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November 1, 2011 / Sandy Asher

THOSE WERE THE DAYS — AND SO ARE THESE

Once upon a time, Americans were soft spoken, polite, and well-informed.  They tucked their shirts in before they went outside, and donned hats and gloves before venturing into town.  They kept a civil tongue in their heads.  They treated their teachers, elders, and one another with respect.  They attended lectures, concerts and the theater.  They read newspapers, magazines, and books.   And they taught their children that George Washington never told a lie.

These days, restaurants, street corners, cars, trains, buses, and airports are used as individual broadcasting stations from which the chronically connected blast forth the banality of their daily existence, often punctuated with profanities.  When polled, most people say they consider this behavior rude – but not in the case of their own conversations.  Boorish narcissism seems to have reached new heights.

Or is it that people have always been rude, but cellphone conversations make their lack of consideration for others more obvious?   We’ve had sidewalk spitters as long as we’ve had sidewalks.  The young used to haul boom boxes around instead of listening to iPods.  Phone rudeness is nothing new.  People who remember party lines recall neighbors who listened in on private calls as if they were radio shows.

No, we’re assured by experts, things are definitely getting worse.   Intellectuals, academicians, and writers bemoan the fast-deteriorating life of the mind in American culture and the corresponding coarsening of our society.  They find signs of decay everywhere: public indifference towards learning, fixation on the trivial, unawareness of—and even pride in—ignorance.  Citizens, they claim, cannot distinguish among rumors, lies, propaganda, and facts.   “For all too many Americans who dozed through American History 101,” claims Kenneth David in Don’t Know Much About History,” the Mayflower Compact might as well be a small car . . . Reconstruction has something to do with silicone implants.”

Naysayers frequently contrast twenty-first-century Americans with the “Greatest Generation,” selfless men and women who won World War II and then built a prosperous postwar society without boasting of their achievements and sacrifices.  Praise for the heroes and hard workers of that time is richly deserved.

But were the good old days really that good?   If Washington never even chopped down that cherry tree (and he didn’t), how does that make today look by comparison?

Let’s see.

Today’s culture critics are hardly the first to complain about the atrophy of American intellectual life, its philistine culture, the loss of its moral underpinnings, and the vacuity of middle-class life.  What makes them unique is that they are the first of their kind to declare hopelessness about the situation ever changing for the better.

In Letters from an American Farmer (1782), a Frenchman named Jean de Crevecoeur defined an American as he “who leaving behind him all prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced.”   He applauded Americans’ lack of reverence for the classical education received by the antidemocratic European aristocracy.  De Crevecoeur later became a U.S. citizen.

Transcendentalists in the 1830s and 1840s lambasted the philistinism that came in the wake of commercial and industrial development. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s goal in promoting the cultivation of the mind and the divine spark within was to offset the materialism he noted all around him.  The same could be said of his contemporary and disciple Henry David Thoreau and the latter’s Walden Pond musings:  “Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.”

French traveler and observer Alexis de Tocqueville worried in Democracy in America (1848) that social and cultural life in the United States was dull, insipid, and less brilliant than Europe’s.  Its citizens did not “recognize signs of incontestable greatness, or the superiority of their fellows,” and “needed no books to teach them philosophic methods, having found it in themselves.” Equality among citizens “distracted them from speculative inquiries” into greater minds than their own and led them to the belief that one man’s opinion was as good as another’s.

For historian Frederick Jackson Turner, the closing of the frontier in the 1890s posed a threat to toughness, resourcefulness, and individuality, quintessential qualities of the pioneers who built American democracy. It was a place where a good map was worth a thousand books, and refined tenderfoots need not apply.   In the words of Abraham Lincoln’s cousin Dennis Hanks, “Looks didn’t count in them days, no how.  It was strength an’ work an’ daredevil.”

Implicit in criticisms of the ways things are is nostalgia for the way things were.  Contemporary social critic Susan Jacoby misses the middlebrow culture she grew up in, a culture that ran from the mid-nineteenth century through the early 1960s, and presumably offered a portal to something more elevated – high culture.  This was a time when arbiters of taste—such as the intellectual Dwight Macdonald—promoted reading the great books of the Western world as a means toward self-improvement.  Macdonald distinguished between high culture and mass culture, sometimes referred to as “popular culture.” In an essay published in 1953 called “A Theory of Mass Culture,” he disdained all art, music, and literature aimed at average people, comparing Life Magazine, pop music, Norman Rockwell’s paintings, and Mickey Spillane mysteries to chewing gum.  

Susan Jacoby blames the current incurable age of unreason to intertwined ignorance and anti-rationalism “aggressively promoted by everyone, from politicians to media executives.” A mutant and lethal virus keeps “a public in thrall to the serpent promising effortless enjoyment from the fruit of the tree of infotainment.” The pervasiveness of the assault against reason means “the nation’s memory and attention span may have already sustained so much damage that they cannot be revived by the best efforts of America’s best minds.”     

The good old days, when middlebrow aspirations to high culture reigned, were also the height of the McCarthy witch hunts against communists, who had supposedly infiltrated the government and other basic American institutions. Hollywood screenwriters and directors, along with university professors, authors, playwrights, and others, were subjected to harassment and forced to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee.  They were accused, often falsely, of left-leaning political flirtations in their youth or of assisting communists or of being communist party members themselves.  On pain of being blacklisted and barred from employment, they were goaded to name names of other “disloyal Americans” they knew or associated with.  Reputations were destroyed, along with hundreds of careers whether or not those called to testify had any connection to communism.  “Dangerous” books were purged from schools, public libraries, and American embassies

These were also times when the strict conformity of “organization men” in “grey flannel suits,” sexism, infidelity, ruthlessness, and (not surprisingly) alcoholism pervaded corporate culture (as superbly shown in the TV series Mad Men).  Suburban man sacrificed individuality to a job he hated to buy a more expensive house for his family and a better brand of gin.  Young women who attended college were encouraged to earn their “MRS” degrees – that is, find educated husbands with greater earning power – and went on to become coffee klatch-attending wives on tranquilizers and antidepressants.

Memories are ever-shifting clouds, and they tend to be shaded by the emotions they evoke, including the ardor of youth, hope and idealism.  The past seems better simply because we were younger then – not only healthier, with more to look forward to, but shielded from the troubles fomenting around us. Reminiscences may say more about the age of those doing the recalling than the unadorned reality of the events themselves.

It’s a quintessential part of the make-up of American intellectuals, academicians, and writers to bemoan the low level of our culture.  It has always been their role to play.  It’s true that we Americans hang onto the commoner’s fascination with royalty, especially pretty princesses.  It’s true that we have an on-going tradition of eating beans from a can and farting around the campfire.  And, yes, those loud, inane, and profane cellphone conversations ARE annoying.   As John Adams once wrote to Thomas Jefferson, “Our American chivalry is the worst in the world.  It has no laws, no bounds, no definitions, it seems to be all a caprice.”

But there’s no need to mourn the entirety of our American culture as if it suddenly became lost for all eternity.  Good magazines, newspapers, and books are still being read.  We can download almost every great book ever written and much more from the Internet for free – and millions of us are doing that.  We attend lectures, concerts, and theater in record numbers.  National Public Radio and even “the vast wasteland” of television offer us a bevy of thoughtful programming.  Does this sound like the end of civilization?

And we still get dressed up to go out on the town.  When we feel like it and in whatever manner we choose.  We may go to the opera in a tux or in jeans.  That’s our American way.  Come on, were the powdered wigs and corsets of old any more sensible than today’s tattoos and six-inch stilettos? 

When we lay the not so good parts of the good old days alongside the not so good parts of today, we see both in a new perspective.   It may not always be a bright “morning in America,” but neither is it always just another cloudy day.

 

SOME SOURCES AND RESOURCES

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1848)

Richard Hofstadler, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1962)

Lynn Truss, Talk to the Hand: The Utter Bloody Rudeness of the World Today, or Six Good Reasons to Stay Home and Bolt the Door (2005)

Susan Jacoby, The Age of American Unreason (2008)

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12 Comments

Leave a Comment
  1. robink336 / Nov 1 2011 1:14 am

    “Come on, were the powdered wigs and corsets of old any more sensible
    than today’s tattoos and six-inch stilettos?” Great analogy, great article! Thanks, I’m sharing.

    • Harvey Asher / Nov 1 2011 2:31 pm

      Thanks for the kind words, Robin. Sharing is good!

      Harvey

  2. Moses Goldberg / Nov 1 2011 2:50 pm

    Yep, human nature hasn’t changed a bit! Thanks for reminding us.

    Moses

    • Harvey Asher / Nov 1 2011 7:31 pm

      For better or worse, Moses. Thanks for stopping by.

      Harvey

  3. Fred Bortz / Nov 1 2011 3:01 pm

    Interesting perspective Harvey. Have you read Alone Together by Sherry Turkle, which discusses some of the same things about how over-connectedness leads to boorish behavior but also leads to interactions that would otherwise not happen? It’s a challenging book, and my published newspaper review is now online at http://www.scienceshelf.com/AloneTogether.htm (click the hotlink on my name).

    • Harvey Asher / Nov 1 2011 7:34 pm

      Thanks for the tip, Fred. I’ll be sure to look at your review.

      Harvey

  4. Judy Baughman / Nov 2 2011 3:41 am

    Wonderful, Harvey! Keep it up! If only the rest of the folks involved in so-called civil discourse could do it with your historical perspective and your actual civility. Thanks. Best to you and Sandy from Judy

    • Harvey Asher / Nov 2 2011 1:01 pm

      Great to hear from you, Judy. Thanks. Feel free to spread the word to anyone you think might want to get involved in a civil discussion. Best wishes back, from Sandy, too.

      Harvey

  5. Joan Carris / Nov 2 2011 4:50 pm

    Hi, Harvey. Even though I don’t know you, I do know your wife, and am always interested in what she has to say. Now I’m also interested in what YOU have to say. Your recalling of the McCarthy era, when some of my favorite writers were blacklisted–Dalton Trumbo, author of The Maltese Falcon (can’t think of his name now–it is sooo hard to be this old), really made me think. I believe that we are not worse off –an interesting idiom–than we were “before” some fondly-recalled time, but we are different. Ay, there’s the rub.
    Cheers! Joan

    • Harvey Asher / Nov 3 2011 3:29 pm

      Welcome aboard, Joan. The author you’re trying to think of is Dashiell Hammett.

      Circumstances are different, for sure. But it seems to me that the same kinds of problems recur, and human nature remains a constant.

      Harvey

  6. Meryl Baer / Nov 5 2011 10:32 pm

    A great read. We remember our past in a mostly positive light, but we were kids with limited perspective. Once we get past white-washed history and look at the real stories, we see real people dealing with real problems and see lots of shades of gray. Looking forward to next month’s installment (We Americans are impatient!)

    • Harvey Asher / Nov 6 2011 2:35 pm

      Thanks, Meryl.

      Yes, we’re impatient — and forgetful.

      I enjoy reading your blog posts, too.

      Harvey

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