Philistinism and Failure

Tens of millions of young Chinese now study classical music, including an estimated 36 million pianists. Nothing builds attention span and analytic fortitude like classical music, and a nation that combines a vast amateur music culture with academic ambition will overwhelm the world with qualified and ambitious young minds.

China may fail; it might even descend into political chaos, to be sure — but then again, it might not. China’s massive and enthusiastic adoption of Western classical culture just might give it a world-dominating edge. There’s a difference between an engineer and an engineer who plays Bach. Higher mathematics as we know was incubated in music theory to begin with, as I explain in an essay in the April issue of First Things, “The Divine Music of Mathematics” (subscription required).

Asian dominance of classical music is nearly matched by the Asian presence in America’s top art schools. India does not give us classical musicians, but seems to aspire to dominate English fiction. What Americans deprecate as “highbrow culture” has become a mass presence in the lives of aspiring Asians on a scale that would have baffled the European elites who had an audience of thousands rather than millions. Our Philistinism could turn out to be our demise. America thrived in part because other countries failed and sent us their best minds along with their tired and poor. That’s not the sort of thing we should count on happening in the future.

That is why Fred Siegel’s diatribe in the April issue of Commentary, “How Highbrows Killed Culture,” makes such depressing reading.  He begins:

It is one of the foundational myths of contemporary liberalism: the idea that American culture in the 1950s was not only stifling in its banality but a subtle form of fascism that constituted a danger to the Republic. Whatever the excesses of the 1960s might have been, so the argument goes, that decade represented the necessary struggle to free America’s mind-damaged automatons from their captivity at the hands of the Lords of Conformity and Kitsch. And yet, from a remove of more than a half century, we can see that the 1950s were in fact a high point for American culture — a period when many in the vast middle class aspired to elevate their tastes and were given the means and opportunity to do so.

“Given the means and opportunity to do so,” indeed. The notion that evil highbrows undermined an inherently robust American culture is, well, spieβbürlicher Scheiβdreck. It’s true that NBC maintained its own symphony orchestra and paid Arturo Toscanini a superstar salary to conduct it for radio broadcasts, while today’s American orchestras can barely give their broadcasts away. But immigrants and their children dominated the classical music audience, including Jews and Italians on the coasts and Germans in the Midwest. The war produced a flowering of American culture in fields from art to rocketry because so many of Europe’s best thinkers sought refuge in the United States.

America has produced genius that tower above all other countries in only one field, namely politics: one can argue that the Federalist Papers are the greatest work of political theory ever penned, or that Abraham Lincoln is the supreme visionary among Western political leaders. But that is where it ends. Allan Bloom observed in The Closing of the American Mind (1988) that American intellectuals were singing from a cheat sheet, with bad English translations of German originals. Keynes said that the practical man of business is usually the mental slave of some defunct economist, and our practical politicians today are the mental slaves of defunct theorists.

It’s true, as Siegel complains, that leftists of all varieties derided American democracy and egalitarianism:

The Frankfurt School, led by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, theorized that the rough beast of popular fascism would come round at last in bourgeois America. Relying on an unholy blend of Freud and early Marx, the Frankfurt School writers averred that private life had ceased to be private since it had been colonized by the forces of industrialized leisure — movies, radio, TV, and comic books. These amusements were, they argued, the modern equivalent of the “bread and circuses” used to contain Rome’s plebeians as the empire descended into decadence. With their formidable dialectical skills, they had the intellectual dexterity to argue past the lack of evidence and insist that the jackboots were coming. Because the underlying reality of American life, dominated by hectoring fathers à la Freud, was intrinsically fascist, they argued, there was no need for an overt movement of the sort represented by the Nazis. Nazism was inevitable in America.

The whole vocabulary of the counterculture, as Allan Bloom explained two decades ago, is watered-down Nietzsche. Siegel is quite right to excoriate the Frankfurt School and other left-wing “highbrows.” The trouble is that conservative culture is dominated by European highbrows. What one might call the conservative mainstream consensus rests on two pillars: Natural Law theory as revived by Catholic neo-Thomism, and self-styled classical political rationalism as espoused by Leo Strauss, among others. What great homegrown Catholic philosopher stands beside de Lubac, Urs von Balthasar, not to mention Ratzinger? What American Straussian can claim the mantle of the elusive sage whose dissertation was supervised by Ernst Cassirer? What American Protestant can be compared to Karl Barth? Most of the main currents of American Judaism derive from individuals who studied at the University of Berlin in the 1920s or early 1930s: Joseph Soloveitchik, A.J. Heschel, Leo Baeck, not to mention Menachem Schneerson. To make sense of Strauss, moreover, one has to understand why he considered Heidegger the decisive mind of the 20th century (how may programs in “political philosophy” include instruction in Heidegger, which in turn requires study of Aristotle, Kant, Kierkegaard, and the Phenomenologists?). I don’t like Strauss at all, and rely instead on another German Jew, the theologian Franz Rosenzweig.

It isn’t just that America takes 31st place in the quality of students’ math skills: “In the U.S., 6.04 percent of the report’s subjects were classified ‘advanced,’ meaning they scored at least 617.1 on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) test. Taiwan, Hong Kong, Korea, and Finland led the pack at more than 20 percent, and 12 other nations more than doubled America’s percentage,” according to a team of Stanford and Munich researchers. It isn’t just that China has a six-to-one advantage over the United States in numbers of classical music students. It’s that the intellectual foundations of all currents in American politics, right as well as left, are poorly understood by the public intellectuals who espouse them. We see the result of that in the Republican Party’s miserable performance after 2001: We took a wartime mandate and dissipated it in ideologically driven schemes that helped propel Barack Obama to power.

A generation of teachers arrived in America from Europe during the 1930s and 1940s, great and good thinkers as well as subversive and malicious ones. We are their idiot grandchildren. For better or worse, they read Latin and Greek and spoke the major modern languages and had the major elements of our culture at immediate recall. These are the highbrows whom Siegel derides, forgetting that the right depended on its intellectuals no less than the left.

According to Siegel, American culture was doing just wonderfully during the 1950s before the highbrows came along to ruin things:

In 1947, notes Alex Beam in his recent book A Great Idea at the Time, Robert Hutchins, then president of the University of Chicago, and the autodidact philosopher Mortimer Adler launched an effort to bring the great books of Western Civilization to the people. In 1948 Hutchins and Adler drew 2,500 people to a Chicago auditorium to hear them lead a discussion of the trial of Socrates. By 1951 there were 2,500 Great Books discussion groups, with roughly 25,000 members meeting “all over the country, in public libraries, in church basements, Chamber of Commerce offices, corporate conference rooms at IBM and Grumman Aircraft, in private homes, on army bases,” and even prisons. At the peak of the Great Books boom, Beam writes, 50,000 Americans a year were buying collections of the writings of Plato, Aristotle, the Founding Fathers, and Hegel at prices that “started at $298 and topped out at $1,175, the equivalent of $2,500 to $9,800 today.”

This was the danger against which critics of mass culture, inflamed with indignation, arrayed themselves in righteous opposition.

Imagine: Americans gathered around the kitchen table or the corporate conference room, reading not just Plato, but also Hegel! Didn’t GE Theater serialize Die Phanomenologie des Geistes in 1954, or was it Alfred Hitchcock Presents? There we were, innocently comparing Plato’s Nomoi to the Nichomachean Ethics, when the Frankfurt School came along, inflamed with indignation, and tricked us into having a counterculture.

Siegel isn’t even wrong, to paraphrase Wolfgang Pauli. He doesn’t know enough to be wrong. America buried the horrors of the Second World War in the universalism of mainline Protestantism, which extended the idea of Social Gospel to the world. America as leader of the Free World could make our own destiny and solve the world’s problems. When America encountered real horrors in the form of Asian Communism, our national religion centered in mainline Protestantism cracked apart within three years, between 1965 and 1968. Our culture was inadequate and vulnerable as we entered the 1960s. It is inadequate and vulnerable now. It cries out for a tough critique, not the self-congratulatory complacency that Siegel proposes.