Monday, December 31, 2007

A Patience to Listen, Alive and Well (by Anthony Tommasini, the New York Times)

Illustrator: Koren Shadmi

Classical Music
A Patience to Listen, Alive and Well
Published: December 30, 2007

REPORTS about the diminishing relevance of classical music to new generations of Americans addled by pop culture keep coming. Yet in my experience classical music seems in the midst of an unmistakable rebound. Most of the concerts and operas I attended this year drew large, eager and appreciative audiences.

Consider this: On Dec. 15 the Metropolitan Opera’s first high-definition broadcast of the season, a Saturday matinee of Gounod’s “Roméo et Juliette,” played on more than 600 movie screens around the world to 97,000 people, a new record for attendance in this bold Met venture. O.K., the total doesn’t match the millions who watch rock videos. For all her popularity, Anna Netrebko, who sang Juliette, is not Mariah Carey. But classical music always was and always will be of interest to relatively modest numbers of people.

In recent years a spate of articles and books have lamented classical music’s tenuous hold on the popular imagination and defended its richness, complexity and communicative power. I’m thinking especially of the book “Why Classical Music Still Matters” (University of California Press, 2007) by Lawrence Kramer, a professor of English and music at Fordham University.

Just this month classical music emerged as pivotal to international relations. With the blessing of the State Department, the New York Philharmonic announced that it would present a concert in North Korea during its Asian tour in February. Some consider this plan an outrage that will allow a totalitarian regime to use the Philharmonic musicians as puppets for propaganda. Others see it as at least a chance to pry open a door and share Western culture with a closed society, which is pretty much my view.

Either way, implicit in this plan is the idea that classical music matters. It’s not a sports team or pop group that has been enlisted to begin a thaw with the government in Pyongyang. It’s the musicians of a premier American orchestra.

What effect might this concert have on an audience in a repressive society? To Professor Kramer, as he recently told The New York Times, classical music by definition “is addressed to someone who has a certain independence of mind.” It “almost posits for its audience a certain degree of Western identity, which includes that sense of individual capacity to think, to sense, to imagine.”

Classical music invites listeners to focus, to take in, to follow what is almost a narrative that unfolds over a relatively long period of time. Length itself is one of the genre’s defining elements. I do not contend that classical music is weightier than other types of music. Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony is no more profound than “Eleanor Rigby.” But it’s a whole lot longer.

Even a 10-minute Chopin ballade for piano, let alone Messiaen’s 75-minute “Turangalila Symphony,” tries to grapple with, activate and organize a relatively substantial span of time. Once you accept this element of classical music, the reasons for other aspects of the art form — the complexity of its musical language, the protocols of concertgoing — become self-evident.

Structure in classical music is the easiest element to describe yet the hardest to perceive. Too often writers of program notes take the easy way and simply lay out the road map of a piece: first this happens, then that happens, then the first thing returns in a modified form and so on. But perceiving these structures as a listener is another matter.

When I was around 13 and enthralled by Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony and Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, I didn’t have the vaguest notion of how sonata form worked or what a rondo was. That I grew so familiar with these big pieces, though, does not mean I grasped how they were organized. Still, I intuitively sensed that they were monumental in some way, for the great classical works seemed to have an inexplicable and inexorable sweep.

Years later, when I was an assistant professor at Emerson College in Boston, I inherited from my predecessor a music appreciation course called “Listening to Music.” Teaching that class was like missionary work. I tried to help students hear what seemed to me astounding similarities between, say, a song-and-dance from Monteverdi’s “Orfeo” and “America” from Bernstein’s “West Side Story.” I broke down symphony movements by Beethoven and Shostakovich into constituent parts. Quite a few students were openly resistant, others mildly curious; some were surprisingly engaged.

Once in a while someone would come back from a concert having had an epiphany, like one awestruck woman who had attended her first live symphonic concert: the New England Conservatory Orchestra at the acoustically splendid Jordan Hall playing Copland’s “Appalachian Spring.” She had no idea that such viscerally powerful sounds existed.

More often than not, though, these epiphanies did not turn the students into devotees of classical music. Why not? My guess is that the pieces played were simply too long. Taking in a concert involves a major time commitment. You sit in silence for extended periods and pay attention to live performances that, however viscerally involving and sonically impressive, are visually unremarkable. Operas, of course, tend to be even longer. But opera is a total-immersion experience, with characters and costumes, like going to the theater.

In an essay in The New York Times in June, Professor Kramer called for classical music presenters to follow the lead of enterprising art museums, which have had much success in presenting new and old art in interactive, stimulating and demystifying ways. The museum experience encourages visitors to relax, to take in things at their own pace. You feel emboldened to follow your instincts, to move on from a painting that bores you, or linger at some intriguing, baffling work.

As Professor Kramer acknowledged, the analogy is limited. You cannot set your own pace while listening to a Schubert string quartet. A concert can offer pre-

performance talks, interactive video displays in the lobby and spoken comments by the performers onstage. But at some point the talking stops, the performance begins, and the audience is asked — expected really — to be quiet and pay attention.

Even so, the act of communal listening need not be reverential. And classical music has its “wow” factors too. What could be more entertaining than a dynamic performance of Prokofiev’s shamelessly theatrical Third Piano Concerto, with its monstrously difficult piano part? And if your mind wanders during “La Mer,” by Debussy, and you start focusing on the kinetic playing style of an attractive young violinist in the orchestra, then, as Professor Kramer suggests, just go with it.

Concert protocol demands that you stay put for the duration. Yet entering into that receptive state of mind can actually foster excitement over the music. Most young people in today’s interactive, amplified, high-tech world may not instinctively be enticed by the idea of sitting quietly and contemplating a long musical work in a natural acoustical setting. Yet I’ve taken young friends and other classical music neophytes to concerts over the years and been routinely struck by how absorbed they become during, say, a blazing account of Stravinsky’s “Firebird,” even while all around us older, restless concertgoers are fiddling in their seats and rustling the pages of their programs.

Creating an atmosphere conducive to listening does not mean that concert halls have to be stuffy. Dress codes of any kind should disappear. Go ahead and replace some rows of seats at Avery Fisher Hall with rugs and pillows to recline on, if it helps.

Much less drastic innovations have proved effective. Lincoln Center’s series A Little Night Music, at the intimate Kaplan Penthouse, for example, presents 60-minute programs beginning at 10:30 p.m. Only about 160 people can be accommodated. Patrons share small round cocktail tables and have free glasses of wine. In one program last summer the bookish British pianist Paul Lewis played a probing performance of Beethoven’s stormy, mystical Opus 111 Piano Sonata, followed by the exciting young cellist Alisa Weilerstein delivering an intense account of Kodaly’s brooding and volatile Sonata for Solo Cello. Here were two elusive and demanding works. And the audience was transfixed. I don’t recall a single throat-clearing.

But to claim a listener’s attention, a substantial classical piece must entice the dimension of human perception that responds to large structures and long metaphorical narratives. This, more than anything lofty about the music, accounts for the greater complexity, typically, of classical works in comparison with more popular styles of music.

Beethoven was a master musical architect. When his “Eroica” Symphony appeared in 1804, it was the longest work yet written in which virtually every phrase and rhythmic figure was derived from a small group of musical motifs. Beethoven made this colossal symphony, in four quite varied movements, seem organic and whole. Most listeners may discern this only subliminally. But they do.

One reason “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” stunned my generation at its 1967 release was that this Beatles album was not just a collection of songs but a whole composition. I remember sitting in my freshman dorm room with friends, listening to the entire album in silence. That was a new experience in rock. “Sgt. Pepper” pointed the way to longer total-

concept albums like Radiohead’s “In Rainbows,” the big news in pop music today.

For the most part, though, rock and pop songs are relatively short lyrical statements. The classical genre that has most in common with the pop concert is the song recital. It makes no difference that the revered classical song repertory, from Schubert to Mahler, is rich with musically complex, often dark works. Because songs tend to be short, we perceive them as more approachable. This explains why, in a program at Weill Recital Hall three years ago, an appealing young baritone, Nathaniel Webster, segued so easily to an American group including songs by Purcell, Schumann and Wolf to American songs by Gershwin and Rufus Wainwright.

No one was better than Leonard Bernstein at drawing new listeners to classical music. When he presented his Young People’s Concerts with the New York Philharmonic, he didn’t have music videos or PowerPoint, and didn’t need them. It was just our amazing Uncle Lenny explaining the content of a piece, conveying its character and revealing its secrets.

But when the explanations were over, Bernstein would turn to his young listeners and say, “Are you ready?” The time had come to settle down and focus as the orchestra performed the piece in question. Instilling audiences of all ages with the ability — and patience — to listen to something long was crucial to an appreciation of classical music. It still is.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

My Time in the Indexing Trade (by Enid Stubin,

Hans Dekker/Flickr


The Sydney Wolfe Cohen index was a thing of beauty, crafted in a warren of rooms on lower Fifth Avenue. Enid Stubin joined this small colony of publishing souls in purgatory. She recalls her toils in Bartlebyland ...


Somewhere between copy-editing and serving drinks at corporate Christmas parties lies my stint at Sydney Wolfe Cohen Associates, the pre-eminent indexing service in New York City. I take a certain pride in the excellence of SWC: of the making of books there is much chazzerai, but when Knopf or Cambridge or Simon and Schuster wanted to flog one in particular—shuttling the author onto "The Today Show" or Charlie Rose—the index was always contracted out to SWC.

Printed on 25-pound bond, tapped into crisp alignment, jacketed in heavyweight cardboard. The disk, neatly labelled, enveloped and centred, four extra-heavy rubber bands gartering the stack. There you have the Sydney Wolfe Cohen index. It is a thing of beauty.

Sydney himself was a dapper, beautifully-spoken man in his seventies, who looked like a more soigné version of the character actor Jack Gilford. Sydney bought his jackets at Paul Stuart and held avuncular court in a warren of rooms in an office building on lower Fifth Avenue. (Ben Katchor might have immortalised the site as the "Vutsdepoint".) Upon entering the hush of this small colony the first time, I recognised that I'd ambled into Bartlebyland, replete with airshaft-faced windows. But quiet was the point at SWC Associates: tones were muted and tempers tamped. This was true whether you worked in the library, where we toiled at a big square table surrounded by reference works (the internet seemed so tacky and unreliable then); the computer room, where "imputers" typed out the actual indexes (double-spaced, Courier font); the front room, where the bella figura ethos reigned; or the sanctum sanctorum, Sydney's office, where he rarely sat.

Sometimes, during a tricky job, Sydney would take one of us into his lair, set us up at a narrow console table, and spend a long morning and even longer afternoon in debate over an entry. Authors had things to say, sure, but we determined how easily a reader could navigate them in a 600-page biography: Henry Kissinger's dog Blackie was hand-fed hamburger and string beans by Kissinger's mother (pet, diet of, 113). We worked under constraints: 1,100 lines was a sizable index; 780 lines meant we'd have to slash away. Balance, too, was a concern: a half-column on the mistress and only four entries for the missus? Maybe not. (Prudence, exercising of, 243)

I never dreamed of becoming an indexer. Such skills belonged to Randy and Grady, outwardly placid but impish fellows of a puckish disposition. David and Fred were more serious, arriving about once a fortnight carrying several 1,000-count cartons of 4 x 6-inch index cards (their original function), or to pick up blank ones. More rarely we steeled ourselves for the arrival of L., the son of someone famous, who was a crack indexer and an amiable fellow, but who'd gotten into some trouble for making obscene phone calls and spent some time on Rikers. (Employees, abilities of, 63; criminal records of, 66)

Most specialised were the abilities of Laura, whose cookbook indices were masterpieces of anatomy. If you were paying $35 for a regional Italian cookbook and wished to whip up a zucchini, tomato and Swiss chard frittata, you'd find your recipe under "vegetables", "zucchini", "tomato", "Swiss chard", "eggs", and "buffet dishes." I understand that computer programs do that sort of thing now, but in the early 1990s, Laura did it. She was one of the reasons Marcella Hazan, Rick Bayless and Maida Heatter sold so many books: her indices led you to where you needed to be. Around the office, Laura used vanilla as her signature scent and looked fierce—I was careful not to antagonise her. She alone of the associates had a key and could come and go as she pleased. (Favouritism, evidence of, 34)

A day or two after an index was typed up, I'd be asked to proofread and proofcheck—to verify spelling and to confirm our accuracy against the book galleys. One could handily absorb an entire book in the process, which Sydney knew and hated. If you were reading, you weren't doing something more important to ensure the quality and elegance of his product. (Drudgery, enforcement of, 78)

Worse, should you have the temerity to look up, say, "tapenade" in an encyclopaedic Barbara Kafka tome (in search of a chic and inexpensive dinner-party appetizer, say), and get caught at the photocopy machine cannibalising from an SWC galley, Sydney would look pained. (Manuscripts, potential exploitation of, 43)

Everyone guzzled coffee, so anxieties about spills and stains loomed. And while associates could bring their lunch to work, one needed to abide by a set of unspoken rules. You learned them by indirection: for reasons of sensibility, tuna was verboten (a shame, as the version cranked out by the Fifth Avenue Epicure down the block was tasty), while chicken salad passed muster. Mustard was okay, but not ketchup; rosemary was well-regarded while garlic—ah, garlic was a problem. Of course, you could obviate these regulations by offering to fetch Sydney "something" from downstairs: if he accepted a half-pound of, say, roasted potatoes with garlic and rosemary, you could bring in a leftover lamb navarin and he wouldn't say a word. (Food, ambivalence toward, 138)

It was my unofficial job to tempt the boss with something fragrant enough to give everyone clemency for a mid-afternoon slice of pizza. I wasn't half-bad at convincing Sydney that ratatouille was not only nutrient-dense and low-caloric, but would also clear his system of cholesterol. Twice a year, when he was due for a physical check-up, he foreswore dairy and fats, and we all paid the price. Cranky and yearning, he'd follow you around with his eyes, his chin tilted up to catch a whiff of hummus on the air. "Hmm, that smells...nice," he'd intone wistfully. I genuinely feared for Grady's tomato and cucumber on whole-wheat pita. (Sandwiches of others, desire for, 139)

We all liked each other, or at least got along. If Sydney overheard us making plans to get together after work, he'd intervene. An impromptu date for Friday evening drinks turned into dinner at Portfolio, with Sydney presiding over the long table and none of us too sure about what to order, as he'd be picking up the tab. In this way he was much like Fezziwig: genial and generous, but nothing could happen without him. (Centrality, possible insistence on: amiable, 256)

I never thought of Sydney as lonely. In fact, my one effort to fix him up—with the mother of my old high-school flame, a beautiful, smart, funny and accomplished woman of roughly Sydney's age—went badly. "He looks exactly like Jack Gilford!" she exulted. The trouble may have been that she knew Jack Gilford—and that she played the violin in chamber groups, and was a practising therapist, and had portrayed Hedda Gabler in a Brooklyn College showcase production, among other things. "She's done everything I ever wanted to do," he said mournfully after their first date. He never called her again. (Women, attracted to, 119; attractiveness to, 116-18)

Sydney was the best in the business—if he knew it, who could blame him? Like another ne plus ultra, he referred to his professional nemesis as "Moriarty." I never learned whether such a figure existed or was merely a cardboard cut-out of Sydney's, the yin to his yang, the Eisenhower to his Stevenson. Talk of Sydney retiring, all of it from Sydney, sounded like so much static to me.

But attentive to the rush of the Reichenbach Falls, Beth contemplated a move: "What if we bought Sydney out? We'd have his name and the business; we could keep all the people here and maybe even get health insurance." I was dazzled by her ambition and brio, the visionary gleam of her plans. But then Beth finished her doctorate and moved west for a tenure-track job; Grady became the first curator of The Museum of Sex; Fred, freelancing, indexed Beth's book on Virginia Woolf. Neither gifted in the heavy-duty skills that editing demanded nor possessed of the patience for Sydney's mandarin gamesmanship, I was phased out. (Employees, relationship with: guarded, 141-42)

Perhaps a year later I got a phone call from Sydney asking if I was available to "do some work" on a new Wordsworth biography. Expecting a nostalgic welcome, I arrived to find instead a slender Barnard graduate student seated alongside him. Down the table sat a stack of proofs with a dog-eared index atop: Naomi Wolf's version of Weltanschauung. Wasn't I working on the Wordsworth? "Oh," Sydney sighed, slyly, "there's always another Wordsworth..." The sylph smiled too, a Gioconda smirk. Stung, I laboured for two grinding days on the postmodernofeminist manifesto and swore never to return. (Bait, switching of, 387)

I heard that Sydney retired to Chappaqua just before the Clintons showed up, a fact that must have pleased him not a little. I should really dress up and invite him to lunch at one of the Murray Hill Italian places he liked or somewhere posh in Grand Central. (Growing up, as revenge: best, 247) We could talk about the old days.

(Enid Stubin is assistant professor of English at Kingsborough Community College of the City University of New York, and writes a New York diary for The Reader magazine.)

Sunday, December 09, 2007


RULE ONE: AVOID THE FOOD | November 30th 2007

Bottle-scarred Economist correspondent Edward Lucas breakfasts on plum brandy, lunches on balsams and dines on bison-grass vodka, but draws the line at a side-dish of Hungarian lung stew ...

The ex-communist world has a deserved reputation as a culinary wasteland (see box, below right), but the drinks are something else. Travellers to Prague find that the "real" Budweiser from Ceske Budejovice (no relation to its rice-based American counterpart) makes even the national dish of dumplings in gravy go down without protest. Winemaking has been transformed since the Soviet era—when bottles had to be inspected for wasps and snails, the former merely a nuisance, the latter stomach-turning (at least for foreigners).

But the real treat is the hard stuff. Every country from the Baltic to the Black sea has a national tipple, usually served in both industrialised and home-made versions. In Romania, tuica (also spelled tzuika, tsuika, tsuica, or tzuica) is the traditional start to any meal. It is made with plums, and bears a startling resemblence to the sljivovica of neighbouring Serbia. Both drinks are part of a delightful family of fruit brandies popular from the far corners of the Balkans up to modern Poland (an area that bears a coincidental resemblance to the Ottoman empire in Europe at its height). For the adventurous, visnjevaca (sour cherry) dunjevaca (quince) and smokvovaca (fig) are well worth a try. You may find these in shops, but you are better off finding a peasant farmer somewhere in what used to be Yugoslavia.

Westerners may think that hard liquor is for after dinner, but these drinks are usually apertifs. To help you digest, the best drink in the region is Unicum. Anyone who likes Italy's Fernet Branca, or German's Underberg, will feel that they have graduated into elysium when they try it. The flavours are an intense mix of liquorice, ginger, coriander and cinnamon (that's guesswork: the recipe is secret). It brings tranquility to even the most overburdened stomach. Latvia's balsams is a close rival—and a neck ahead for those who like its flexibility. It has a stronger tinge of burnt oranges; Latvians put it in their coffee or in fruit salad. With Champagne (or any old sparkling wine) it creates a terrific cocktail.

Any offer of absinthe
in eastern Europe, by contrast, should be shunned as firmly as any suggestion of a return to the planned economy or the one-party state.

Having accustomed your liver to the demands of life in "new Europe", it is time to move north. Poland and Russia tussle for the right to be the "real" home of vodka (an argument that the Swedes and Finns regard with bemused disdain: how can anybody take these Slavic squabbles seriously?). Having sorted out the national question, the serious drinker has to decide between vodkas made with different feedstuffs (barley, rye, wheat and so forth). The nasty stuff produced in western Europe is made from farm surplus products, disgracefully subsidised by the taxpayer. The cheapest of all is synthetic alcohol, produced in factories by a chemical process. If you think all vodka tastes the same, just try drinking a cheap one.

If your palate finds little difference amid the clear vodkas, you can ring the changes with the flavoured kind (for example with chili peppers, ginger, fruit, vanilla, chocolate or cinnamon). Best of all-in your correspondent's view-is Zubrowka, a Polish (or Belarussian) rye vodka flavoured with bison grass, a stalk of which can be found in the bottle.

Sadly, the scent of newly mown hay that makes Zubrowka so seductive comes from the presence (in tiny quantities) of coumarin, a toxin that can be legally used in perfumes, but is prohibited for use in foodstuffs in America. The version sold in America now is coumarin-free.

On the whole, though, the names of vodkas vary more than the contents. Lithuania used to have one called "Dar po viena" (roughly "Let's have another one"). Romania, astonishingly, has a vodka called "Stalinskaya"; Russia's favourite Stolichnaya (Capital) brand, disgracefully, uses Soviet kitsch in its advertisements, including pictures of the murderous founder of Soviet communism, Vladimir Lenin, who is described as a "visionary". That is something to discuss over a Zubrowka or six.

(Edward Lucas is deputy international editor, and correspondent for central and eastern Europe, at The Economist. His book, "The New Cold War—How the Kremlin menaces both Russia and the West", will be published in February 2008 by Bloomsbury in Britain, and Palgrave in America.)

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Without a Writer, Is a Joke Still Funny? (by Alessandra Stanley, the New York Times)

Note to the Capture: Carson Daly broadcasting on Monday on his late-night show on NBC.

The TV Watch

Without a Writer, Is a Joke Still Funny?

Published: December 5, 2007

The problem is not that Carson Daly defied the writers’ strike and resumed taping his late-night show on NBC. It’s that Monday night’s show might as well have been a rerun.

Skip to next paragraph


Writers Strike: Times Topics: Writers Guild of America Articles, multimedia and additional coverage.

Except for a sober preamble in which Mr. Daly explained his decision (“If I had not been back on air tonight,” he said, “75 members of my loyal staff and crew were going to get laid off”), the writer-free return of “Last Call With Carson Daly” was hardly noteworthy — a bland interview with the underwear model Karolina Kurkova and pop music by the Plain White T’s.

So while technically Mr. Daly is the first host of a late-night talk show to cross the picket line, the writers’ strike has barely been scratched.

And that’s because the only thing that is really missing from television since the strike began a month ago, and late-night shows, as well as some sitcoms and dramas, began running repeats, is topical humor: tart commentary on candidates’ latest foibles by David Letterman or Jay Leno, and the parodies and video satire perfected by “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” and “Saturday Night Live.” Mr. Daly doesn’t really do monologues or stand-up comedy; he’s a talent spotter and celebrity interviewer whose show happens to be seen at 1:30 a.m.

The timing of this black-humor blackout couldn’t be worse: If Rudolph W. Giuliani’s campaign falls in a forest of bizarre mayoral accounting practices, but nobody hears about it on late-night television, does it make a sound bite?

Ellen DeGeneres also defied the writers guild to resume her talk show almost immediately, saying that as the producer of a syndicated show, she had contractual obligations to local stations to provide content. While that decision enraged her peers (“We find it sad that Ellen spent an entire week crying and fighting for a dog that she gave away,” a statement by the Writers Guild East said, “yet she couldn’t even stand by writers for more than one day”), it didn’t change the balance, either. Ms. DeGeneres finds humor in everyday quirks — lint-in-the-dryer jokes and funny phone calls to elderly ladies in the Midwest — not in election campaigns or social policy. Monday’s show, which she opened with a riff about Christmas tree shopping, could have been taped a year ago, or 10.

Web sites like 23/6, and YouTube are trying to bridge the gap, and many pieces are contributed by striking writers. Some of the material is apt and amusing: 23/6 ( has a feature called “SwiftKids,” a parody of the Swiftboat ads that rattled Senator John Kerry’s campaign in 2004. (“Does baking cookies for me make my mom a bad person?” a little boy says sorrowfully. “Hillary Clinton thinks so.”) But that kind of humor, when spread across the Internet, seems sparse and small-cylinder. Even the best sites read more like blogs than like big network productions.

Don Imus returned to radio on Monday at what could have been an opportune time to fill some of the silence left by Conan O’Brien or Stephen Colbert. But while Mr. Imus used to be a heeded voice on politics, now he seems consumed by the politics of being Don Imus.

Mr. Imus, who was fired by CBS and MSNBC after his infamous slur about the Rutgers women’s basketball team, made his redemptive debut this week on WABC-AM. His tone on his first day was perforce somber and chastened, but even on the second, Mr. Imus seemed constricted, deferring to his new African-American cast members, Karith Foster and Tony Powell, to discuss Oprah Winfrey’s endorsement of Barack Obama.

Oddly enough, the closest thing to bold topical humor on network television is on “30 Rock,” which still has a few episodes filmed before the strike, and which has taken a marked turn toward impish send-ups of the Bush administration.

On one recent episode, Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) turns in a foreign neighbor whom she suspects of being a Muslim terrorist but is actually in training to be a contestant on “The Amazing Race.” On another, Jack (Alec Baldwin) intervenes to impose American values on an urban Little League team. The team pulls down a statue in the style of Iraqis toppling the statue of Saddam Hussein; in the background its field is draped with a red, white and blue banner that reads, “Fun Times Accomplished.” And, when things fall apart, Jack orders a “surge.”

Those episodes were filmed a while ago, and soon even “30 Rock” will go dark. Mr. Daly and Ms. DeGeneres crossed the picket line, but their return to live television doesn’t undermine the strike so much as enhance it.

Crime, Drugs, Welfare—and Other Good News (by Peter Wehner and Yuval Levin, the Commentary Magazine)

Crime, Drugs, Welfare—and Other Good News
by Peter Wehner and Yuval Levin

December 2007

Fifteen years ago, a deep pessimism seemed to be stalking the American landscape. It arose from diverse quarters, took different forms, and cited a congeries of different symptoms—military, economic, social, cultural, and spiritual—in support of its dark diagnosis. For some, like the Yale historian Paul Kennedy, America’s commitments abroad—dubbed by Kennedy a species of “imperial overstretch”—were a sure harbinger of impending national decline. Others, like the leftist literary critic Alfred Kazin, saw a broad collapse of domestic morale, partially disguised by our “unparalleled technological power and scientific advance.” Echoing Kazin from the other side of the political spectrum, James W. Michaels, the editor of Forbes, introduced a symposium marking his magazine’s 75th anniversary by declaring the American condition to be a moral and cultural “mess”:

While the media natter about a need for economic change, these serious intellectuals [in the Forbes symposium] worry about our psyches. Can the human race stand prosperity? Is the American experiment in freedom and equal opportunity morally bankrupt? . . . It isn’t the economic system that needs fixing. . . . It’s our value system.

As for the social reality underlying this general feeling of decline, a number of conservative commentators, concentrating especially on the areas of crime, welfare dependency, and illegitimacy, undertook the task of quantifying and analyzing the available evidence. The most notable such effort was by William J. Bennett, who in March 1993 released a report entitled The Index of Leading Cultural Indicators.*

Over the course of the preceding three decades, Bennett wrote, the United States had indeed experienced “substantial social regression.” About this, the data were unequivocal. Since 1960, there had been a more than 500-percent increase in violent crime; a more than 400-percent increase in out-of-wedlock births; almost a tripling in the percentage of children on welfare; a tripling of the teenage suicide rate; a doubling of the divorce rate; and a decline of more than 70 points in SAT scores. To Bennett, the conclusion was inescapable: “the forces of social decomposition [in America] are challenging—and in some instances overtaking—the forces of social composition.”

Could anything be done to halt the slide, or even turn it around? Few seemed to hold out much hope. “America’s worsening social pathologies,” according to the Heritage Foundation’s journal Policy Review in 1994, “have convinced many on both sides of the political aisle” that no end was in sight to the nation’s “deep cultural decline.” Robert H. Bork’s 1996 book Slouching Toward Gomorrah put this view most starkly. In his chapter on crime and welfare, Bork wrote:

These pathologies were easy to fall into and will be very difficult to climb out of. There is, in fact, no agreement about how to cure them. It may be, in fact, that a democratic nation will be unable to take the measures necessary, once we know what those measures are.

Summing up, Bork urged his readers to “take seriously the possibility that perhaps nothing will be done to reverse the direction of our culture, that the degeneracy we see about us will only become worse.”

But a strange thing happened on the way to Gomorrah. Just when it seemed as if the storm clouds were about to burst, they began to part. As if at once, things began to turn around. And now, a decade-and-a-half after these well-founded and unrelievedly dire warnings, improvements are visible in the vast majority of social indicators; in some areas, like crime and welfare, the progress has the dimensions of a sea-change. That this has happened should be a source of great encouragement; why it happened, and what we can learn from it, is a subject of no less importance.


In a number of key categories, the amount of ground gained or regained since the early 1990’s is truly stunning. Crime, especially, has plummeted. According to the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), the rates of both violent crime and property crime fell significantly between 1993 and 2005, reaching their lowest levels since 1973 (the first year for which such data are available). More recent figures from the FBI, which measures crime differently from the NCVS, show an unfortunate uptick in violent crime in the last two years—particularly in cities like Baltimore, Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. Even so, however, the overall rate remains far below that of the mid-1990’s.

Teenage drug use, which moved relentlessly upward throughout the 1990’s, declined thereafter by an impressive 23 percent, and for a number of specific drugs it has fallen still lower. Thus, the use of ecstasy and LSD has dropped by over 50 percent, of methamphetamine by almost as much, and of steroids by over 20 percent.

Then there is welfare. Since the high-water mark of 1994, the national welfare caseload has declined by over 60 percent. Virtually every state in the union has reduced its caseload by at least a third, and some have achieved reductions of over 90 percent. Not only have the numbers of people on welfare plunged, but, in the wake of the 1996 welfare-reform bill, overall poverty, child poverty, black child poverty, and child hunger have all decreased, while employment figures for single mothers have risen.

Abortion, too, is down. After reaching a high of over 1.6 million in 1990, the number of abortions performed annually in the U.S. has dropped to fewer than 1.3 million, a level not seen since the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade, which legalized the practice. The divorce rate, meanwhile, is now at its lowest level since 1970.

Educational scores are up. Earlier this year, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reported that the nation’s fourth- and eighth-graders continue to improve steadily in math, and that fourth-grade reading achievement is similarly on the rise. Other findings show both fourth- and twelfth-graders scoring significantly higher in the field of U.S. history. Black and Hispanic students are also making broad gains, though significant gaps with whites persist. The high-school dropout rate, under 10 percent, is at a 30-year low, and the mean SAT score was 8 points higher in 2005 than in 1993, the year Bennett published his Index.

More generally, we are seeing important progress in critical areas of youth behavior. Since 1991 (a peak year), the birth rate for teenagers aged fifteen to nineteen has decreased by 35 percent. The number of high-school students who have reported ever having sexual intercourse has declined by more than 10 percent. Teen use of alcohol has also fallen sharply since 1996—anywhere from 10 to 35 percent, depending on the grade in school—and binge drinking has dropped to the lowest levels ever recorded. The same is true of teens reporting that they smoke cigarettes daily.

John P. Walters, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, has summarized these across-the-board findings in one succinct sentence: “We have a broad set of behaviors by young people that are going in a healthy direction."


To be sure, we have not reached anything like nirvana. The gains made are not yet secure, and could easily be lost. Nor should it be forgotten that the improvements occurred after more than three decades of an almost uninterrupted freefall. Finally, the pathologies that still afflict us are serious, and evidently continue to be immune to the otherwise improving trend.

Thus, our popular culture remains, in many respects, a cesspool of violence and vulgarity. The “soft nihilism” and cultural relativism about which Allan Bloom wrote so powerfully in the late 1980’s are still with us, and at the same time many of our leading universities remain beholden to a radical leftist ideology. The yoking-together of these two syndromes may be even more widespread today than yesterday.

Perhaps most importantly, some of the most vital social indicators of all—those regarding the condition and strength of the American family—have so far refused to turn upward. Even as the teenage birth rate has fallen, out-of-wedlock births in general have reached an all-time high: 37 percent of all births in 2005. Over half of all marriages are now preceded by a period of unmarried cohabitation, and marriage rates themselves have declined by almost one-half since 1970.

In the life of any society, the place of the family is central. That fact alone makes these last statistics significant, and seriously complicates the picture of dramatic progress in other, related realms. Indeed, the two starkly divergent trends, taken side by side, should cause us to reconsider certain common assumptions concerning just how culture, behavior, family, and society interact, and how they change.



The most striking element of the overall picture continues to be the extraordinary turnaround in nearly every area apart from the family. The progress we have witnessed over the last 15 years is impressive, undeniable, and beyond what most people thought possible. There was, it is fair to say, essentially no one in the early 1990’s who predicted it. How, then, did it happen?

Obviously, no single explanation will suffice. Instead, long-overdue changes in government policy appear to have combined with a more or less simultaneous shift in public attitudes, with each sustaining and feeding the other. We may begin with the change in policy, for if the last fifteen years demonstrate anything, it is the enduring power of policy, properly understood, to influence culture.

The 1996 welfare-reform bill was the most dramatic and successful social innovation in decades, reversing 60 years of federal policy that had long since grown not just useless but positively counterproductive. In effect, the new law ended the legal entitlement to federally funded welfare benefits, imposing a five-year time limit on the receipt of such benefits and requiring a large percentage of current recipients to seek and obtain work.

When the bill was passed, there were dire predictions, mostly emanating from liberals, of an explosion of poverty and hunger. They were just as quickly refuted. State welfare rolls plummeted—and poverty, instead of rising, decreased. Welfare reform sent a message in bright neon lights: higher expectations will yield better results. Rather than giving up on the poor, the new policy assumed that the able-bodied were capable of working, expected them to work, and was rooted in a confident belief that, materially and otherwise, they would be better off for it. In each of these particulars, the policy makers proved correct. If, as the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb wrote in the 1990’s, our old social policy had “succeeded in ‘demoralizing’ . . . society itself,” the new policy proved to be profoundly re-moralizing.

Crime rates, too, benefited from something of a policy revolution over the course of the 90’s. Applying methods and concepts developed by James Q. Wilson, George L. Kelling, and others, innovators like then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in New York City and his police chief William Bratton pursued a zero-tolerance approach to crime that quickly became a model for other cities and states. Incarceration rates rose, policing improved, crime data were processed faster, criminal patterns were identified more effectively—all of which furthered the twin goals of intervention and prevention. Similar gains were posted by programs like Philadelphia’s Youth Violence Reduction Partnership, in which an array of urban agencies, working together, drove down homicide rates in the most violent parts of the city by focusing on youths most at risk of killing or being killed.

The progress we have made against drug use appears in large part to be another product of a reformed government policy. By the late 1980’s, in the heyday of the crack epidemic, drugs had come to be regarded as our most serious domestic challenge, and formed the subject of President George H.W. Bush’s first prime-time address to the nation. Discarding the piecemeal approach of the past, which concentrated now on one, now on another point of the drug-use continuum, Bush forged an integrated approach, applying pressure on all fronts: law enforcement, prevention, treatment, interdiction, and education. A critical element in the campaign was a public-awareness effort centered on the explicitly moral argument that drug use degrades human character.

The consequences were swift in arriving. If, in the 1970’s, drug use had been widely seen as liberating and glamorous, by the late 1980’s it was coming to be perceived as both dangerous and dumb. During the Clinton presidency, the drug issue was allowed to fade from attention, but since then national policy has returned to its former levels of efficacy, and the statistics reflect the encouraging results.

In education, the emphasis placed by government at every level on testing, accountability, and transparency has unquestionably made a difference. Every state now applies statewide academic standards, which, though in many cases still not high enough, at least measure performance against identifiable benchmarks. While the details of the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind program have been controversial, its general approach has come to be broadly accepted—and has produced results. In the meantime, the rise in charter schools and publicly funded school-choice programs, along with the advent of “virtual” education, has created many more options for American families.



As for the decrease in abortions, it seems to have been influenced less by policy than by the changing terms of public debate and, more importantly, by increasingly responsible attitudes among the young. Two decades ago, pro-life spokesmen changed their rhetorical tactics and began to choose their fights more carefully. The clear-cut issue of partial-birth abortion, although not settled legislatively until 2003, colored the abortion debate throughout much of the 1990’s, in the process creating greater sympathy for a moderately pro-life position. And the pro-abortion Left likewise softened its rhetoric, evidently reasoning that a more cautious approach, as encapsulated in Bill Clinton’s promise to make abortion “safe, legal, and rare,” was likelier to draw support. As a result, some of the more extreme arguments for unrestricted abortion rights slowly dropped by the wayside.

Other factors played a role as well, including the efforts of pro-life groups to assist women with unwanted pregnancies, the greater availability of birth control, and advances in our scientific understanding of fetal development. Contributing to the rethinking was the more widespread use of sonogram technology, which enables would-be parents to see the developing child and its human form at a very early stage. All in all, not only has the public discussion of abortion been profoundly transformed, but younger Americans seem to have moved the farthest—in September, a Harris poll found that Americans aged eighteen to thirty were the most likely of all age groups to oppose the practice. This trend seems likely to continue.

With the abortion issue, we have already moved from a change brought about in large part by government policy to one arising mainly through the (sometimes heated) give-and-take of public discussion and the slow, subterranean shifting of social attitudes. The same may be said of the drop in the divorce rate, which has been going on for a couple of decades now. This appears almost entirely attributable to the changed attitudes of well-educated Americans, whose views on the matter have grown decidedly less permissive.

How so? According to Brad Wilcox of the University of Virginia, college-educated Americans have absorbed the message—from the media, religious institutions, civic organizations, and their own experience—that children do best when born to and raised by married parents. As a corollary, these educated Americans seem more and more willing to make the sacrifices necessary to stay married, for the sake of both their own welfare and that of their children.

Wilcox adduces two additional facts to round out the picture of a declining divorce rate. First, we now see very few teen marriages—a good thing not only for teenagers unprepared for the burdens of married life but for the institution of marriage altogether, since partners in their twenties or thirties are more likely to place a premium on stability. Second, marriage is much more selective. Because those marrying tend to have more income, more social skills, more of a stake in marriage, and more pro-marriage attitudes, they are less likely to divorce.

This is all to the good—as far as it goes. The downside is that it seems only to apply to those with higher levels of education. Among less educated Americans, divorce rates have not fallen at all. And here we confront once more the cluster of family-related issues where, as we have seen, the indicators remain stubbornly and perplexingly worrisome.



How to account for the anomalous absence of improvement or, more precisely, the acceleration of decline in the overall marriage rate, in rates of cohabitation without marriage, and in illegitimacy? And suppose that, in 1992, you had known that the picture in these crucial areas of family life would continue to be at least as dark in 2007, if not darker. Would you not also have predicted a similarly dismal profile in the related areas of crime, drug use, welfare, education, teen sexual activity, teen suicides, abortion, and poverty?

In fact, just that kind of linkage was behind many of the most dire forecasts of the 1990’s. In 1993, reviewing national figures on illegitimacy, then at just under 30 percent of all births (by 2005, as we have noted, they would reach 37 percent), the social scientist Charles Murray wrote in the Wall Street Journal that “every once in a while the sky really is falling.”

Murray is no inveterate pessimist. It was his creative approach to dependency, as set out in his 1984 book Losing Ground, that laid the intellectual groundwork for the dramatic successes in welfare policy; he is in many ways the father of the 1996 reform bill. Yet, along with many others, Murray believed that rising illegitimacy would lift with it a whole fleet of social pathologies. “Illegitimacy is the single most important social problem of our time,” he wrote, “more important than crime, drugs, poverty, illiteracy, welfare, or homelessness because it drives everything else” (emphasis added).

Murray may well have been correct about the importance of illegitimacy. But he—and not he alone—seems to have been incorrect that it would drive everything else. Over the past fifteen years, on balance, the American family has indeed grown weaker—but almost every other social indicator has improved.

Murray’s dictum could still be borne out in the long run; in time, the explosion of illegitimacy might undo the signs of healthy cultural revival we have charted. Or it may be that the broad improvement in cultural attitudes will in time cast its benefits upon the family as well, helping to curb the seemingly inexorable growth of illegitimacy. Or neither of these may happen, and it may instead turn out that we have underestimated the degree to which improving social factors in other areas can compensate for the enduring damage caused to individuals in broken or never-formed families.

The point is that we do not know everything, and we cannot come to unequivocal conclusions about the future on the basis of the last fifteen years. No trend line runs consistently for long, and no rule is without exceptions. That does not mean, however, that we have learned nothing, or that no lasting lessons can be drawn from our experience.


For one thing, we clearly benefited in the last fifteen years from the fact that, for many years previous, a number of very acute observers were insisting on an honest assessment of where we were and how bad a place it was. This was the necessary first step toward any possible recovery. In time, and with strong leadership, the nation heeded their counsel, instituting wise public policies pursued with energy and resolution. Legislation was far from the only agent responsible for the progress we have seen, but it played a formative role. No small number of our cultural problems had been exacerbated by bad policy; better policy helped ameliorate them. Along the way, it also helped shape moral sentiments for the better.

We have also learned that progress can happen faster than many people thought possible. Despite the good case made by those who believe that diffidence, skepticism, and self-limitation are the prerequisites of sound policymaking, sometimes what is needed is a bold break with the past. There will always be unintended consequences, but even these need not always be for the worse, and the prospect of such unintended consequences should not paralyze us from taking action. Guided by a modest sense of possibility, and by realistic notions of the limits of politics, reform can succeed. Daniel P. Moynihan, right about many things, was wrong in predicting without qualification that the “horror” of welfare reform would bring “loathsome” consequences.

And we have learned the trap of fatalism. In the late 1990’s, Paul Weyrich, a founding leader of the “religious Right,” circulated a public letter declaring that America was “caught up in a cultural collapse of historic proportions, a collapse so great that it simply overwhelms politics.” In the face of this descent into “something approaching barbarism,” Weyrich urged people of faith to adapt a “strategy of separation.” “We need,” he wrote, “some sort of quarantine.”

But no such separation or quarantine is possible; there is no safe harbor to which to retreat. Nor is one necessary. Problems that may seem intractable at one moment—violence and disorder, harmful and reckless conduct—can yield, and yield quickly, to the right policies and to a determined citizenry. Human problems, products of human failings, can be addressed at least in part by human ingenuity.

Culture itself, finally, exhibits an ebb and flow as surely as economies pass through cycles of ups and downs. In The Great Disruption (1999), Francis Fukuyama cited historical examples of societies undergoing periods of moral decline followed by periods of moral recovery. In our case, too, he argued, the aftermath of the cultural breakdown of the 1960’s had already triggered and was now giving way to a reassessment and recovery of social and moral norms. Such “re-norming” will not occur in every social class all at once; in some instances it may take hold in one stratum but not in another. That is partial progress, but progress nevertheless.

Despite persistent anomalies and backslidings, some species of cultural re-norming certainly seems to have been occurring in this country over the past decade-and-a-half, and it is fascinating to observe in whose hearts its effects have registered most strongly. In attitudes toward education, drugs, abortion, religion, marriage, and divorce, the current generation of teenagers and young adults appears in many respects to be more culturally conservative than its immediate predecessors. To any who may have written off American society as incorrigibly corrupt and adrift, these young people offer a powerful reminder of the boundless inner resources still at our disposal, and of our constantly surprising national resilience.