The Beatles sang that, once upon a time, but were they right? As Ed Driscoll points out in a thoughtful essay on “The Paradox of the Nostalgic Progressive“, even folks on the Left seem filled with an attraction what Northrop Frye would have called a pastoral myth of a simpler, innocent time. I see it at home as well; remember the Spawn’s fascination with 1950s mainstream culture.
In some respects, things are better now — we aren’t standing outside some irretrievable cultural Eden, particularly if one is African American, gay, or a woman. These groups have more opportunities than they once had. Some of them fail to take advantage of those opportunities, but that’s true of any group.
But at the same time, the neo-Romantic efforts of the Left to do away with the unjust constraints of their society tossed a lot of babies out with the bathwater — and that wasn’t a Roe v. Wade reference, but there may be some justification to read it that way. Indeed, the popular culture grows ever more crass, ever more vulgar. From tattoos to Katy Perry’s songs, the culture seems increasingly willing to adopt the ethos of an allegedly more authentic lower class, those who would “keep it real.” Of course, we used to have terms for those who “kept it real” in something closer to a state of nature — barbarian, for instance. (Remember, the “noble savage” may be noble, but he is a savage nonetheless.)
Of course, in certain sectors of the culture, they may espouse such demotic activity while knowing they can always retreat to the safety of the same bourgeois comforts they left. Like French aristocrats playing at being shepherds, they don’t really have any skin in the game. If things get too vulgar, too “real”, they can return to their suburban/exurban homes (the “Belmonts” of Charles Murray) and socioeconomically homogeneous schools, even as they denounce those lifestyles in their art, and even as they undermine the social structures that provided those lifestyles.
It all reminds me of Chesterton’s famous anecdote of the fence.
In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”
We are reaping a society of torn-down fences, and only too late, even the demolition crew seems to realize the uses they had.
Now, this all may sound a bit Santorum-esque, a call for a return to some past values. Again, though, I believe that we should draw our fences, our boundaries, by choice, rather than fiat, and I believe I depart from his company there. I say all this knowing that I’ll almost always be disappointed. We make wrong choices; we demolish the fences without realizing what they’re keeping in or out. Nonetheless, we should at the very least be aware of what we have done, in the hope that we may not repeat or compound the errors we have already made.