Way back in college I read this ranting essay written in the 1920s by a conservative preacher, warning of the dangers that the “syncopated rhythms” of Jazz poised to society’s moral fiber. The preacher warned that the inherent sensualism of Jazz would lead to a culture of sexual promiscuity, weakened families and associated social problems. As my professors expected me to, I chortled at the preacher’s fevered concerns. Only years later did a realization strike me:
Our culture did in fact evolve just the way the preacher predicted.
Our culture did become more promiscuous, families are much weaker and we suffer from social problems like drug addiction that existed only on the periphery in the ’20s. We can trace much of this to a more sensualist and self-indulgent culture. We can also say that music and other arts played a significant role in driving that evolution.
Many people extol the arts as so vitally important to our individual and collective existence that they claim we should not allow anything to interfere with the creation and dissemination of any kind of art. Yet those same people vehemently reject the idea that art can foster values that lead to negative acts by individuals. They cannot have it both ways. Either art profoundly affects us for both good and bad or it serves only as trivial decoration which we can easily do without. Clearly, many want the acclaim, status and wealth that creating art brings, without the concatenate responsibility that comes with all creative endeavors.
We have decided, wisely I think, as a society that we will place the onus for behavior on the individual who acts and not on those who may have prompted him to act. We have decided that as individuals we will choose what ideas we consume and that we will accept responsibility for our own actions. (Granted, many different groups continuously challenge this standard.) Unfortunately, I don’t think we developed, or perhaps retained, the concept that only rigorous self-discipline prevents total freedom from destroying us.
The great benefit of the free market is that it will sell you anything you are willing to buy. This usually works out for the best, since individuals best judge what they do and do not need. However, the great threat posed by the free-market is that it will sell you anything you wish to buy. If you wish to buy poison, it will sell you poison. You can buy the rope to hang yourself with.
There is no freer market than the market place of ideas in the contemporary western world. The modern articulate intellectual has created for himself a libertarian paradise on which the rest of us can only gaze with envy. He can sell almost any idea to anyone with zero consequence. Reciprocally, consumers can buy almost any idea no matter the consequences. (The very idea that perhaps we should attach some consequences is treated as an assault on the very foundation of civilization itself. It’s a sweet setup if you can get it.)
Unfortunately, this radically free market sells destructive ideas as readily as creative ones. If individuals do not discipline themselves they can purchase rationales for any behavior no matter how negative that behavior might turn out to be. These rationales come packaged in everything from pop songs to an academic treatise, yet in the end they serve just as any other product we purchase to accomplish some task in our lives. The free market of ideas will sell us any fantasy we wish to buy.
Like any other product, people tend to buy what they see other people buy. They buy those ideas they see high status individuals buying. Ideas become fashion items. We grow into more savvy consumers as we age, but just as with any other product, the young, the poorly educated and the impoverished make worse decisions about the ideas they consume. The young and the poor consume ideas which they lack the experience or knowledge to evaluate. By the time they have obtained enough real-world experience to tell them how counter-productive the ideas are, it is too late. Those of us with the least margin for error end up consuming the most destructive of the fantasies for sale.
So we see the poor increasingly consuming ideas of immediate gratification and personal irresponsibility. The seductiveness of such ideas tempts even the most experienced and educated of us, but for those who already live hard lives the temptation seems overwhelming. Many people maintain their discipline and escape the trap but more and more become mired.
I do not think that any government policy can fix this problem. History suggests such cures are usually worse than the disease. We can, however, stop the hypocrisy of treating art as if it only influences for the good. We should have no qualm about criticizing those who sell destructive ideas just to make a buck. We can also teach our children that in very important ways, ideas are much like any other product, and that if you are willing to buy into an idea, some supposed authority with very impressive credentials will sell it to you.
14 thoughts on “Syncopated Rhythms”
You are preaching the gospel of Himmelfarb. Both of you are right.
An odd reinforcement: at Christmas we long for the comfort and protection at mid-winter of a strong family. Christmas is the great family holiday – celebrating, of course, a birth but also celebrating the cohesive community. Home for the holidays is a central trip in many families. Elaborate scenes created in the last few years have been of America in the fifties. Of course, the tradition is still primarily the England of Victoria – with Nash’s St. Nick & the Christmas season as we know it was defined.
These two periods are often described as repressive, but that is sometimes another word for duty, choosing the long term over immediate gratification, self-discipline. Himmelfarb points out that the only crimes more heavily prosecuted at the end of the Victorian era than the beginning were those that had to do with abuse of women (beaten wives, rape). The home in both those periods wasn’t just respected, it was an institution reinforced by both law and culture. And the duty that those guys coming back from WWII accepted – and their wives did at home – was one that put providing for the family, duty to that next generation, etc. very high. No wonder children see comfort in these cultures – they are meant to provide & protect them.
Both cultures valued all that you describe as lost in the twentieth century and both denigrated those you see as springing up. And those that were most hurt (which is often Himmelfarb’s point, too) are those on the margins. Candice Bergen’s character can support and even buy the time of others to care for her child; a single mother in the ghetto is not so lucky. But that is only the simplest and most obvious. A society that doesn’t expect the dutiful acceptance of a boy’s responsibility for a child he engendered is depriving him the ability to become a man as well as that child a chance to know who supplied have of the genes racing through his body. But, of course, instant gratification, freedom from responsibility are seductive.
And, yes, art that is meant to insult & degrade rather than please & ennoble has failed – exactly how much pleasure do we take from a museum of current works versus an exhibit of works of five hundred years ago? Why does the latter speak to us, move us when our contemporaries should be, well, our contemporaries – those whom we understand and who understand us?
You are preaching the gospel of Himmelfarb. Both of you are right.
An odd reinforcement: at Christmas we long for the comfort and protection at mid-winter of a strong family. Christmas is the great family holiday – celebrating, of course, a birth but also celebrating the cohesive community. Other religions, too, see this as a family time – home for the holidays. Elaborate scenes created in the last few years, iconic movies repeated at Christmas, are often fifties’ America. Of course, the tradition is still primarily Victorian – with Nash’s St. Nick, etc.
These two periods are often described as repressive, but repression of the impulse is also a description of duty & responsibility (& maturity). These help the weak. Himmelfarb points out that the only crimes more heavily prosecuted at the end of the Victorian era than the beginning were those that had to do with abuse of women (beaten wives, rape). The home in both those periods wasn’t just respected, it was an institution reinforced by both law and culture. And the duty that those guys coming back from WWII accepted – and their wives did at home – was one that put providing for the family, duty to that next generation, restraint, renunciation very high.
Both cultures valued all that you describe as lost in the twentieth century and both denigrated those you see as springing up. Maturity was lost: a society that doesn’t expect the dutiful acceptance of a boy’s responsibility for a child he engendered is depriving him of the ability to become a man as well as that child of knowledge of who supplied half the genes racing through his body. But, of course, instant gratification, freedom from responsibility are seductive.
And, yes, art that is meant to insult & degrade rather than please & ennoble has failed – How do we look at a museum of current works versus an exhibit of those from the Renaissance? Why does the latter speak to us, move us when our contemporaries should be, well, our contemporaries – those whom we understand and who understand us?
And…..it is tempting to believe that in trying to control destructive behaviors that we prolong the behaviors and the negative affects are temporized and this works at slowing the perception of the reality in the minds of the young and niave.
I’m thinking about drug use specifically, and for example. If control efforts are effective the dangerous drug will be difficult to get. This allows the junky to survive an extra decade which in turn slows the appreciation of the dangers of the drug by the people around the junkie and so in society as a whole.
Perhaps it is better to let it bleed in some cases rather than put a band-aid on it.
…drug addiction that existed only on the periphery in the ’20s.
Whatever the merits of your other claims I would like to note that millions of Americans in the late 19th century partook drugs which are no illegal.
Actually, drug addiction was a bigger problem 100 years ago than it is now. Heroin was considered a “wonder” drug when it was invented by Bayer in 1899. It, along with cocaine, was a common ingredient in many beverages and concoctions and was a part of the original “soft” drinks (Coca Cola ready did have cocaine in it, hence its name). Baby formulas often had heroin in them. It was estimated that 5 million Americans were addicts at the time that the Harrison Act was passed in 1914. The Harrison Act was the first drug prohibition legislation that banned opiates and cocaine, as a result of the many medical problems that resulted from these substances.
I’m not sure that the current social decay is that much of a problem. The total ammount of government spending (federal, state, and local) on welfare and criminal justice is around $705 billion per year (www.usgovernmentspending.com), most of it being local. Although this is substantial, it is significantly less than what is spent on old-age entitlements and our interventionist foreign policy (i.e. defense spending). At the same time, we continue to have a (long term) growing economy with lots of technological innovation that looks to continue indefinitely into the future.
I think many of the fears of the social conservatives are as groundless as those of the leftish-greens of the 1970’s and today.
Actually, drug addiction was a bigger problem 100 years ago than it is now.
Well yes and no. A large number of people took patent medicines laced with opium or cocaine but in most cases the level of addiction did not rise to that commonly seen today. A person simply cannot ingest enough opium without vomiting to reach the blood serum levels reached by injection or even smoking. Ditto for cocaine. Many people taking these patent medicine were probably not the psychologically driven addicts that predominate today but where instead people in genuine need of pain relief from the myriad disease for which the medical science of the day could offer no treatment.
Most people of the day didn’t actually understand what it was they were taking. The revelations about the contents of the medications prompted widespread outrage that led to the founding of the FDA. Drug use declined significantly between 1910-1935 were it remained largely flat until the 1960’s. The counter-culture ideas of the 60’s definitely changed the way that many viewed the taking of drugs. Changes in technology made the drugs more concentrated and the delivery systems more efficient. The result was a kind of addiction whose intensity had never really been seen before.
The total ammount of government spending …
The harm caused by defective values that lead to negative behaviors has little to do with its material or economic impact. Looked at in historical terms we really don’t have material poverty anymore. The average poor person today lives a life equivalent to a middle-class person 50 years ago. The real harm comes from the emotional trauma that people mired in negative behavior endure and inflict on others. Its better to be poor and surrounded by loving people than to be rich and alone or abused. (Especially for children)
I think many of the fears of the social conservatives are as groundless as those of the leftish-greens of the 1970’s and today.
There are parallels. In both cases, advancing technology heads off the disaster that straight-line extrapolations predict. The levels of sexual promiscuity we see today, for example, are only sustainable due to our advance medical technology. The preacher in 1920’s had no way of knowing that 20 years later syphilis would go from a horrifically fatal disease to one more curable than the common cold. Even so if AIDS had proven as communicable in the developed world as it has proven in Africa, the sexual revolution would have gone down as the greatest cultural disaster in history. Even today, the evolution of a new viral illness such as a super-herpes could wipe out a wide swath of people.
Social conservative did accurately predict the consequences of social changes its just that technology blunted the impact of those changes.
One problem we face is that the accumulation of negative consequences may not be apparent to each generation. How long does it take to accumulate so many negative behaviors that the society no longer functions?
Shannon—another of the excellent and thought provoking posts which cause me to check this site a few times a day.
A few disconnected, or at best tangentially related, points.
I read a very nice article a few months ago about the operations and effects of modernism and post- modernism. (I think it was by Dalrymple, can’t remember the venue) One of his points seems to fit in here.
One of the driving forces of modernism was the belief that traditional social mores and common culture were stifling and limiting. Just as the Impressionists rebelled against the strictures of the Salon, all sorts of “modern” ideas rebelled against the limits of what was considered acceptable, moral, or even possible. This trend was greatly accelerated, and legitimized, by the collapse and self destruction of the old order in WW1. It is no coincidence that so many “revolutionary” ideas burst forth as the tottering autocratic regimes swayed and fell.
Anyway, one of the precepts of the movement, esp. as it morphed after WW2 into post-modernism, was to strip out common features of what people normally associated with an artistic style, and, eventually, an intellectual or moral or cultural position, and see if the result still qualified as “art”. Thus, form was deleted from painting and sculpture, melody and structure from music, plot and character development from literature, and the product presented as a “new form” of the art.
Eventually, as we have seen, this trend has continued until there were recent exhibitions in which the “art” offered to the patrons consisted of such things as an empty room with a light blinking on and off, in which the observer was supposed to supply an artistic memory of his own; or a little pile of dust in the corner of a gallery room, which the viewer was supposed to recognize as the meaningless of external art. (In the latter case, a janitor swept up the “installation” and threw it out, causing the enraged artist to demand a payment of some ridiculous amount for the destruction of his artistic vision)
The same thing, though more subtlely, has occurred in the realms of ideas and education. Slowly, bit by bit, elements which were commonly associated with the very concept of an “idea”, or which were assumed to be essential to education, have been stripped out, and the resulting product held out and loudly proclaimed to be the new form of intellect, or the new manner of education.
In qualitative terms, I see very little difference between the pile of dust or flashing light and the current formulation of what passes for intellectual structure and education.
One of the main reasons the utterly bankrupt nonsense of the 60’s was so successfuly sold to a gullible and uncomprehending “Aquarian” generation was that so much of what traditionally constituted a coherent, classical liberal education had already been largely abandoned, and the very meaning of the term idea was debased to the level of bumper stickers reading “If it feels good, do it”, or “tune in, turn on, drop out”.
I just read an article today which finally discussed the possibility that the entire feel good, self esteem regime, which has dominated education, esp. at the lower levels, for decades, might actually be not only wrong headed but completely counter-productive. Some of us who have been raising kids with a great concern that they receive honest and hard hitting criticism of their intellectual and moral development have known this for a long time. My wife and I have often discussed the fact that kids are not fools, and that they know intuitively that totally underserved and unearned praise is meaningless, and, what’s worse, debases the praise and admiration that should be the reward for hard work and true achievement.
I personally believe that we are approaching a period when our children and grandchildren are going to be called upon to make extremely complex decisions, both moral and intellectual, caused partly by the very technological and scientific developments Shannon cites in his post, and partly by the need to reinterpret social and cultural parameters in a world in which so many divergent members of the human family are required to deal with each other on an intimate and daily basis. There are no more unknown corners in which to hide, and no more “lost tribes” cut off from contact with the world culture.
It would be much easier for those who will face such complex problems, and the decisions made so much better for all concerned, if the intellectual and educational systems which they depend on for the undergirding and superstructure of their decision making processes were not bankrupt to the point of counter-productivity.
I can only hope that the natural tendency of youth to rebel against their parents’ world might just result in the rejection of empty, feel good posturing, and a return to the rigors of a classical education, and the rejuvenation of some dangerously neglected concepts, such as cause and effect, and personal responsibility. Juging from my own kids, and many of their friends I have met, I am optimistic. My sons are certainly much better people than I ever was, and my daughter takes after her mother, being ferociously intelligient, and strong minded to a fault.
I face the coming years, therefore, with a bit more calm than those who foresee a future similar to that depicted in the movie “Idiocracy”, but with a firm and urgent conviction that a great deal of difficult work remains to be done before our progeny will have the mental and ethical tools they need to face the challenges that their maturity will certainly pose to them.
Although not a particularly religious person, for this boon I pray each day.
re: “Our culture did in fact evolve just the way the preacher predicted.”
Post hoc, doesn’t equal propter hoc
What strikes me is that in the twentieth century we also mistook the appearance for the essence – probably because our selves were fragmented and we had an increasing sense that there was no reality – only our perception of it. (That is an extension of what is almost there in Emerson and Thoreau.) So, the belief that art should lead us to insights when we think there is nothing within appearance gives us, well, pretty lousy art.
Shock for the sake of shock is easy but it also is stupid. Art (at least dramatic art) often moves from the grandeur of tragedy and pleasure of comedy to the next generation of spectacle. That’s the easy way out. And, frankly, I’m not sure it helped movies that one of the most intelligent reviewers was also one of the most perverse; Pauline Kael may have seen too many movies and so needed to be piqued by random violence and s/m sex – or maybe she had some problem of her own. All I know is that she was always the best prepared, most knowledgeable reviewer and also the one that opted for what, in maturity, I finally recognized as the nasty.
I (and I suspect a fairly large percentage of my contemporaries and younger) am more moved by a Greek statue from 2400 years ago or a symphony from two hundred years ago. (OK, OK, I spend a very small fraction of my life with symphonies and far more with country music – like that’s where those art mavens look for meaning?). I suspect that a Renaissance madonna moves many a non-believer today more than a work that theoretically represents his own beliefs. Instead, we are hectored and insulted when we go into a modern art museum; we are made to feel we are philistines if we don’t feel as the artist wants us to feel.
But that artist lives in my time and has a roughly similar context to mine; nonetheless, that artist represents me and my time in a way that I find unappealing, let alone ennobling. Sophocles represents human nature – he stretches my sympathies and broadens my understanding. Albee doesn’t, at least not much. Nor did O’Neil – his Freudianism seems impenetrable and now, as years have passed, we wonder if it is worth penetrating.
And, frankly, by the late twentieth century we were pretty sure the artists had little to say – the opaque, contradictory, self-referential and just plain superficial language with which they described their art and others described it as well made sure we knew what they meant. It just wasn’t important.
Shannon, sorry about the duplicates. Please delete all or any of them. (they are probably all off-point, but seem even more so after they were in storage and Jonathan liberated them days later – I just kept repeating myself).
Post hoc, doesn’t equal propter hoc
No, but that is the way to bet when the the proposed correlation is stated prior to the actual events. The ability to predict currently unobserved events is the acid test of a model’s validity. Correctly predicting events before the events occur strongly suggest that model of causality the person uses to make the prediction is accurate.
Someone in the current day looking back over history can easily find a meaningless correlation. However, someone in the past making a prediction about future changes is much less likely to make accurate predictions just by mere chance.
It’s not significantly less than defense spending _by itself_. In fact, I didn’t know it was that large…
Defense spending per annum atm is about $ 500 billion, _plus_ about 50-100 billion or so in continuing resolutions for the war in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
So to me, it actually looks like welfare and criminal justice is higher than the defense budget, because 700 billion is larger than 550-600 billion.
Then again, I did fail some math classes along the way, so I might be wrong.
A fascinating analysis which doesn’t go quite far enough, IMHO.
In addition to socioeconomic factors, I would like you to consider the importance of intelligence. IQ is more strongly correlated to academic and economic success than parental socioeconomic status is. There is also a strong negative correlation between IQ and criminality. (See The Bell Curve.)
Great blog! I’m looking forward to reading more.
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