There is much recent discussion about a “decline”
in the American culture that has led to an accompanying
shrinkage in our national education, the dissolution of
the family, the alterations of the institutions of marriage
and child rearing, a recession of our performing and
other arts, the degradation of our civility, our language,
indeed, of the whole of the “quality” of contemporary
I myself have been writing about the diminution of
American poetry and fiction, which I know something
about, and even of other arts which I admit I know
much less about.
Lamenting this state of affairs, however, is one thing;
changing it is another.
Many analyses and diagnoses of recent changes of our
culture are accompanied, following the lamentations,
by calls to “fix” the culture, to reassert older values,
to make things better “again.”
The presumption is that through formal legislation or
regulations, or even through grand educational
programs and intellectual campaigns, that the culture
can be changed. (The former would be the more
“liberal” approach; the latter would be the more
I don’t think either approach has much affect. The
reason why this is so is that culture is not now, even if
it was before, a product of formal education, either
in secondary schools or colleges and universities. Nor
is it simply transmitted and shaped as much as it was
by religious, ethnic or even class backgrounds.
Instead, American culture is increasingly, in my opinion,
formed and altered by the post-industrial technologies
of communication, transportation, and medicine.
Some political theorists, mostly on the left, but some on
the right as well, have been decrying an alleged rise of
intellectual and economic elitism in America, of a growing
distance between the rich and the poor, of the educated
and the “non-educated,” of old and new citizen groups.
I take the contrarian view that this is not correct, or at
least, misleading as a cause of the decline of American
An honest and careful examination of American culture
of the past century demonstrates what a qualitative
economic and intellectual change in the differences between
groups in the nation has taken place. There has been a
dramatic increase in the very level of income, employment,
education, civil rights, health care and leisure time activities,
of resident citizens of the United States.
I repeat: a dramatic increase in the level.
Just take an honest look at the daily life and real
conditions of poor persons in general; blacks, Catholics
and Jews, other immigrants and workers, before World
The elite classes in America were, for almost the first two
centuries, very small. Post World War II, the so-called
middle class grew tremendously. Unlike our European
and South American cousins, we had no permanent
aristocracy or oligarchy. In fact, our culture, especially
through radio, television, films and literature, celebrated
the success of those who rose from suffering poverty and
discrimination to become rich, successful and powerful.
None of what I am saying denies that there is not
economic suffering today in the U.S., nor a total absence
of prejudice and domestic violence. But those who suggest
that the problems we have now are somehow a return to
the past or worse than the past, or not, evaluated fairly,
nontheless a great advance on conditions from the past,
are simply not telling the truth. (I realize that this is
heresy to those who now make a profession out of
exploiting class, racial or economic warfare.)
A culture cannot be legislated. You cannot intimidate a
national population to alter its cultural habits and
preferences with abstractions. Moreover, you can’t change
the American national culture without an honest appraisal
of what that culture has already accomplished, and an
appreciation of how the parade of new technologies form
what new generations think and do.
Copyright (c) 2013 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.