Published Humanitas, Volume VII, No. 1, 1994
Anyone who pushes the buttons of a television set nowadays may be tempted to reflect that genuine culture came to an end during the latter half of the twentieth century. The television set is an immense accomplishment of reason and imagination: the victory of technology. But the gross images produced by television are symptoms and causes of our civilization’s decadence: the defeat of humane culture.
The contrast between the success of technology and the failure of social institutions is yet more striking when we look at any large American city. Some time ago I spent a day in Detroit, once styled “the arsenal of democracy,” latterly known as “America’s murder capital.” I have known Detroit ever since I was a small boy, and have observed the stages of the city’s decay over the decades. Except for some financial and political activity, and a little surviving commerce, about the foot of Woodward Avenue near the river, old Detroit is a dangerous wreck. The length of Woodward Avenue, up to Eight Mile Road and beyond, one drives through grim desolation: Beirut in the midst of its troubles might have seemed more cheerful. One passes through Detroit’s “cultural center,” the Institute of Arts on one side of the avenue, the Public Library on the other. Immediately north or south of those splendid buildings, immediately east or west, extends the grimy reality of a broken and dying city. “Culture” has become something locked into an archaic museum.
Detroit’s technology has produced immense wealth in goods—and still does so, if at a diminished rate. Detroit’s society has produced an inhumane quasi-anarchy. Take Detroit as an ugly microcosm of America, and one may perceive the pressing need for a recovery of humane culture.