"In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Arnold J. Toynbee's A Study of History had a public vogue in the United States. Toynbee identified twenty-six distinct civilizations in recorded history and propounded a grand theory that explained their trajectories of growth and decline. The academics pounced on A Study of History - Toynbee's sweeping, moralistic approach was at odds with the academic temper of the time - and after a few years it became intellectually unfashionable. But in 2001, while working on a book about the history of human accomplishment, I decided that I should take a look at a work so rich in material. Eventually I reached the chapter titled "Schism in the Soul," and experienced a shock of recognition.
In that chapter, Toynbee took up the processes that lead to the disintegration of civilizations. His argument went like this: The growth phase of a civilization is lead by a creative minority with a strong, self-confident sense of style, virtue, and purpose. The uncreative majority follows along. Then, at some point in every civilization's journey, the creative minority degenerates into a dominant minority. Its members still run the show, but they are no longer confident and no longer set the example. Among other reactions are a "lapse into truancy" - a rejection of the obligations of citizenship - and "surrender to a sense of promiscuity" - vulgarization of manners, the arts, and language - that "are apt to appear first in the ranks of the proletariat and to spread from there to the ranks of the dominant minority, which usually succumbs to the sickness of 'proletarianization'.
The shock of recognition that I experienced in 2001 came because of the adoption by the middle class and upper-middle class of behaviors that used to be distinctly lower class. When Tipper Gore, the wife of senator and later vice president Al Gore, attacked the incontestable violence and misogyny of rock and rap lyrics, why was she so roundly scolded by so many of her social and political peers? Why were four-letter words, which formerly were seen by the upper-middle class as declasse, appearing in glossy upscale magazines? How had "the hooker look" become a fashion trend among nice girls from the suburbs? How had tattoos, which a few decades ago had been proof positive that one was a member of the proletariat, become chic? Toynbee would have shrugged and said that this is what happens when civilizations are headed downhill - America's creative minority has degenerated into a dominant minority, and we are witnessing the universal next step, the proletarianization of the dominant minority.
There are many reasons to bridle at that characterization. For one thing, civilizations that see a coarsening of their culture are sometimes in their heyday. Why shouldn't America in recent decades be seen as something like Regency England? The early 1800s were a time of hap-hazard morals and mindless extravagance in the aristocracy, but also the era when England defeated Napoleon and English science, technology, literature, art, and industry were in a golden age. We should remember, too, that cultures sometimes do an abrupt about-face. Within a few decades of the end of the Regency, England had become Victorian.
For another thing, how is America's new upper class vulnerable to a charge of imitating the proletariat, when, as this book has just documented, the new upper class and, more broadly, Belmont, have more or less held the line on marriage, industriousness, and honesty - even religiosity, comparatively speaking - while the proletariat has deteriorated?
All good points. But, nonetheless, the sign that America's new upper class has suffered a collapse of self-confidence are hard to ignore. There is, for example, the collapse of confidence in codes of honorable behavior."