For who the bell tolls - literally

DUMBING DOWN: Essays on the Strip Mining of American Culture eds Katharine Washburn & John Thornton, W W Norton pounds 19.95

The phrase "dumbing down" succinctly voices the feeling that standards, particularly cultural standards, are slipping. This is not a new feeling: even the Ancients believed things weren't what they used to be, and the critical heritage of Matthew Arnold, T S Eliot and F R Leavis habitually expresses the same nostalgic suspicion. Nor is the phrase "dumbing down" itself all that recent: the editors of this book of essays trace its first citation back to 1933, when it was used of some Hollywood gag men determining to "dumb down" the jokes in an over-subtle comedy. Still, it's only in the last 10 years that the phrase has become widespread. And the fact that it's now used so often is a mark, say the editors, of how uncultured our culture has become, how uncivil our civilisation.

Everywhere they and their contributors look, it's closing time in the gardens of the west. Formerly classy magazines like the New Yorker have become vulgar glossies. Museums are so busy wowing the young with interactive displays that they fail to impart essential knowledge. Hollywood films, which make idiots their heroes and intellectuals their villains (Forrest Gump, Dumb and Dumber, etc), remove all challenge to thought and anything but the sparest dialogue. Speech has degenerated into a series of sluggish grunts - I mean, you know, kind of, like - and, heaven forbid, nobody knows the difference between "who" and "whom" any more.

No profession is immune to the downward spiral. Publishers, caring nothing for standards, let the public gorge itself on fictional tosh and self- help manuals. Television presenters have a "soulful oiliness". Teachers of English no longer encourage essay writing, which requires skills in composition and reasoning, only "personal expression", which does not. Film and theatre reviewers are either unreconstructed fans or upward-failing reporters. Social scientists, once disinterested researchers, have become evidence-bending ideologues. The law is a carnival of freakish litigation. There are "26,000 registered poets in the US", but no one, except under duress, reads poetry.

This dumbing down is occurring not only out there, in public life, but at home. We are a generation of recipe-addicted chefs who don't know the first principles of cooking. The computers and other electronic devices we own are eroding the value once placed on face-to-face communication. We can't even do sex properly any more: intimidated by the fear of AIDS and of charges of harassment, numbed by the over-use of the word "fuck", de-libidinised by Prozac, we've lost sight of visceral power and sexual pleasure.

Why, the essays ask, has this happened? Why, with a "groaning banquet of opportunity and resources, have we decided to catch flies for supper? ... How could such a vibrant legacy of knowledge, tradition, competency, and common sense be so rapidly squandered in seemingly so short a time?" All the usual suspects are wheeled out - television, market forces, the lure of the lowest common denominator, the breakdown of family, contempt for oldster wisdom, etc - but there's no doubt about the chief culprit: political correctness. By pandering to minorities, by setting alertness to racism and sexism above value judgements, the PC-ers are destroying all that's finest in modern culture.

The culture in question is that of the United States, but with similar trends discernible here the British reader would do well to take this book's observations on board. What's harder to take is the niggardly, defensive spirit leaking from nearly every page, the refusal to take pleasure in anything that has happened in the last two decades. Some essays are plain snooty. Joseph Epstein: "My own personal, shorthand definition of a middlebrow is anyone who takes either Woody Allen or Spike Lee seriously as an artist." Others exhibit precisely the illiteracy they deplore - James Twitchell, for example, says that "the culture we live in is carried on the back of advertising. Now I mean that literally." Do you? Are you sure? Literally?

It can't be a coincidence that the overwhelming majority of the essayists (19 out of 22) are male, and most aged 50 or over. Though each has his distinct whine and groan, there is a group chorus of paunchy disappointment, as if, the Utopia they glimpsed in the Sixties having failed to materialise, revenge must be meted on the present. While they whinge about those (often younger and female) who're making a career out of political correctness, it's noticeable from the rather arch biographical intros that most of the contributors have a nice little number going themselves, as the Jeremiahs newspapers and publishers like to commission when they want to dump on some dubious social innovation.

Several of these essays are well worth reading - Cynthia Ozick on how she was brought up to speak, Phillip Lopate on the cinema, Brad Leithauser on poetry, Sven Birkerts on the Internet, and Anthony DeCurtis, a heretic at the wake, speaking up for popular culture. But the grumbling groundswell will make even a receptive reader start dreaming of appropriate re-education programmes to help these essayists get real: a week eating chicken nuggets while watching Baywatch and listening to the Spice Girls might do for starters. It's not that they're wrong about things getting more stupid. But their pontificating rightness makes you want to run straight to the dumb comforts of the other side.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)

comedy

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

film
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment

film
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own