I would have given this book 4 stars as I found Barzun's coverage of the first 400 years of western life to be quite illuminating. Like previous reviewers I have to take a star off for sloppy editing. I originaly thought that Barzun was trying to make a point about how there is too much emphasis on grammer and how 'Perfection increases as inspiration decreases'p.74. Some of the mistakes can be quite unintentionaly amusing, for instance the constant mis-spelling of the word 'rhyming' by the word 'riming'. But major gaffs such as 'when its sequel (WWII) broke out in 1940' and 'The East Timorese nearly destroyed Indonesia' shows not just a lack of knowledge about history but also of current affairs.
When Barzun bemoans the rise in the crime rate and in the prison population, he is talking largely about an American problem. Crime rates in Canada are significantly lower and the UK and the Irish Republic manage to maintain largely unarmed police forces. Something we could hardly do if we suffered from epidemic bouts of criminal activity. Then there's the laughable assertion that in the 19th century, crime was a rather jovial affair where cops and criminals knew each other, playing a high stakes game and 'killing had a clear motive'p.696. Just look around the world today and you'll see that killing has never had so many clear motives. Terrorists don't suffer from a Freudian death wish or notions about the 'absurdity' of the human condition.
Most of Barzun's laments about the decline of Western culture seem to be focused entirely on the rise of the welfare state and the 'Great Switch' from liberalism. The doctrine of which is the best government is that which governs least. However when it comes to geography and population Barzun makes a great switch to the opposing view, the best government is that which governs most! For him the current vogue of independant cultural identities seeking independant political states is a thorn in the side of the idea of developing a common culture. Yet for the first 350 years of the period covered we are talking about the culture of mainly propertied white males. Nothing wrong with that, propertied white males have done more than any other minority to shape the world we live in today. But they are just that, a minority. Once the seeds of education have spread worldwide, there is no reason why a working-class black woman should not demand to frame the world through her experience and on her terms just as much as a propertied white male does.
Barzun seems annoyed that the idea of EMANCIPATION that white males have argued over and fought for for 500 years are now being taken up by non-whites all over the world. Even within predominantly white cultures generic nation state terms such as 'British' can seem oppressive and for the most part mis-leading. The constant mis-use of the term 'British' to mean 'English' is a case in point. 'British' has traditionaly stood for English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh.
The ideas and attitudes which he says have shaped our age, Compassion, Irreverence and Creativity, have produced some of the greatest popular art of the post-war world (The Beatles anyone?). What is most prominant in Barzun's tome however is his passionate embrace of liberal economics. Compassion for instance 'requires a constant supply of the poor and the weak, instead of encouraging the healthful and reliant' p.621. These could be the exact sentiments of Charles Trevelyan, head of the relief effort of the largest humanitarian disaster in the 19th century 'Occident', the Irish potato famine, which is mystifyingly overlooked in Barzun's thesis. The fact that in the western part of the richest, most powerful, most industrialized, most democratic and most 'cultured' nation in the world, one million people starved to death, is enough for most to question the benevolance of large nation states and the 'human' benefits of lassiez-faire.
The moneterist policies of Thatcher and Reagan also get ignored. Since both these 'radical' leaders came to power in 1979 and 1980 respectively, the welfare state in the Anglo-American world of which Barzun is most familiar, has been stripped of its coffers year after year. With Bush's recent tax cut measures, you can be sure that the most expendable department of federal funding will be the arts.
The New Left and the counter-culture of the '60's has been described as 'the last gasp of the western soul', searching for some sense of community. It was the unrestrained free-marketeers who have lowered the cultural levels for all. This is their world. The radical free-marketeers believe nothing should get in the way of making a buck. This ideology culminated in Thatcher's infamous 1987 statement 'There is no such thing as society'. George W. Bush has a much greater understanding of Marx than Jacques Barzun. He understands that history isn't moved by things (as Barzun misunderstands Marx) but by material needs. The time and effort put into securing the oil fields in Iraq (base), while the museums and galleries of Baghdad (superstructure) were largely ignored is testament to his view of history.