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.