If you are at all plugged in to the happenings of Hollywood, or have stood in line at the grocery store, or glanced at a newsstand, you know that the Tom Cruise/Katie Holmes divorce has been almost omnipresent since the news broke two months ago. Everybody knows that the tabloid media are, at best, fun trash; but when I recently caught a few minutes of an E! News Update and saw the coverage for myself, it managed to surprise me. A few weeks after the Cruise/Holmes story broke, the E! News anchors hosted a segment on which young movie stars Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes ought to date, now that they are “the hottest singles in Hollywood.”
Really? The ink is barely dry on the legal documents and it’s time for them to get back out there and spice things up? I was intrigued and—repulsed. Yes, I know, as far as tabloid yuckiness goes, this is Sunday-school stuff. But even so, this particular bit of callousness made me wonder: Is this the culture I inhabit?
If you’ve been feeling similarly unsettled, you’re not alone. If you have a sneaking suspicion that something may be rotten in the United States of America, and that the cultural swamp we’re mired in is not entirely disconnected from the troubling political climate we face, then Herbert London has news for you: You’re right. This series of essays on post-9/11 America is what London calls a collection of “snapshots” of a country in crisis—and the pictures are not pretty.
The Transformational Decade asserts that the cultural crisis started from the ground up, first in the collapse of morals in our ever-more-public private lives, and then to the realm of entertainment, a hypersexualized “cultural wasteland.” London suggests that the entertainment we watch bleeds over into the news we absorb, resulting in a newer, baser kind of politics. These essays are replete with contemporary examples, and by the end of some of the more exhaustively researched sections, you might feel ready to throw in the towel and kiss American culture goodnight.
Well, it’s not all bleak, even if it is pretty dark. And although The Transformational Decade focuses on the past 10 years, London (who has written a series of “decades” books) knows that our problems did not appear overnight, but are the result of a long, slow, downhill march. He also makes the case that the problems our nation faces cannot be cured by electing different politicians or making a few policy changes. His question is, “How can our cultural traditions be restored?”
Herbert London is uniquely placed to comment about the intersection between politics and culture. Until recently, he was president of the Hudson Institute and the John M. Olin Professor of Humanities at New York University, where, in 1972, he created NYU’s Gallatin School and served as its first dean. The Gallatin School itself might be a kind of paradigm: According to London’s own account, it was “organized to promote the study of ‘great books’ and classic texts”—a bulwark against the trends of narrowing specialization and an agent to combat cultural vulgarization.
Under new leadership, however, Gallatin has wandered away from its original mission toward the opposite of a core-curriculum-based classical education, working with students to design a unique program of study that suits their individual interests and career aspirations. While this program may be ideal for students who know exactly what they want out of their education, it is not likely to steer undergraduates toward those lost cultural traditions London champions. How can any kind of cultural tradition be nurtured, much less restored, when students do not share a common education? When the modern university ceases to educate its students about virtue, and instead caters to the whims of a fragmented student body, the decay London talks about becomes inevitable.
Written in an accessible, conversational style, and laden with information and facts, The Transformational Decade is a sobering account of a culture in crisis. London says he agrees with Charles Krauthammer’s thesis that “decline is a choice.” But the mountain of evidence he presents here suggests the contrary—unless something drastic, something, well, transformational takes place.
Kate Havard is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.