The fact that their complaints circulated widely in the very midcult worlds Macdonald condemned was proof that trenchant criticism had found a place within the organs of mass culture. One is almost tempted to say that the middlebrow culture of yesteryear was a high-water mark.

The reality, of course, was never as rosy as much of it looks in retrospect. Cultural criticism in most American newspapers, even at its best, was almost always confined to a ghetto… From the start of the republic, Americans have had a profoundly ambivalent relationship to class and culture, as Richard Hofstadter famously observed. He was neither the first nor the last to notice this self-inflicted wound. As even the vastly popular science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov understood, “Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’”

The effort to insinuate more serious standards into the instruments of mass culture was always difficult, even when a rising middle class made possible the notion of increasing cultural sophistication… After all, the very idea of cultural and intellectual discrimination is regularly attacked for the sin of “snark,” and notions of authority and expertise are everywhere under siege.

Richard Schickel, the longtime film critic for Time magazine, writing in a 2007 op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, objected to the “hairy-chested populism” that increasingly dominates and enfeebles what passes for cultural commentary. “Criticism—and its humble cousin, reviewing—is not a democratic activity,” he insisted. “It is, or should be, an elite enterprise, ideally undertaken by individuals who bring something to the party beyond their hasty, instinctive opinion of a book (or any other cultural object). It is work that requires disciplined taste, historical and theoretical knowledge and a fairly deep sense of the author’s (or filmmaker’s or painter’s) entire body of work, among other qualities.” Sure, he seemed to be saying, let a hundred million opinions bloom; but let’s also acknowledge the truth that not all opinions are equal. In these matters, I, like Schickel, am a Leninist: Better fewer, but better.