Freeman

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Book Review: Empire of the Masses: The Decline of Taste in America by Fred DeArmond

JANUARY 01, 1981 by VERA BRUBAKER THOMPSON

(Dorrance & Co., 35 Cricket Terrace, Ardmore, PA 19003), 1980
146 pages • $6.95 cloth

Any citizen beyond his teens must be aware of negative factors threatening the usual pleasant pace of life to which most of us have become accustomed. What has gone wrong? Where are all those bright dreams every American child had, and expected to see materialized?

The tarnished ideals, the despair, the default of those who pilot the ship of state, the plunge in international prestige, economic uncertainties, all reflect the decline of taste observed by Fred DeArmond in Empire of the Masses.

“If America as champion of the West should come out a loser,” the author warns, “future historians may assess the cause to have been corruption of the high spirit that made us great, accompanied by the demise of good taste.”

The standard of middle-class living is incredibly high, civil rights seem to have made every man a king, and what is called education is practically a universal possession, the author writes, but “The paradox is that at the same time popular taste is the lowest it has ever been and the anti- cultural forces are re-barbarizing our proud civilization.”

The book is studded with quotations of eminent observers to support the points of the book’s thesis. For example, “At least one American saw this intellectual bankruptcy coming. When he was at the peak of his critical zeal as editor of the American Mercury, Henry L. Mencken said that it was ‘impossible to overestimate the low taste of the American public.’”

Universal free schooling was once regarded as a panacea. With what result? According to the College Entrance Examination Board, test scores of graduating seniors in 1975 showed a drop for the twelfth consecutive year . . . ten points lower in verbal skills and eight points lower in mathematical skills than the high school graduates of the preceding year.

Academic degrees are commonplace, but ignorant skepticism and blind credulity shackle the mass mind: “There are sizable numbers of men and women with college degrees who accept only selectively and with reservations the Ten Commandments and the Constitution of the United States. They believe there is no limit to how far the federal government can go in printing money and distributing it among the proletariat . . . They are skeptical when conventional wisdom points to belief, and credulous of the most monstrous fallacies when presented plausibly and perhaps linked to ingrown prejudices.”

The author paraphrases Solzhenitsyn’s Harvard Address and endorses its charge: “I looked to your society for a model alternative to my own enslaved country. But America doesn’t constitute such an ideal. You have an enormously free press, but an enslaved readership. Almost nothing is officially prohibited but you are dictated to by the fashions and deluded about the verities. Your people exhibit deadly signs of decadence. I am saddened by such things as the revolting invasion of privacy, by publicity, the TV stupor, and the intolerable music. You are being softened by inflated luxury and permitted lawlessness. No modern weapon, however powerful, can help you if you have lost national will power.” What has happened to this once great nation? Many an American is searching his soul, looking for just the sort of help this book offers. Some readers may recall earlier articles by Mr. DeArmond. He won a Freedom’s Foundation Award for “The Right to Choose” from the December 1961 Freeman. []

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January 1981

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Unfortunately, educating people about phenomena that are counterintuitive, not-so-easy to remember, and suggest our individual lack of human control (for starters) can seem like an uphill battle in the war of ideas. So we sally forth into a kind of wilderness, an economic fairyland. We are myth busters in a world where people crave myths more than reality. Why do they so readily embrace untruth? Primarily because the immediate costs of doing so are so low and the psychic benefits are so high.
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