I have been trying to estimate when the “dumbing down” of America began. I asked my Facebook friends to guess when it started. One denies that it ever happened; another blames it on the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the lowering of standards to accommodate affirmative action, another on television, yet another on the transformation of American history from a positive to a negative view of American “identity.” My own concern as a historian is the attention now given to sexuality as a major engine of history. I first noticed this in graduate school, as the followers of Michel Foucault were the hippest of academics, and for Foucault, anything goes or went. Yesterday I was queried by a twenties-something (wrong! see comment below) scion of an old American family if I did not think that Abraham Lincoln’s recently discovered [or alleged] gay sexuality was not a major discovery. I asked him how sex could have affected Lincoln’s governing of America during the Civil War, and the answer agreed with my own opinion that it was irrelevant. Yet this young man, very bright, and a published author, was stoked about what was for him a major change in the historiography on Lincoln.
Feminists in the late 1960s and 1970s fervently believed that we were in the midst of a gender revolution and nothing would ever be the same. We all objected to the reduction of girls and women to sexual objects. Yet we find ourselves in the year 2011 in a society where sex and sexual appeal, featuring the objectification of both women and men, to be more overt than ever, worse than even the supposed flaming 1920s.* And yet feminist artists often explored sexuality as a way of appealing to the art-buying public, while indulging their narcissism. Was it not interesting that many bonded with left-wing men, notorious for their womanizing?
Some 1970s feminist theorists also rejected Freud as a traitor to his early female ‘hysterical’ patients, who, it was alleged, were really abused by fathers and uncles, and not themselves the initiators or willing collaborators with dirty old men. So the Oedipus complex was considered not only wrong, but a travesty. In graduate school, I was told to revere a book that said psychoanalysis was a Jewish invention of use solely to [typically carnal] New York Jews (see Berger and Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality.)
While conducting my dissertation research into the construction of the humanities curriculum in America and England, especially during the interwar period, I noted that Freud was even more disreputable than Marx (though both, unlike Carl Jung, were verboten. See http://clarespark.com/2010/05/10/jungians-rising/). This is an intellectual calamity, for Freud, who wrote about the horrors of civilized countries at war with each other in 1915, did not elevate sexual acting-out as many of his upper-class followers believed. Rather, he emphasized the study of libido as a life force and, like aggression, a motive that often went unexamined as the source of psychogenic illness. Neo-Freudians appealing to the counter-culture might celebrate Eros (like Wilhelm Reich or Herbert Marcuse, see http://clarespark.com/2011/10/21/did-frankfurters-kill-the-white-christian-west/), or, in my view, they might have more fruitfully focused on the mother-child attachment and issues such as object constancy (like John Bowlby, or Winnicott or Mahler). But such a focus on separation from the mother and the importance of managing that crucial event in maturation, was not sexy enough, and perhaps could not be co-opted into the subject of popular culture growing ever more primitivist, crude, and aggressively nihilistic.
Ironically, it was Herman Melville’s first modern biographer, the overtly gay Raymond M. Weaver, who was impressed by Freud (as interpreted by A. A. Brill), and who spotted the intense and troubled attachment of Herman to his mother, Maria Gansevoort Melville. Weaver has yet to be forgiven for his insightful efforts at understanding the ever mysterious “greatest American writer.” (For more on the 1920s reception to Freud, see http://clarespark.com/2009/11/13/supermen-wanted-early-freudians-and-the-mob/.)
*Cf. E. Digby Baltzell on the sex and booze-crazed 1920s (http://clarespark.com/2011/10/15/baltzell-on-the-good-jews/), the decade that witnessed the beginning of “the Melville revival.” Yet if we consult Hemingway’s short novel The Sun also Rises (1926), the characters are indeed a lost, vicariously shell-shocked generation, reduced by the recent slaughter to meaningless wandering about France and Spain, promiscuous coupling, a fascination with violence (the bull-fight), and regression to conversation at about the level of young children (though Hemingway probably saw his style as natural and purified). Has our literature and/or popular culture ever recovered?