In Prospect

Autumn 2006

What, you may ask, is a story about George and Ira Gershwin doing in a policy magazine? Put aside the fact that Stefan Kanfer’s “The Dynamo and the Jeweler” is a hard-to-put-down read, delicious both for its narrative skill and its witty, beautifully crafted prose, an adornment to any magazine’s pages. Does it illuminate the issues that fall under City Journal’s purview?

Very much so, we think. We have always argued against the Marxoid notion that culture is a mere “reflection” of economic relations, an effect, never a cause. Usually we make this argument in terms of elite ideas and beliefs, taking the view, as John Maynard Keynes put it, that “The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.” Theodore Dalrymple’s “The Gift of Language” examines a recent instance: he shows how the contemporary theory that language is a natural human endowment, which all people learn perfectly without the need for instruction, leads in the real world to a laxness in teaching correct grammar and spelling, which in turn deprives many disadvantaged children of a tool they critically need for success as adults. And of course we have often argued that elite ideas very quickly trickle directly down to the lowest rung of society. Members of the underclass, for example, believe themselves to be victims of the system no less than New York Times editorialists believe them to be: and since people act according to the ideas they have in their minds, such a view has unfortunate consequences for the underclass and for society at large.

But popular culture has its power, no less than high culture, and it shapes the worldview of millions. New Yorkers like the Gershwins, on the Broadway stage and in movie musicals, played a key role in molding American culture in the 1920s and ’30s, offering a casual, witty, sophisticated urbanity that put sparkle in the Roaring Twenties and gave hope, through its optimistic stylishness, to a Depression-wracked country that needed an hour of cheer. George Gershwin, also a gifted classical composer, succeeded in making tunes deeply informed by the classical composers part of the soundtrack of ordinary American life. When you think of the morale and the behavior of the great democratic mass of Americans through those decades of good times and bad, that is no small achievement for all those who helped create the national culture.

Especially when you compare that popular culture with the popular culture of today, which in some of its manifestations—such as hip-hop, as we have written—degrades rather than uplifts. What then to make of today’s tabloid celebrity Paris Hilton? Kay S. Hymowitz’s wonderfully entertaining and insightful “The Trash Princess”, like one of George Orwell’s dissections of some ephemeral item of popular culture to get to the heart of the culture’s values, comes up with a different answer than you’d at first expect. Yes, the raunchy heiress—in her promiscuity, exhibitionism, consumerism, and narcissism—embodies much that’s wrong with today’s America; but the reason she interests us is not because we envy her or would like to be like her but, as Hymowitz shrewdly concludes, quite the reverse.

We are proud that this spring, contributing editors Hymowitz and Kanfer will be coming out with the 14th and 15th volumes of a critically acclaimed series of books that are collections of City Journal articles (or, in a few cases, elaborations of what began life as City Journal articles). The title of Hymowitz’s book is Marriage and Caste in America: Separate and Unequal Families in a Post-Marital Age; Kanfer’s book, which will contain this issue’s Gershwin article, is called The Voodoo That They Did So Well: The Wizards Who Invented the New York Stage. The publisher of both is Ivan R. Dee. These books, we like to think, are proof of our boast that City Journal stories are not ephemeral but lasting, and that some of them transcend journalism and become literature. Volumes 16 and 17 are already in the works.