“I’ve Got to Admit, It’s Getting Better”

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.

About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
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7 Responses to “I’ve Got to Admit, It’s Getting Better”

  1. alexbpop says:

    That was a great post. I’ve pondered that strange contradiction as well, that leftists bash the past at every chance they get, yet at the same time launch movements such as local farming and organic food based on an unstated assumption that anything simple and old-timey must be good. Of course many simple and old-timey things are good, but some folks don’t seem to realize that the social structure which allows those things does not arise naturally. It requires work, determination, and cooperation.

  2. Severian says:

    I’ve long maintained that the left’s fantasy is “neo-feudalism” (I’m informed that at least some leftists explicitly called their program this at some point, but I can’t provide a reference). They call what they want “equality,” but it’s really legibility — they want to be able to discern a person’s status relative to themselves at a glance. On this view, PC is just a modernized version of the sumptuary laws — he wears North Face, she shops at Whole Foods, they have a Greenpeace sticker on the Prius…. they’re one of us. This explains their very strange line of attack whenever a minority strays off the reservation (as it were) — Sarah Palin “isn’t a real woman;” Thomas Sowell and Clarence Thomas “aren’t really black,” etc. I bet that if you swap things like “supports green energy” for “hears confession,” the average leftist’s dream job is almost exactly the job description of a village priest in France, circa 1210.

    • Anonymous Coward says:

      You mean the average leftist’s dream job is psychotherapy.

    • Huck says:

      Where does the rightwing’s view that leftists “aren’t really and truly Americans” fit into this “strange line of attacK” so popular with conservatives these days? Let’s not forget that Obama’s protestations that his story is an American story, a story only possible in this country of freedom and opportunity, are met with constant and chronic charges that he is a muslim Kenyan anti-colonialist alien communist fifth-columnist.

      Liberalism is not and never has been antithetical to the value and dignity of the individual, the local, and the traditional. The only things about the past that leftists “bash” are the things about the past that should be “bashed.” And, in fact, it’s perhaps the reach (maybe even sometimes the overreach) of progressives that drag conservatives reluctantly towards change for the better. And I will readily admit that this conservative reluctance offers a needed temperance to the proclivity towards overreach that at times accompanies liberal “progressivism.”

      The America we live in today, for all its faults and foibles, is a better and freer place than 10-50-100 years ago, as any woman, person of color, or gay person will tell you. And if any white male Christian begs to differ with this, I’d ask for some specific evidence of this and not just some assertion arising from the discomfort that comes from the elimination of privilege that makes our modern world a better and freer place for all. The liberal movement, for all its own problems, has been instrumental in this change.

  3. Severian says:

    Where does the rightwing’s view that leftists “aren’t really and truly Americans” fit into this “strange line of attacK” so popular with conservatives these days?

    Prior to 9/11, “I’m a citizen of the world” was a standard part of liberal self-congratulation. As was lots of stuff about “loving the America that could be.” In fact, I believe both of these, in barely attenuated form, were key planks in Obama’s campaign platform.

    I trust you can see how these are different from asserting that Sarah Palin (unmistakably a biological female) “isn’t a real woman” and Clarence Thomas/ Thomas Sowell/ Walter Williams (all of whom are clearly African-American and experienced Jim Crow firsthand) “aren’t really black.”

    • Huck says:

      Severian – Yes, I see the difference; but what I don’t see is any evidence that liberals, especially prominent ones that are leaders within the liberal movement, go around claiming that Sarah Palin “isn’t a real woman” or that Clarence Thomas/Thomas Sowell/Walter Williams “aren’t really black.” That is a figment of a fevered conservative imagination. You want to believe that mainstream liberalism holds such views, but you’ll probably only be able to point to wack-nut fringe anarchist nobodies who make such claims. Whereas the notion of a “real American” that excludes leftists is espoused often and regularly by prominent conservatives and rightwing movement leaders.

      As for the “citizen of the world” and “loving an America that could be” mantras, I fail to see what’s so offensive about these claims. Being a “citizen of the world” in the sense of encouraging a kind of global human solidarity, cross-cultural awareness and understanding, and an embrace and defense of a shared set of fundamental human rights both is a good thing in itself and also doesn’t preclude identifying as a Patriotic citizen of the United States. And as for acknowledging that the future always promises a better world for us and our children, what’s so wrong with always aspiring towards an American that could be better than it already is? Again, holding such a view doesn’t mean that America now is necessarily bad, but rather simply acknowledging that in spite of how far along we’ve come, there is always room for even more improvement. Hoping for an America that could be is, in my view, a much better orientation than pining for an America that was — especially since the nostalgia for the America that was must also necessarily include the entire package of what was. Again, I don’t know of anyone, liberal or conservative, who would really want to throw us back to the halcyon days of the Ozzie and Harriet 1950s if it means also going back to its concomitant Jim Crow orthodoxies.

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