Get Off My Lawn!

Get Off My Lawn!

We want to start today with a handful of apologies.

First, we want to apologize to those of you who don’t care all that much about ESG and its impact.  This has been a very heavy ESG week, and we know that some of you are probably a little tired of it.

Second, we want to apologize to those of you who do care about ESG and can’t get enough of the pushback against it.  We will NOT be doing ESG today, for the fourth day in a row.  Even though there is significant ESG news today, we thought we would, nevertheless, do something else.

Finally, we want to apologize to those of you who clicked on the final link (which was embedded in the final sentence) of yesterday’s note.  We have a habit of linking to music videos – but, to the best of our recollection, this was the first time we ever linked to a Carpenters’ video.  And it’s probably not fair to link people to the Carpenters without warning them.  So…we’re sorry.

Now, that said, we want you to know that there are a handful of reasons why we linked to that video.  First, and most obviously, it fit with the title of the piece, “We’ve Only Just Begun.”  Second, today is Karen Carpenter’s birthday – or it would have been, had she not died from complications arising from anorexia nervosa more than 40 years ago.

The third reason we linked to the Carpenters is because we adore Karen.  In addition to the syrupy-sweet voice, she was a helluva drummer, as even the legendary Buddy Rich would attest.

More to the point, the Carpenters’ music is deeply nostalgic for us.  Music is one of the ways we connected with our late dad.  He loved music, and he passed on that love to us.  We bonded over the good music we both enjoyed – Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson – and over the terrible music he loved and we teased him about – the Kingston Trio, the New Christy Minstrels, etc.

For the most part, we didn’t have that type of connection with our mom, mostly because she didn’t seem to really care about music.  She didn’t dislike it, mind you.  She just didn’t seem to have much of a preference.  The one exception was the Carpenters.  To be honest. we don’t know if she liked them particularly, or if we just associate them with her based on the countless hours spent riding in the big, maroon Chevy station wagon, as she drove us to this practice and that rehearsal and the other game, with the AM radio playing, among other things, the Carpenters.  In any case, that’s the association our ESG-addled brain makes, for better or for worse.

Interestingly, this is precisely as it should be.  Parents are supposed to bond with their kids over music – and stories and movies and all sorts of art and entertainment.  Yesterday, you may recall, we quoted, briefly, from a piece we wrote almost four years ago on the Business Roundtable’s new declaration of the purpose of a corporation.  As strange as it may sound to those of you who don’t know us very well, that piece started with a long discussion of art and music and the like and their importance as the means of cultural transmission from grandparent to parent, from to parent to child, and so on.  Citing our old and dear friend Claes Ryn, we wrote:

Thirty years ago, our old (but not forgotten) friend, Claes Ryn penned a piece titled “The Humanities and Moral Reality,” in which he made the case that this type of storytelling, this means of teaching virtue was the most important of all acts in the preservation of a civilization. Ryn argued that the most important warriors in our fight to preserve our society and our civilization are the people who “draw us into their way of experiencing the world,” the nation’s artists, authors, entertainers, and advertisers. He patiently explained that an individual’s view of the world is shaped to an enormous degree by the artistic symbols to which he or she is exposed. Some such symbols strengthen character and imagination, and in doing so promote a keener sense of reality. Others, by contrast, destroy character and weaken an individual’s ability to reason.

This, Ryn said, explains why some people seem to cling so tenaciously to economic and social doctrines that have been discredited time and again by both experience and theory. There is, of course, no end to examples of this phenomenon. Common cases in point include insistence by many people on higher and higher taxes, despite overwhelming evidence that nations with moderate tax rates are more prosperous than those with very high rates; resistance to real welfare reform, despite overwhelming evidence that the program has become highly pernicious for many of the very people it was designed to help; and support for educational policies that overwhelming evidence demonstrates are directly responsible for the decay the system has suffered over the past several decades.

This strange behavior isn’t necessarily a function of low intelligence, Ryn said. “In this century alone,” he added “one can point to many individuals of obvious intelligence who have spoken foolishly on some subject. A number of Nobel prize winners come to mind who have combined genius in some field with naiveté in others.” And it certainly isn’t that the practical arguments in their favor are decisive. The explanation, Ryn said, lies in the framework from which people view things. And this framework is dictated not by politics, but by art, music, literature, television, movies and advertising; by the symbols that inspire and shape the public’s imagination and its dreams for the future.

The article in which Ryn set forth these ideas does not offer specific examples of the enormous social, and ultimately political, power of literature and the arts. But such examples abound in world history. Obvious ones include the Old Testament stories of Abraham, Ruth, Esther, Job, Jacob, David, Noah, and of course, Adam and Eve, which have profoundly shaped the very nature of Western society. Erasmus’ great satire, Praise of Folly, did as much to erode respect for the local hierarchy in the medieval church as did Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses. Shakespeare and Milton changed the way the world thinks about conflict and love and honor and God. Voltaire and Rousseau can take as much responsibility for the French revolution, which changed the Western world forever, as the actions of Louis XVI or Marie Antoinette.

In more recent times, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin also comes to mind. It had as much impact on the debate over slavery, and probably influenced the resort to war, more than all of the debates in Congress combined. Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and In Dubious Battle had an enormous impact on the way millions of Americans viewed both the American labor movement and the early liberal agenda. Leon Uris’s Exodus affected the attitude of untold Christian Americans toward the new state of Israel. And many of the most vociferous opponents of the death penalty still cite Camus’ Reflections on the Guillotine, as having changed their lives.

One of the things that most concerned Ryn, and which he spoke of often, was what he called the death of high culture.  Throughout history – and modern history, especially – high culture molded and shaped society.  It animated the spirit and directed the energies of man.  And, in turn, it filtered down to the entirety of society, as low culture inevitably imitated high culture.  Or as Ryn put it:

[T]he elite culture—including works that are fully accessible to but a few—is transmitted to others by those who have felt its power. Individuals inspired by a great work apply and diversify its vision in their own artistic or intellectual efforts, spreading it to new audiences at different levels of refinement. The transformative power of the great work eventually affects the sensibilities, dreams, or thoughts of all, even if it does so very indirectly and in watered-down form. The perspectives of the seminal works eventually find their way into the general culture—schools, newspapers, movies, television soap operas, novels, and, not least, the imagery of advertising. 

Those who enter our minds and imaginations are in a position to make particular ideas, attitudes, behaviors, and experiences seem inviting or repulsive. They can affect our notions of what to admire, what to fear, what to scorn, and what to laugh at, and they can incline us to action that corresponds to these responses.

Let us consider, for example, the influence of Burt Bacharach, who died only three weeks ago and who is one of the most important American composers of the 20th century.  Bacharach was a nice Jewish boy, who was born in Kansas City and grew up, mostly, in Queens, New York.  He was trained as a classical musician, a pianist and a cellist, and was considered quite talented.  Throughout his adult life, he toured the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, listening to and meeting as many of the immensely skilled classical musicians as he could.  He loved them and deeply admired their prowess.

Still, with that Kansas City blood and with access to some of the greatest clubs in the world, as a teenager, Bacharach took a serious interest in jazz, which profoundly impacted his own musical style and evolution.  His penchant for complicated rhythms, syncopation, unusual chord progressions, and harmonies are all derived from jazz.  But Bacharach was not a jazz musician or composer.  He was a pop music phenom, whose music helped to make the careers of countless pop artists, including, not coincidentally, the Carpenters.

Bacharach was, in other words, one of the integral links in the last century between high culture, (classical music), African-American culture (Jazz), and low culture (pop music).  He very much personified the influence about which our friend Claes spoke.  If you listen closely, you can hear hints of both classical and jazz in the music of the Carpenters (and Dionne Warwick and Dusty Springfield, and Tom Jones and…).  Some may dismiss him as a cheesy songwriter, but the truth is that Burt Bacharach, like countless others before him, performed a vital cultural service.

The catch, according to Ryn, is that in our own era – post Bacarach – access to high culture is both more restrictive than ever before and is, in fact, something about which our cultural and political elites, on both sides of the political divide, seem embarrassed or, at the very least, unenthused.  Philosophy, traditional art, traditional music, traditional theater, etc. have all been abandoned as either too stuffy and restrictive or too pompous, academic, and elitist.

In turn, then, there is no high culture to influence the low culture, no great works to inspire and animate pop culture.  Low culture, therefore, not only dominates all forms of cultural expression but is also left devoid of any appreciation for widespread societal virtues.  It is virtue free, corrupt, debauched.

We consider ourselves lucky in that we have bonded with two of our kids over music, especially the brilliance of the late, great Chris Cornell.  (And before you even think it:  Yes! Cornell, like most pre-2000 rock, was distinctly influenced by blues, gospel, and other forms of middle culture).  But we worry about parents younger than us.  What music will they bond with their kids over?  Popular music today is significantly different from popular music just a decade or two ago.  Not only does it transmit vile and inappropriate lessons (NSFW!) but it requires no skill, no talent, no training.  It is pure pablum.

And, of course, it’s not just music.  It’s movies and “art” and theater and children’s literature.  It’s ALL of the formerly important vehicles for the transmission of culture and virtue.  They’re all destroyed, all corrupted.

We could make the case that the debasement of the low culture via the destruction of the high culture was intentional and was undertaken specifically to undermine the transmission of societal cohesiveness.  But that, we suppose, is a story for another day.

In the meantime, sit down with your kids or grandkids today and crank up the stylings of Karen and Richard Carpenter.

It’s yesterday once more.

Stephen Soukup
Stephen Soukup
[email protected]

Steve Soukup is the Vice President and Publisher of The Political Forum, an “independent research provider” that delivers research and consulting services to the institutional investment community, with an emphasis on economic, social, political, and geopolitical events that are likely to have an impact on the financial markets in the United States and abroad.