Archive for the ‘US Culture’ Category

This isn’t news to me

For some reason, the US national characteristic of anti-intellectualism is being noticed in the press with MacLeans (Canada) America Dumbs Down and the New York Review of Books, Age of Ignorance. I’ve also been doing posts on this since 2010, and am not the only person to have noticed this trend. As I said, this isn’t really news since Richard Hofstadter won the 1964 Pulitzer prize for a book titled Anti-intellectualism in American Life.  Hofstadter attributed this trend toward the democratisation of knowledge.

in 2008, journalist Susan Jacoby was warning that the denseness—“a virulent mixture of anti-rationalism and low expectations”—was more of a permanent state. In her book, The Age of American Unreason, she posited that it trickled down from the top, fuelled by faux-populist politicians striving to make themselves sound approachable rather than smart.  Perhaps we can add media consolidation to the contributing factors with fewer good news sources being available in the US and even public broadcasting being throttled by crypto-commercials called “underwriting”.

Hofstadter’s book was the landmark work on the topic, even though there have been a few more significant books and articles on anti-intellectualism preceded it (most notably Merle Curti’s The Growth of American Thought in 1943), and even though it has been followed, in recent years, by well known books from the Left and Right, including Russell Jacoby’s The Last Intellectuals, Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, Richard Posner’s Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline, and so on. The list lengthens if one adds in broader books about the “dumbing down” of American society.

Of course, some of the US founders were intellectuals (Jefferson and Franklin) who founded Universities or who praised education (Madison), yet the trend toward anti-intellectualism has taken grasp in the US.  Hoffstadter pointed out that there is a conflict between access to education and excellence in education (although, I am of the opinion that one does not need to be formally educated to contributes to this trend, which is reiterated in the MacLeans article where a US Second Grader wrote to the South Carolina legislature that she believed the States should have a fossil, but was rebuffed by fundamentalist spewing mumbo-jumbo about evolution.\

Charles Simic point out in the NYRB piece that:

It took years of indifference and stupidity to make us as ignorant as we are today. Anyone who has taught college over the last forty years, as I have, can tell you how much less students coming out of high school know every year. At first it was shocking, but it no longer surprises any college instructor that the nice and eager young people enrolled in your classes have no ability to grasp most of the material being taught. Teaching American literature, as I have been doing, has become harder and harder in recent years, since the students read little literature before coming to college and often lack the most basic historical information about the period in which the novel or the poem was written, including what important ideas and issues occupied thinking people at the time.

Even better is where Simic points out:

In the past, if someone knew nothing and talked nonsense, no one paid any attention to him. No more. Now such people are courted and flattered by conservative politicians and ideologues as “Real Americans” defending their country against big government and educated liberal elites. The press interviews them and reports their opinions seriously without pointing out the imbecility of what they believe. The hucksters, who manipulate them for the powerful financial interests, know that they can be made to believe anything, because, to the ignorant and the bigoted, lies always sound better than truth

It seems that the big push for ignorance comes from the right since an educated, well-informed population, which is required by a functioning democracy, would be difficult to lie to, and could not be led by the nose by the various vested interests running amok in this country.  It is much easier to spread disinformation to a population which is incapable of critical thinking skills than one which only hears the things which they agree.  That was one of the reason for the First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press: to have a healthy and informed debate on public policy.  But one cannot have such a debate if the field is filled with rubbish spread by those who have their own interests at heart.

To some extent, Hofstadter is correct when he mentions the democratisation of knowledge, where someone who has no real grasp of the topic gives an opinion and weight is given to that opinion which is out of line with its value.  The opinion of someone who has no knowledge of a topic does not have the same weight as someone who has studied the topic and developed an expertise of the matter.

Simic points out the common misconceptions which are being pushed and offers this conclusion for why anti-intellectualism has become epidemic:

Christians are persecuted in this country.
The government is coming to get your guns.
Obama is a Muslim.
Global Warming is a hoax.
The president is forcing open homosexuality on the military.
Schools push a left-wing agenda.
Social Security is an entitlement, no different from welfare.
Obama hates white people.
The life on earth is 10,000 years old and so is the universe.
The safety net contributes to poverty.
The government is taking money from you and giving it to sex-crazed college women to pay for their birth control.

One could easily list many more such commonplace delusions believed by Americans. They are kept in circulation by hundreds of right-wing political and religious media outlets whose function is to fabricate an alternate reality for their viewers and their listeners. “Stupidity is sometimes the greatest of historical forces,” Sidney Hook said once. No doubt. What we have in this country is the rebellion of dull minds against the intellect. That’s why they love politicians who rail against teachers indoctrinating children against their parents’ values and resent the ones who show ability to think seriously and independently. Despite their bravado, these fools can always be counted on to vote against their self-interest. And that, as far as I’m concerned, is why millions are being spent to keep my fellow citizens ignorant.

See also:

The Crappy State of the US Media

First it starts with a set of subway ads for shows like Married to a Mime and Bayou Eskimos:

Of course, I have to admit a disgust with how US Media has been consolidated into 6 Corporations controlling 90% of the media in the US, from 50 companies back in 1983.

This info-graphic details what that means to the average person in the US, which is why people might think these shows are real.

They aren’t, they are part of an ad campaign by New York Public Broadcasting, WNET.


Interesting quote of the day:

From the FAIR blog:

Where media define the “center” or the “middle” tells you a lot about the worldview they are promoting. The “center” doesn’t usually indicate where most of the public is, but rather where elites have determined an appropriate middle between opposing arguments. Confusing the two concepts is common (and not an accident).

The Article in question is about the economic advice from two of the most prominent economists who have worked at the highest levels of government and academia.  On the other hand, this is a fairly telling comment as I have been seeing a lot of political terms being misused, such as “socialism” and “conservative”.  The last term being the most thoroughly brutalised of all of them.

“Conservatism”, from the Latin: conservare–“to retain”, is defined as a political and social philosophy that promotes retaining traditional social institutions. A person who follows the philosophies of conservatism is referred to as a traditionalist or conservative. Conservatives seek to preserve things as they are, emphasizing stability and continuity. According to the 2nd Viscount Hailsham, a former chairman of the British Conservative Party, “Conservatism is not so much a philosophy as an attitude, a constant force, performing a timeless function in the development of a free society, and corresponding to a deep and permanent requirement of human nature itself.”

To me to be a “Conservative” one must be strongly for social order and institutions while not accepting change to that order without good reason.

Of course, the definition is used about has this caveat:

There is no single set of policies that are universally regarded as conservative, because the meaning of conservatism depends on what is considered traditional in a given place and time. Thus, conservatives from different parts of the world – each upholding their respective traditions – may disagree on a wide range of issues.

I am of the opinion that the precedent set in the US by its use of force to obtain independence from Britain (a decidedly non-conservative act) has left its mark on US politics to bring about what I call the “reality challenged right”.  Although, one could also add that other factors are also afoot to create the “reality challenged right”.

The main characteristic of this is the belief in the use of force in politics, which is not found in most civilised nations.  In fact, that is probably the most obvious characteristic of this movement.

Another characteristic is being fact adverse, with the most frightening aspect being the failure to address climate change as news comes that the atmospheric level of a carbon dioxide has reached a concentration not seen on the earth for millions of years.  Scientists believe the rise in atmospheric Carbon Dioxide portends large changes in the climate and the level of the sea.

“It symbolizes that so far we have failed miserably in tackling this problem,” said Pieter P. Tans, who runs the monitoring program at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

I have to admit that I find this movement quite frightening and am not sure how it could have been allowed to arise, but the fact that such a disastrous political faction could be given any level of credibility, let alone called “Conservative”, boggles my mind.

Franklin’s Snub

I mentioned reading where Benjamin Franklin’s treatment in Europe may have contributed to his anti-British sentiments in a previous post.  I said I didn’t have the cite, but this looks like the passage I wanted to quote:</a>:

Franklin’s situation in London now became uncomfortable; he was deprived of his office of deputy Postmaster-General of the Colonies, which he had held since 1753, was virtually discredited, and generally snubbed. His presentation of the petition afforded an opportunity for his being publicly insulted at the hearing appointed before the Committee for Plantation Affairs, while the press denounced him as a fomenter of sedition. His work in England was done, and although he remained there some time longer, on the chance of still being of possible use, he gladly availed himself of an opportunity, early in 1775, to return to America. Before his departure, however, Lord Chatham had come to his rescue when he was one day attacked with bitterness in the House of Lords, and pronounced upon him this splendid eulogium: “If,” said the great statesman, “I were prime minister and had the care of settling this momentous business, I should not be ashamed to call to my assistance a person so well acquainted with American affairs,—one whom all Europe ranks with our Boyles and Newtons, as an honor, not to the English nation only, but to human nature itself.

”From this time, 1775, no one accused Franklin of partiality to England. He was wounded and disgusted, and he now clearly saw that there could be no reconciliation between the mother-country and the Colonies,—that differences could be settled only by the last appeal of nations. The English government took the same view, and resorted to coercion, little dreaming of the difficulties of the task. This is not the place to rehearse those coercive measures, or to describe the burst of patriotic enthusiasm which swept over the Colonies to meet the issue by the sword.”

Another source points out that Franklin was an intensely loyal British subject who looked forward to the time when he would take an active role in Britain’s imperial schemes.   His son, William, was the Loyalist Governor of New Jersey during the War for Independence.  Anyway, this seems to be backed up by this statement in another source:  ” Hopes for a peaceful solution ended as he was systematically ridiculed and humiliated by Solicitor-General Alexander Wedderburn, before the Privy Council on January 29, 1774. He returned to Philadelphia in March 1775, and abandoned his accommodationist stance.”  Franklin remained silent throughout the attack. He would later write of the incident: “Spots of Dirt thrown upon my Character, I suffered while fresh remain; I . . . rely’d on the vulgar Adage, that they would all rub off when they were dry.”

See this letter from Franklin regarding this incident

More on the US National Mythology

There a quite a few thoughts floating about in the post, but they all hail back to the concept of the US national myth. Professor Richard Holmes summarises some of it in this statement from The American War of Independence: The Rebels and the Redcoats:

“The War of Independence plays such an important part in American popular ideology that references to it are especially prone to exaggeration and oversimplification. And two uncomfortable truths about it – the fact that it was a civil war (perhaps 100,000 loyalists fled abroad at its end), and that it was also a world war (the Americans could scarcely have won without French help) – are often forgotten.”

The part that is important is that the War for American Independence was one of many civil wars and insurrections which have occurred in the United States and that the Loyalists, or Tories, played an important part in that conflict.  We know that not too many people wanted war with Britain at the beginning of the War for Independence, but we don’t know how many people actually opposed the war.

What we do know is that Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” and The Declaration of Independence  are the most potent propaganda documents in American History.  Both were written for the purpose of justifying an armed struggle for independence which would set a bad precedent for future generations.  Many people who style themselves as “patriots” in the US do not cite the Constitution (at least not correctly) to justify their position of armed struggle against the US.

The rebel leaders, also known as the founding fathers, only represented about 27% of two and quarter million colonists (although they said it was 33%), but even if this was correct they knew they would have never won power through a referendum, so as they possess considerable propaganda skills, they called themselves Patriots, contrived incidents such as the so called “Boston massacre”, portrayed their own vested interests as philanthropic ideals, and incited a reign of terror, aimed at civil authorities to disrupt society.  We can also add in that the “Sons of Liberty” would intimidate those showing loyalist tendencies.  The rebel’s strategy of attacking Loyalists, tarring and feathering them, encouraging boycotts, and other tactics used  to force them to resign their posts or change their business practises.  Those Loyalists that remained passive and the Non-aligned were forced under the threat of death to swear and sign oaths of allegiance to the rebel cause.

In reality, Hancock was a very wealthly smuggler, but the British had undercut his overpriced business.  He had been summoned  to appear in court at a time he and Samuel Adams were known to have been in Lexington at the time of the Battle. The others including Sam Adams (a failed businessman accused of embezzlement), Allen, Paine, Franklin, Jefferson, and Madison were bitter men, who for various reasons held grievances against the British.  I have mentioned before that it could have been a personal slight which cause Franklin to side with the Rebels (his son William was a tory).

The Loyalists were of many kinds and conditions. There was a religious dimension. Presbyterians were apt to be Patriots, Anglicans often Tories. Many slaves, tempted by freedom, joined Loyalist units, such as Lord Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment; so did many, though not all, of the Native American tribes on the frontier. Quakers and Catholics sided with the king, and so did many settlers of German and Dutch origin, as well as most Scots Highlanders, who had sworn an oath of loyalty to the Hanoverian crown in defeat and were not about to go back on it. Some tenant farmers fought alongside their Tory landlords, while others were Loyalists out of hostility to Patriot landlords. Some were tempted by promises of land, others by the fact that the king’s armies paid in a gold-backed currency, not paper dollars.

But, the founding myth paints the War for Independence as on against a foreign foe, rather than a Civil War.  And a quite brutal Civil War at that given how those who may have wanted to follow the law were brutalised by those who only saw violent conflict as being the solution to their problems.

The Loyalists were of many kinds and conditions. There was a religious dimension. Presbyterians were apt to be Patriots, Anglicans often Tories. Many slaves, tempted by freedom, joined Loyalist units, such as Lord Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment; so did many, though not all, of the Native American tribes on the frontier. Quakers and Catholics sided with the king, and so did many settlers of German and Dutch origin, as well as most Scots Highlanders, who had sworn an oath of loyalty to the Hanoverian crown in defeat and were not about to go back on it. Some tenant farmers fought alongside their Tory landlords, while others were Loyalists out of hostility to Patriot landlords. Some were tempted by promises of land, others by the fact that the king’s armies paid in a gold-backed currency, not paper dollars.

Like other civil wars, the American revolution was marked by brutality on a sickening scale. Both sides shot and hanged prisoners without mercy, and on at least two occasions Patriots enforced the gruesome punishment of hanging, drawing and quartering. While the Native American braves recruited to fight for the crown by the Johnson and Butler chieftains of the Mohawk valley scalped, tortured and sometimes burned their prisoners alive, the Patriots tarred and feathered Loyalists, or forced them to ride on a sharpened rail, and many Loyalist houses were looted and burned. Patriotic legend remembers the violence of British officers, but rebel officers, including General Washington himself, could be ruthless when policy recommended it. The future father of his country once proposed shooting a few Tories to “strike terror into the others”.

I would add that any “gun grabbing” which may have been


Brown Bess showing Crown ordinance markings indicating it as royal property.

done by the British Authorities was most likely legal since the arms were crown property (via the Colonies). The Brown Bess Muskets in their fully accepted form the barrels had Ordnance Proofs and the locks were marked with a crowned broad arrow (known as “The King’s Mark”) as well as individual inspector’s marks. The parts were government property and is was a serious offense to be caught with them in your possession if not authorized to have them.  Of course, another part of the founding myth is that the Colonials pull their personal weapons from above the mantle to toss out the evil British.

There is a reverence for the time of the US’s founding which makes no sense.  Their words are taken as being carved in stone and they could do no wrong.  On the other hand, how much of the thuggery of the Tea Party movement might actually be accurate.  After all, the founders were not friends of democracy and equality despite protestations to the Contrary.

But, the real issue was that the time of the War for Independence was a very turbulent one.  The “single most contentious issue” in the First Continental Congress in 1774 was about the extent to which the British Parliament could regulate the U.S. economy, including these and other limits on navigation as well as acts that sought to prohibit manufacturing in the colonies (so that the colonies would need to import from Britain, instead).  Staughton Lynd and David Waldstreicher  review the history in some detail, and conclude in “Free Trade, Sovereignty, and Slavery: Toward and Economic Interpretation of American Independence”:

“The commercial dispute preceded the constitutional, not just once but again and again in these years. It is important that colonists melded economic and constitutional arguments under the category of sovereignty–but not so important that we should ignore the originating nature of economic forces.”

One of these economic issues were the taxes which resulted from the French and Indian, or Seven Years War, which began in the North American Colonies.  The people who objected to “Taxation without Representation” were all too willing to run up the bill when others were paying.  But, the Ironic part was that they chose to use a route to independence which would ultimately lead to financial disaster with the Continental Dollar depreciating badly during the war, giving rise to the famous phrase “not worth a continental”.

But, the collapse of the Colonial Economy was one of many disasters precipitated by the ill thought out “independence movement” of the 1760s-70s.  George Washington wrote about Shays’ Rebellion that:

“I am mortified beyond expression when I view the clouds that have spread over the brightest morn that ever dawned in any country… What a triumph for the advocates of despotism, to find that we are incapable of governing ourselves and that systems founded on the basis of equal liberty are merely ideal and fallacious.”

Perhaps time has come to look at this period with a far more critical eye than has been given due to a religious reverence to the founders which is far from justified.

See also:

Domenico Zipoli, Hispanic Culture, and the Americas

Normally, when I write about BBC 3’s Early Music Show, I write about Lucie Skeaping, since I know her, but this time it’s Catherine Bott who did a very interesting show on Domenico Zipoli. Zipoli is a sort of obscure composer, although I first heard of him on Classic FM where his Elevazione For Solo Oboe, Solo Cello, Strings And Organ became something of a classical music hit in the 1990s thanks to its exposure on that station, making it to their Hall of Fame.

Of course, Zipoli’s works are relatively unknown and was thought to have disappeared from European musical life just as he made his mark with the publication of his first work, the Sonate d’intavolatura per organo e cimbalo. Scholars had known for a while that there was another Domenico Zipoli, active just after this time in Paraguay, but it wasn’t until the 1950s that it was realised that the two composers were in fact one and the same.

What had happened was that Zipoli had joined the Jesuit reductiones and gone to South America – music played a pivotal role in in the missions, fulfilling the Jesuits’ aim of transmitting the idea of God to the natives.  Which takes us to the next part of all this, there was a significant Baroque Culture in the Americas.  Remember that the Americas were formally discovered by the Europeans in the late 15th Century, which was still the Middle Ages.  The Wars of the Roses had ended less than 10 years before Columbus “discovered” the New World.

Most of the Early development of the Americas was done by the Spanish with some help by the Portuguese.  The first City in North America was St. Augustine, Florida.  The British were still divided politically and wouldn’t see any significant colonisation of the New World until the reign of James I (VI of Scotland).  That means Spanish culture was pretty strongly entrenched in the Americas, which it would remain until  the US-Mexican Wars.  Those wars changed the cultural landscape to make the US predominant for most of the 19th and 20th Centuries.

The US victory over Mexico was one that said to some people (mostly in the US) that the “New World” had conquered the “old”, which has led to the denigration of Hispanics and Hispanic culture.  The problem with that belief is that Hispanic culture is much more entrenched in the Americas than that of the US.   In fact, one of the cultural problems with the US is that it doesn’t realise that it has acquired Hispanic territory through its imperialism and retains its belief in cultural superiority.  In fact, the US’s ignorance of its Hispanic inheritance is one of the problem with the rise of Hispanics in its population.

In fact, one of the problems with the US Culture wars is its ignorance of US history.  At one time (pre-1914-1918), the US was almost a bilingual society with German being the Second Language!  The Motto of the US is “E Pluribus Unum”: “out of many, one”.  The US needs to appreciate and respect its diversity.

In that regard, the US needs to accept its Hispanic heritage rather than deny it.