…is mostly a blistering attack on elitist intellectuals, including Ortega y Gasset and his Revolt of the Masses. You do not want to miss this one, and I’m not sure how long Commentary will let you read it for free.
A lot of the essay reminds us just how bad so many intellectuals were, particularly in the 1920s. I’d forgotten how horrid Aldous Huxley was—recommending eugenics, praising the Italian fascists, etc. For American equivalents, one could turn to Patrick Deneen’s Democratic Faith, one of whose many virtues is an account of the disgraceful flirtations with fascism-apology found, not just amid certain progressives, as also documented by J. Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism, but amid elite professors of the American Political Science Association, including one of its presidents! The world-historical guilty-for-millions-of-deaths ramifications of these kinds of intellectual disability are perhaps best captured by Raymond Aron’s Thinking Politically, but Siegel is on the cultural beat—so he zeroes in not so much on the “pacifism” and pinko-ism ala Sartre and such, but upon the denunciations of popular culture, especially American, found in Marcuse, Adorno, Dwight MacDonald, etc.
Now Ortega y Gasset does not come off as badly as the likes of Huxley or that APSA president, but still:
Ortega’s assertions about the resentful, barely literate mob were built in part on Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time … The Revolt of the Masses, …was a bestseller in 1930s Germany. Such success with the mass book-buying public of the Third Reich should have unnerved Ortega, but it didn’t. When he added a prologue in 1937, he neglected to mention the Nazis while decrying the “stifling monotony” mass man had imposed on Europe…. …Ortega scoffed at the idea that America, that “paradise of the masses,” could ever defend European civilization.
More generally, the essay is about “How the Highbrows Killed Culture”:
The wildly successful attack on American popular culture in the 1950s was an outgrowth of noxious ideas that consumed the intellectual classes of the West in the first five decades of the 20th century—ideas so vague and so general that they were not discredited by the unprecedented flowering of popular art in the United States in the years after World War II. And, in the most savage of ironies, that attack ended up not changing popular culture for the better but instead has led to a popular culture so debased as to obviate parody.
Siegel can only tell part of the story here, and he focuses particularly on the character of the highbrow attack itself rather than upon the cultural content of what it attacked, but his essay does contain a few descriptions of what was produced by the middlebrow stance that the German-oid highbrows hated, and alas, via “the 60s,” killed:
“Twenty years ago,” a salesman revealed … “you couldn’t sell Beethoven out of New York. Today we sell Palestrina, Monteverdi, Gabrieli, and Renaissance and Baroque music in large quantities.” The public’s expanding taste and increased income produced a 250 percent growth in the number of local symphony orchestras between 1940 and 1955. In that same year, 1955, 15 million people paid to attend major league baseball games, while 35 million paid to attend classical music concerts. The New York Metropolitan Opera’s Saturday afternoon radio broadcast drew a listenership of 15 million out of an overall population of 165 million.
…as the sociologist David White, co-editor with Rosenberg of Mass Culture, noted, NBC spent $500,000 in 1956 to present a three-hour version of Shakespeare’s Richard III starring Laurence Olivier. The broadcast drew 50 million viewers; as many as 25 million watched all three hours.
Wow. Ponder those numbers…
All in all, a great essay. A good corrective pull against certain tendencies that can be unleashed within you by reading three (non-“Germanoid”-in-spirit, I say) thinkers who explicitly or implicitly attack mass culture: T.S. Eliot, Leo Strauss, and Alexis de Tocqueville.