A Theory of Mass Culture by Dwight Macdonald – Summary Essay

The following is a summary of A Theory of Mass Culture by Dwight Macdonald. He was a mid-20th century cultural critic.

High culture and mass culture are properly separated. Mass culture is the proper term as opposed to popular culture. Why? Because something can be popular without having been calibrated to a mass audience.

Political democracy and popular education broke the elite hold on culture. Business took advantage by using new techniques of cheap production to serve a fresh crowd of consumers. Modern technology like movies and television are particularly well suited to distribution at scale.

Kitschthe German word for mass cultureextracts from high culture. Eventually kitsch begins to draw on itself. Folk Art preceded mass culture as the common peoples culture and was “from below.” In contrast, mass culture is dictated from above and geared to passive consumers. Mass culture demolished the wall separating high from low and integrated the masses into a degraded form of high culture.

High and low culture now compete intellectually which is absurd and chaotic. High culture is threatened by the brutal overwhelming quantity of kitsch. Kitsch “predigests art for the spectator.” Everything is mixed and scrambled together, destroying value judgement. After all, judgement would imply “discrimination” and mass culture refuses to discriminate. “All is grist to the mill.”

Academicism was an institutional artistic movement that attempted to compete with mass culture “by imitation.” In contrast, the Avant Garde refuses to compete. The height of Avant Gardism was 1890-1930 when “bourgeois values” were challenged both politically and culturally. The “chronic state of war”including “Cold”does not encourage rebellion in art or politics. Since its 1890-1930 high point the Avant Garde has been watered down with mass elements.

There is nothing more vulgar than sophisticated kitsch. The advent of sound film blurred the lines between Hollywood and Broadway to the detriment of both. Chaplin was Folk Art. Technological division of labour ended genuine artistic authorship as it fragmented aesthetic unity. A deep and shared cultural tradition can maintain aesthetic unity but the USA does not have one. The culture worker is just as alienated as the labourer.

In the age of mass culture children access grownup media and adults consume kid’s media. “Momism”sentimental worship of motheris all too common in this context. Peter Pans result from the cult of youth.

The mid-20th century saw the rise of entertainers as “idols of consumption” in contrast to an earlier era personified by “idols of production.” Detective stories went form starring “scientific” characters like Sherlock Holmes to featuring bumbling incompetents. The masses don’t understand science and interpret the superficial aesthetics of sciencelaboratories and white coatsas Frankenstein-style “horror.”

Critics of mass culture don’t realize that it is not consumed by “people” but rather “masses.” Organization as a mass means loss of identity and atomization. Sheer scale is a challenge as there are simply too many people. In genuine communities there is a mutually beneficial relationship between the individual and the wider group. Not so with mass man, he doesn’t have a community at all.

Click here for another summary essay criticizing mass culture.

Of Happiness and of Despair We Have No Measure by Ernest van den Haag – Summary Essay

The following is a summary of an essay by Ernest van den Haag. He was a mid-20th century sociologist and cultural critic.

Mass media alienates people from personal experience. When someone turns to the mass media out of loneliness and boredom, isolation and addiction result. Mass media are inescapable and therefore an invasion of privacy. No matter where we are, mass media take us “somewhere else” and the outcome is loneliness in the company of others.

Mass media homogenizes because it is aimed at the “average.” The “stream” of mass media lessens capacity for experience and is simultaneously “invasion” and “evasion.” Parents tranquilize their kids with mass media, especially TV. The result is an early cheapening of taste.

While art “deepens perception,” pop culture leaves one vaguely discontented and is a “substitute gratification.” Substitute gratifications prevent real ones. The “din” of pop culture represses individuality. Repression with pop culture creates “insatiable longing.”

Pop culture provokes emotion without involving “the whole individual.” It bypasses reality and makes ultimate satisfaction impossible. The boredom that follows means that even when real life “events” occur they are simply distractions.

Capacity for genuine experience is ruined and people with “no life” are the outcome. These empty characters look for the “inside story of others lives” and other vicarious trifles. In sum, pop culture and mass media distract from “the human predicament,” blocking deep individuation.

Arron Banks’ Leave.eu Brexit social media campaign

Arron Banks is one of the biggest political donors in British history. He funded and ran Leave.eu, the insurgent right-wing Brexit campaign. Here he is talking about that organizations successful use of social media:

“Within our office we had an office setup that was for Leave.eu. It was a call center and we were getting a tremendous number of phone calls from our.. obviously the website, from Twitter, from Facebook and from the whole thing and as part of that what we had was a creative department that basically created Facebook tiles and Twitter.. and one of the reasons we were so successful as you can appreciate in politics, we were able to create some of the stuff that was in real time and was topical, quicker than anybody else. So effectively what we would do was take something that was being talked about and turn it into relevant material and I think that’s much more relevant to how you get traction on social media. You know we have one video that had fourteen million views. If I look through the campaign statistics, we had more traction than Labour, Conservative, Liberal social media put together”

Toronto #2: A Mayoral Debate Including John Tory and Jennifer Keesmaat


(This piece is my original coverage of the first Toronto mayoral debate in 2018. The debate in question was of little consequence and no one read what I wrote at the time. That said, my blog post was probably the best thing written about the event as it succinctly identified the fundamental dynamics of the race very early on. If you want independent/critical insight into the Toronto context don’t hesitate to get in touch.)

The debate was supposed to be arts-focused but instead the main themes were affordability, funding cuts and transit -with arts used as a proxy.

Volunteers from each campaign doled out literature in front of the venue. John Tory had the most sidewalk-support, but the far-right candidate for mayor -Faith Goldy- had a much larger clique than Jennifer Keesmaat, Toronto’s former chief planner and Tory’s main competition.

Goldy almost certainly has more support in Toronto than some of the candidates that were included in the debate but has been sidelined due to her white nationalist leanings. She would go on to interrupt the event after the participants were introduced but was quickly escorted off stage.

As the debate wore on it became clear how the dynamics of the race favour the poll-leading incumbent, John Tory. He seemed relaxed in his status as the consensus right-of-centre, low-tax candidate.

Keesmaat jabbed at Tory over the unaffordability of rental housing and “Smarttrack” -the transit plan that was the centerpiece of Tory’s campaign in 2014. Tory ignored the first subject and dealt with the second effectively, saying Keesmaat had supported the plan when she was chief planner.

Keesmaat’s other line of attack highlighted the challenges Toronto will face with the newly elected Conservative government of Ontario headed by premier Doug Ford. Keesmaat said “you can’t fight Conservative cuts with a conservative mayor.” Tory responded with a warning about a “state of war” with other levels of government.

Tory intends to paint Keesmaat as a chaos candidate who will set back progress on transit and infrastructure. Meanwhile Keesmaat is attempting to portray Tory as a weak leader -a “ditherer”- in contrast to herself, a change candidate with “a clear plan and a clear path”.

Tory is exactly where he wants to be. At mayoral debates -if the current cast of characters stands- he will play foil to three of the other four candidates who are left of centre. Tory emphasizes a “balanced approach” while literally balancing the candidates ideologically.

For whatever reason -perhaps the crowd, the timing or their being off-topic- Keesmaat’s pointed barbs against Tory didn’t seem to land. In general, Keesmaat faces an uphill battle to appeal to Torontonians across the city, particularly in the suburbs where her “urbanist” politics are less a natural fit.

Saron Gebresellassi -a human rights lawyer and the most left-wing candidate- closed the debate with a strong final statement which was in part an attack on Keesmaat’s plan to build 100,000 units of affordable housing at 80% of market rate. Still unaffordable according to Gebresellassi, woe is Keesmaat.

Toronto #1: Scarborough is the Key to Toronto Politics


Scarborough is the key to Toronto politics. Scarborough voters are simply different, they have an unrepressed Scarborough identity. People in Scarborough vote based on what they think is best for Scarborough. In Scarborough, there’s an extra element of suburban isolation.

Scarborough is the Quebec of Toronto. When asked what city they live in, people in Scarborough will consistently say or write “Scarborough” rather than “Toronto.” Scarborough shows that Toronto politics is coloured by pre-amalgamation identities.

In 2006 every ward in Scarborough went for David Miller, in 2010 every ward in Scarborough went for Rob Ford. Those two politicians are not terribly similar, but Scarborough went all in for both. What Miller and Ford had in common was a populist image, hence Scarborough.

Scarborough has picked the winner in 4 out of 6 Toronto municipal elections. If you’re running for mayor of Toronto you don’t necessarily have to win Scarborough, but you have to get a lot of votes there.

Because Scarborough is the key to Toronto politics, something labeled “the Scarborough Subway” had to go ahead no matter how ill-advised. Anyone with political aspirations at the “megacity,” GTA or provincial level has to keep Scarborough in mind.

Scarborough dwarfs East York, York and Etobicoke in population, and has approximately the same number of people as North York (630,000 in Scarborough vs. 670,000 in North York as of 2016). But -and this is key- Scarborough is geographically the biggest of the pre-amalgamation cities and the least accessible by transit, meaning you have to work harder to get votes there.

Scarborough is home to the most “people of colour” of all the pre-amalgamation cities as well as a substantial number of first-generation immigrants. Particularly at the municipal level, these voters are more “up for grabs” than white voters and longer-standing residents.

Scarborough has an underdog/working class identity. Scarborough is the Liverpool of Toronto. In Toronto politics, you can count on concerns about Scarborough getting its “fair share” coming into play. Some in Toronto mock Scarborough, but if you want to win in Toronto politics you have to love Scarborough.

Western Politics Explained Through Hair

closeup photo of woman on blue textile
(From May 2017)

Boris Johnson, Rob Ford, Doug Ford, Marine Le Pen, Marion Le Pen, Geert Wilders, Donald Trump, Kellyanne Conway and Tomi Lahren.

What do all these figures have in common? They all have blond hair. It’s a matter of “blonde populism.”

From an elite snob perspective, blonde hair is lower class, especially the “bleach blonde” look sported by many on the above list. Blonde populism is an aesthetics of resentment and the underdog.

Kellie Leitch is the most Trump-like candidate for the leadership of the Conservative Party. She likes to talk about her “severely normal” supporters, and guess what? She’s blonde now and wasn’t before.

On “the other side” we’re witnessing the rise of “he’s got great hair though” politics. Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron both have nice heads of brunette hair. It’s Betty and Veronica.

There’s more to it than just hair though, Macron and Trudeau are classically attractive, quite unlike the men in the first group. They’re also very young to have reached the heights they have in politics, and supremely adept socially.

My aim is not to compliment Macron and Trudeau, I’m not their biggest fan. But they make sense as an answer to the first group at the aesthetic and personal level.

And finally, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Jeremy Corbyn and Jean-Luc Mélenchon. It’s barely a spectrum of hair, going from “salt and pepper” to full “silver ponytail” very quickly. At a certain level, who cares? At another level, the left could use some younger leaders.