Let Down at the Top

by Victor Davis Hanson//National Review


Our Baby Boomer elites, mired in excess and safe in their enclaves, have overseen the decay of our core cultural institutions.


Since the Trojan War, generations have always trashed their own age in comparison to ages past. The idea of fated decadence and decline was a specialty of 19th-century German philosophy.


So we have to be careful in calibrating generations, especially when our own has reached a level of technology and science never before dreamed of (and it is not a given that material or ethical progress is always linear).


Nonetheless, the so-called Baby Boomers have a lot to account for — given the sorry state of entertainment, sports, the media, and universities.


The Harvey Weinstein episode revealed two generational truths about Hollywood culture.

One, the generation that gave us the free-love and the anything-goes morals of Woodstock discovered that hook-up sex was “contrary to nature.” Sexual congress anywhere, any time, anyhow, with anyone — near strangers included — is not really liberating and can often be deeply imbedded within harassment and ultimately the male degradation of women.


Somehow a demented Harvey Weinstein got into his head that the fantasy women in his movies who were customarily portrayed as edgy temptresses and promiscuous sirens were reflections of the way women really were in Los Angeles and New York — or the way that he thought they should be. It was almost as if Weinstein sought to become as physically repulsive and uncouth as possible — all the better to humiliate (through beauty-and-the-beast asymmetry) the vulnerable and attractive women he coerced.


Two, Weinstein reminded us, especially in his eleventh-hour medieval appeals for clemency by way of PC attacks on the NRA and Donald Trump, that mixing politics with art was, as our betters warned, always a self-destructive idea.


Hollywood ran out of original thought about three decades ago, and the people noticed and so keep avoiding the theaters. How many times can a good-looking, young, green progressive crusader expose a corporate pollution plot, or battle a deranged band of southern-twangy Neanderthals, South African racists, or Russian tattooed thugs, or a deep-state CIA cabal in sunglasses and shiny suits? How many times can the nth remake of a comic-book hero be justified by updating him into a caped social-justice warrior from L.A.? Ars gratia politicorum is suicide.


The ruling generation in Hollywood is out of creative ideas mostly because it invested in political melodrama rather than human tragedy. It cannot make a Western, not just because Santa Monica’s young men long ago lost the ability to sound or act like Texans in 1880, but because its politics have no patience with the real world of noble people who are often doomed, or flawed individuals who are nevertheless defined by their best rather than worst traits, or well-meaning souls who can cause havoc, or courageous men who fight for bad causes.


Political correctness has become Maoist: All art must serve progressive struggle, defined in Hollywood as good race and gender warriors pitted against bad racists and sexists. The result is monotony and boredom. All the cleavage, flexed biceps, cheap obscenity, rap-music scores, and car crashes cannot hide that lack of an idea.


This generation’s NFL apparat, the ESPN commentariat, and the higher-education administrative cadre also reveal generational symptoms of exhaustion. They all have forgotten their original mission: respectively, athleticism; sports commentary; and inductive thinking, civic education, and disinterested inquiry. Instead, given their money and adulation, sports and colleges puffed themselves up as Olympians who from high could sermonize and implicitly insult their own patrons (fans, viewers, students, and alumni).


Being ideologically correct was felt to bring more career dividends than being ethical, autonomous, or knowledgeable. It is hard to imagine that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell brings either wisdom or even common sense to his job. Thousands of everyday Americans could have just as easily destroyed the NFL for far less than Goodell’s tens of millions in compensation over the years.


The NFL always had to be careful to square its self-created circle of enticing viewers to watch brutal gladiatorial games in an age when few have ever turned a live chicken into an evening meal. In a society where racial quotas and proportional representation are institutionalized as “diversity” and “inclusion,” the NFL was an odd exempt meritocracy of nearly 80 percent African-American players (or, in PC lingo, an exclusionary league that did not “look like” America).


In age when nearly everyone does his own Internet, video game, and minor sport thing, the NFL still assumed that millions would celebrate a national collective event on perpetual communal Sundays. Instead of being aware of its own inconsistencies and fragilities, the NFL bureaucracy rammed its extraneous agendas down the throat of America, as if twentysomething, half-educated multimillionaires were the moral superiors to those who paid their salaries. Politics are destroying the NFL.


Ditto ESPN — the now-ossified sports-commentary network. Viewers do not demand graduate-school analyses from their sports commentators. They wanted some bruised ex-gladiators who knew the blood and smell of the arena to give them some firsthand insight into sports heroics. Instead, our generation of ESPN executives gave the worst of both worlds: nerds and failed pundits masquerading as Socratic sportscasters expounding cosmic theories about social justice, side by side with ex-jocks poorly mimicking them. No one should have to pay to watch that. Entertainment can be many things — if it is not grating.


The problem with a dying media is not just new social media, the Internet, or 24-hour cable news. Those are just accelerants. The culprit is mostly politically driven ignorance. Today’s journalists graduate with majors that confer thinly disguised degrees in different sorts of activism.


But -isms and -ologies come at a cost of shorting literature, history, or fact-based knowledge of any sort, so today’s journalistic doyens have few referents either of the past or in the abstract in general. The result is that every passing psychodrama becomes the most important in history. “Watergate” is a name dropped daily, but few journalists know anything about the genesis or nature of that scandal, the same way that referencing “Ferguson” omits its fraud and fantasies that even Eric Holder’s Justice Department was forced to concede.


In the 1950s, the university had evolved beyond being a bastion of eccentricity, nonconformity, and free expression, as tweedy scholars and old-style elbow-patched liberal academics were displaced by hip voices railing against supposedly clueless straight culture.


America thought it could live with that — even at the price of watering down the curricula with -studies activist courses — because free speech was for everyone, at least in theory. But tenured radical professors eventually became sixty-something administrative bureaucrats and are now being devoured by the very radical offspring they have sired. We lament political correctness and Stalinism on campuses, but the real crime is the ignorance that empowers it.


The unspoken fuel that drives so many protests on campus is the self-awareness that so many students simply cannot do traditional college work and desire weaker courses, personal exemptions, and time off. A sense of student inferiority naturally leads to demands for everything but a more comprehensive education. The result of politicizing mediocrity is the classic toxicity of youthful ignorance and arrogance. Twenty-somethings brag about tearing down the statue of Robert E. Lee without a clue what Gettysburg was. Disrupting a conservative lecturer on campus is the current generation’s version of cramming phone booths and swallowing goldfish.


Orwellian administrative language, sanctioned from those who should have known better, masks an anti-democratic reality of which even its adherents are ashamed. “Safe spaces” mean segregation. “Affirmative action” is synonymous with implicit racial quotas. “Theme houses” are race-based apartheid living quarters. “Trigger warnings” are censorship. “Student loans” are paramount to indentured servitude for over a decade. And “diversity” ensures monotony and orthodoxy in thought and expression.


University overseers managed to ensure that the B.A. degree is no longer necessarily proof of education in science, math, language, history, or philosophy. Private employers see elite colleges, at best, not necessarily as places where job applicants were educated or trained, but rather where they were once prescreened by colleges, on the basis of high-school test scores and GPAs. So they hire college graduates by brand names, because earlier, as incoming students, they were once admitted to, rather than graduated from, a good college on some sort of objective basis. Employers write off what followed later as either a wasted four years or irrelevant.


What caused this societal meltdown among our Boomer custodians?


It was not material want. Our inheritance ensured we were the most affluent and leisured generation in history. Rather, excess led to hubris. We masked incompetence with snazzy technology and the elite’s ability to travel and acquire at will — and to sound hip and “with it” in speech and diction.


Our generation also, inevitably, became divorced from both nature and the muscularity of the physical, desperate ordeal of surviving. The result was a vicarious romance about the wild and an ignorance of and disdain for those who must fight the wild to produce our food, wood, steel, concrete, and fuel. The result, again, is a vicarious life. Silicon Valley grandees pontificate about open borders, “undocumented migrants,” and “sanctuary cities,” but beneath their noses are streets lined with tightly parked Winnebagoes in which thousands of poor Mexican nationals sleep, live, eat, and prep for another day servicing the masters of the universe. To suggest that the geography of the Bay Area is still vast and its open spaces ripe for affordable housing is the heresy of “how dare you even suggest getting near my Portola Valley estate”?


Our culture and financial elite are primarily a coastal tribe, cut off from both the poor and the material conditions that face the poor. They find penance and exemption for their privilege in loud but empty virtue-signaling and in easy contempt for the supposedly grasping middle class. But what we wanted from them was excellence, competence, and leadership; yet they had neither the education nor character for any of that.


It is hard to destroy the NFL or to discredit a liberal-arts degree from Yale, or to turn NBC or CNN into a bastard of Pravda or to make the Hollywood of John Ford, Frank Capra, and Alfred Hitchcock into that of George Clooney. But we managed it — and more still to come before we are through.


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1 thought on “Let Down at the Top”

  1. 1962 USAF Academy graduate and USAF LtCol Ret.

    Dr. Hanson
    Once again you have rung the bell with your excellent appreciation of our current educational AND cultural situation, nothing short of disastrous.

    I continue to provide your wise views to my students as required reading and discussion. I fear this is the only active area in which we have any small hope of advancing our degrading overall culture.

    Please keep contributing to our necessary efforts.
    Dr. George Thompson, one of your most appreciative fans, also a Professor at USAF Academy and 20 year prepodevatyel at Pskov State University, Pskov, Russia

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