The last cult in West Marin: Midcult

03/31/2016

There is a feeling in America today that things are going badly in our country and economy, and that nothing can change for the better. The despair this produces in poor and working people drives them toward Donald Trump, who is popular because, unlike opponents other than Bernie Sanders, he occasionally tells the truth. Yet in his most objectionable statements, Trump says what Obama does. 

I wonder if a week or even a day has gone by in eight years that the Commander-in-Chief hasn’t overseen the bombing of a Muslim country or been responsible for the murder of Muslims? Have the lives of black people improved or declined under him? Have Latin American refugees been less exploited? How many people have been tortured in the last eight years? 

What Trump says is mostly consistent with what the President has carried out; Trump’s crime is that he says it publicly. Obama says he loves Muslims, loves African-Americans, loves Latinos, loves peace, and he is slightly sorry that, in his mock-homespun style, “We tortured some folks.” Clearly it isn’t what you do, but what you say—and, crucially, what others say about you—that defines your character. If we find Trump’s language outlandish and crazy, we have a problem with reality. If we are scared, it is because a mirror has been held up to our face. 

But can we turn that mirror on the actors who direct and stage-manage this age of destruction? Corrupt bankers and media, the fuel industry, international trade agreements, politicians and war. Maybe our real problem is the absence of writers trying to make sense of the world rather than just reflecting back to us what we would like to believe it is. 

In 1902 a historian named Ida Tarbell took on the richest man in the world, John D. Rockefeller, and his titanic Standard Oil corporation. Rockefeller mixed bizarre religious views about asceticism and hard work with maniacal unscrupulousness. He thought it was holy to destroy his competition, even if it meant committing crimes. Around the country, small businesses and communities were being crushed by Standard Oil’s illegal practices; Tarbell, after years of research, was the first to write about what was happening.

She was published in a journal called McClure’s Magazine, which also reported on the depredations by corporations of small farmers being strangled by robber barons, particularly those who owned the railroads and banks. Historian Adam Curtis tells this story brilliantly. Writing on the BBC’s website, he says that before journalism like that found in McClure’s,

“…American society was rocked by scandal after scandal along with terrible stories of the effect of growing inequalities. Politicians were bribed, policemen arrested and beat up innocent men and women, adulterated food was sold, and terrorists threw bombs. While the gap between rich and poor grew wider and wider.

But none knew what to do about it. The genteel middle classes who believed in reform were baffled and confused.

They knew that all these scandals were somehow a part of the enormous changes that were happening to American society. But they also knew that the new technologies and giant industries were bringing amazing benefits and transforming their world and the way they related to each other. Nobody seemed to be able to understand the true dimensions of what was happening.”

Sound familiar? McClure’s Magazine collected the work of courageous writers who wanted to describe the world and its new viciousness, taking the most destructive actors head on. It ought to be extraordinary that no such magazine exists here today. 

We in West Marin adopt a willful ignorance, a drugged incuriousness, that belies our knowledge that we are the special beneficiaries of the dark empire in which we live. If we wanted to know what our empire is, we can learn it in two trips: the first to Point Reyes Station, the second to Bagdad. To complete the triptych, throw in a layover in my hometown of Flint, Mich. 

In his inspired attack on middlebrow culture, Dwight Macdonald’s “Masscult and Midcult: Essays Against the American Grain” points a finger squarely at the West Marin “midcult”—the reduction of art to kitsch, of literary journals to mini-coffee-table (mate-table, kombucha-table!) books. Mass culture speaks directly to our base desires and fears; middlebrow culture dresses up those desires in highbrow drag so educated people can accept them without guilt, or, in the case of our fears, allow us to bravely hide from them. 

Of mass culture, Macdonald references Adorno: “It may be stimulating or narcotic, but it must be easy to assimilate. It asks nothing of its audience, for it is ‘totally subjected to the spectator.’ And it gives nothing.”

We see this in our magazines. But Macdonald draws a further line, between masscult and the middlebrow ooze into which America has sunk, as he criticizes Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” with a quote from the Stage Manager: 

“We all know that something is eternal. And it ain’t houses and it ain’t names, and it ain’t earth, and ain’t even the stars… Everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings… and yet you’d be surprised how people are always losing hold of it. There’s something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being.”

Macdonald follows with this: “The last sentence is an eleven-word summary, in form and content, of Midcult. I agree with everything Mr. Wilder says but I will fight to the death against his right to say it in this way.”

West Marin’s culture—welded to its leaden prosthetics of psychedelia and eastern murmurings, which neither enhance our creativity or insight but rather stand in place of them as prepackaged experiences for sale—has a real “Our Town” problem. Our midcult acts as a smooth and seamless barrier against reality. In a truly apt use of the pathetic fallacy, our cultural productions and events refuse to confront reality for us, as that might be upsetting, or hard to read. 

Macdonald also quotes Matthew Josephson, who reported on one of the vilest robber barons, Henry Clay Frick, the union-buster behind U.S. Steel. (I’m told one of Frick’s descendants built what is now the Episcopal church in Inverness.). He described Frick as sitting at his desk with a Rembrandt on the wall behind him, reading the Saturday Evening Post. Today we sit, our backs to the world, collecting series of printed objects, maybe reading them, like those put out by the various self-appointed curators of the written word in West Marin: aging mood-merchants and sentimentalizers whose instructions to live in the present somehow cast the lines on their faces into starker relief. They suffer from I.D.D., irony deficit disorder. Unfortunately for my generation, the disease is inheritable, as we are made to suffer the obsequious celebration not of the present, but a repackaging of our parents’ lives 40 years ago. They’ve made this place into a fetish, a topography in want of a topic, and toss up postmodern prayers to trivia that trivia might deliver them from the pain of self-awareness. 

If art is the fake of real, the humorless members of our midcult, young and old, are the real of fake. Like Macdonald’s nemesis midcult, ours aspires down with its dissembling invocation of simpler cultures and times. It’s a neat trick, one that Trump has learned well. And who could forget Obama when he sang that ’70s classic, “Let’s Stay Together”? 

Midcult gives us a feeling of control; it is an anti-depressant in a frightening world. For it is not a lack of talent that drives it, but fear. Thus it will never challenge or change our world, or help us to see its true complexity. In this way it is the servant of the malign forces that govern our lives. At a time when it can almost literally be said that we are burying our heads in the sand, where is our McClure’s Magazine? Is it just too easy to go to McClures Beach?

 

Charles Schultz lives in Marshall. He is worried that things are quite a bit worse, but in a different way, than you think.