Dumbing Down

Mary Elizabeth Williams reviews "Dumbing Down: Essays On The Strip-minig of American Culture" by Katharine Washburn and John Thornton

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published June 13, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

For a book ostensibly about the decline of American culture, "Dumbing Down" is a real no-brainer. This collection of dire warnings points its fingers in the usual directions -- television, advertising, the Internet -- and does so with an unseemly amount of egotistical posturing. Editors John Thornton and Katharine Washburn's basic premise is that we are on the slippery slope to mass stupidity, and they've plenty of corroborating expert testimony.

"Dumbing Down" smugly divides the world into Them and Us; it might as well be called, If You're Reading This, You're Better Than Anybody Else. There's no allowance for subtle distinctions -- a person who subscribes to the New York Review of Books would never clutter up the kitchen with those silly modern cookbooks, and a Mozart fan would never listen to U2.

Ingenuously flaunting the bourgeois assumption that high culture is not out of reach of the lower class, the contributors neatly duck the reality that those who are poor and overworked don't always have the luxury of enjoying a day at the museum. They also forget that mediocrity has always been with us, and that what remains of the idealized past is it highest achievements. The real problem may be that our current mass media makes it harder for the elite to insulate themselves from shallower entertainments.

Michael Vincent Miller could certainly take Madonna to task for any number of crimes against taste, but instead he's offended because he "can't imagine anyone's mucous membranes being much dampened or erectile tissue becoming engorged by watching her performances." Nahum Waxman mourns the simplicity of days gone by, noting the scientifically precise directives of recipes today and railing against the horrors of convenience foods. It's difficult to comprehend how those times in which women -- and rest assured it was women -- stood by the stove all day mashing peas porridge did anything to elevate the culture. But Anthony DeCurtis casts a few meaningful lobs in defense of pop music, and Cynthia Ozick loves both the written and spoken word enough to give a loving tour of aural culture. Her precision with regard to the pros and cons of pronouncing the "r" in "mother" make her essay the most enjoyable few pages of the book.

A few other pieces here are passionate and carefully constructed, emanating as much from a genuine appreciation of beauty and tenderness as from a disdain for the crass and cheap. But time and again the authors come across as naive, nostalgic, and rigid, operating from an implacable sense of right and wrong. Perhaps one shouldn't be too unkind to the creators of "Dumbing Down" and their good intentions, however. For, as Thackeray said, "You must not judge hastily or vulgarly of snobs: to do so shows that you yourself are a snob." And an inflated sense of superiority is just plain dumb.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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