In the last decade on several occasions subscribers to Seattle Opera, of which I was the General Director, commented to me that they enjoyed opera, wanted others to experience it, but that it would be so much more popular if I would make it considerably shorter. The suggested time was somewhere less than two hours, including a generous intermission. And the operas that were mentioned to be trimmed were neither Götterdämmerung nor Die Meistersinger, but the far shorter La bohème and Carmen. To each of these comments I of course explained that doing so would be rather like cutting off the Mona Lisa below the face, or exhibiting only the head of Michelangelo’s David, and that was that.
I was reminded of this by reading what I think is a brilliant article published in the Portland Oregonian on March 16 entitled by Richard Speer. I have never had any contact Mr. Speer. Here is the article:
DONALD TRUMP IS THE PRODUCT OF OUR DEBASED CULTURE
By Richard Speer
It should shock no one that Donald J. Trump stands poised to become one of two people vying for leadership of the free world.
His troubling ascent is no aberration, but rather the culmination of our long cultural descent from respectful discourse and decorum into a morass of shallowness and incivility.
When good manners died, Trump’s hope was born. He embodies and amplifies our predilection for mean-spirited reality shows and “torture-porn” horror; our shrinking attention spans and the sloppy thinking they produce; the anonymous cruelty of online flaming; and the vapid narcissism of social media.
While Trump has become the standard-bearer for this ugly new world, none of us gets off the hook. Everyone, Democrats included, is complicit. As a culture and as individuals, we picked our poison, and we got it.
Donald Trump is the nominee — and if it comes to it, the president — we deserve.
What forces brought us to this closing of the American mind? In his 1987 book of that title, philosopher Allan Bloom blamed the academy for supplanting the classical education with deconstruction and relativism, spawning generations of students incapable of critical thought, ill-fit to govern or be governed.
My own theory is simpler and a little old-fashioned. I think we took our first steps toward Trump when we stopped dressing up for the theater; when we started cursing in front of the kids; wearing earbuds to avoid talking to coworkers; and hooking up for sex via Tinder and Grindr instead of going on real dates. In the speeded-up, dumbed-down world we have built, vulgarians and megalomaniacs thrive.
A hundred years ago, we still had attention spans capable of appreciating symphonies, concertos and operas. Fifty years ago we were down to rock-and-roll albums. Today, the unit of musical consumption has shrunk to the digitally downloaded song.
We once read novels, thought about them, discussed them with friends. Then CliffsNotes came along. Now we skim the plot summary on Wikipedia and call it good.
Not inconsequentially, the language of Shakespeare has devolved into 140-character tweets and chat acronyms.
Farewell, “To be or not to be.” Hello, “LMAO!”
In such an era, is it any wonder so many are flocking to a man who addresses supporters on a third-grade reading level; speaks in repetitive, monosyllabic cadences; and, more dangerously, espouses policy grounded in that insidious moral shorthand, xenophobia?
The fault, dear populus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves. We the people buoyed Trump to these heights. Many among us don’t seem to want a presidential candidate who’s prudent and reflective. “Ready, aim, fire!” has given way to “Ready, fire, aim!” The dinosaurs who once appreciated judiciousness and patrician reserve have all but died off, replaced by those of us who grew up on Howard Stern, “South Park,” and “Duck Dynasty” — and, lest we forget, “The Apprentice.”
We showered Trump with our Nielsen points; why not do the same with our votes?
In this national catastrophe, which rises to Dr. Strangelove levels of apocalyptic absurdity, we each share the blame. We make a choice for mediocrity every night we opt for Xbox over Charlie Rose; Seth Rogen over Terrence Malick. We choose meanness when we honk at other drivers, then flip them off for good measure. We choose superficiality when we phone a friend rather than visit them; email them rather than phone; text rather than email; or just blow them off altogether and download some fresh apps instead.
Perhaps never have the oft-misquoted words of H.L. Mencken rung more true: “No one in this world, so far as I know … has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby.”
Elitist? Sure — but ominously prescient of our hour, when tens of millions have thrown their allegiance behind a man who has never held public office, yet stands to rest his itchy, easily-offended finger on the proverbial red button.
If that happens, don’t say we didn’t ask for it.
We didn’t just get stuck with Donald Trump. We earned him.
Richard Speer, of Portland, is an art critic and author.
The requests to me to make operas time-friendly may not in themselves be important, but I think they were indicative of Mr. Speer’s thesis. Rather than say that we are in a hopeless situation, I think we should take steps through improvements in education to remedy the attitude of many of our citizens.
When called upon to do the impossible or the very difficult, Americans have always risen to the challenge. It seems to me that this nominating contest tells us that the time to act is now.