of s***, when you think of it”, Eric Idle memorably sung in The Life of Brian), but they took Western Civilization and its intellectual history seriously enough to mock it.
(Which is why teaching the significance of the event celebrated on the second Monday in October in the US is invariably such a hit in her classrooms.)