December 05, 2003

That Old-Time Morality v. the New Cultural Reality

SHEILA O'MALLEY has written a quite fascinating essay examining what one might call the social outlook of old-fashioned traditionalists like us here at The Rant. Given the nature of the essay, it is perhaps inevitable that there are political overtones to it; but as we see it, such overtones should be considered ultimately superfluous to the deeper questions which Ms O'Malley addresses.

Those deeper questions deal with the very bedrock upon which our society is built: whether we can return to our glorious post-war past; what the impact of societal change will be; how we react to art and deal with human sexuality; and the role of Government vis-a-vis the individual. At their core, such things are not partisan issues.

They are, however, extremely important issues. For if certain points of view carry the day, it may very well mean fundamental changes in how America operates as a society. Undoubtedly, some of these changes would be very much for the best; but many of them might not be. As such, the wheat must be separated from the chaff.

That said, we find it unfortunate that Ms O'Malley paints traditionalists with such a wide brush in her essay. The end result is a skewed portrait, we think, of the traditionalist mindset. But let us present her arguments, for she deserves to have them presented in her own voice. We would also strongly encourage readers to read her essay in its entirety.

In any event -- Ms O'Malley writes:

I do not think there is a past which is so glorious that we should "go back to it". The very concept of "going back" is so ... anti-reality ... that I cannot get behind it, and I cannot countenance it.

If you're a human being, if you are connected to yourself as a part of the human race, then you know, in your heart, that you can never "go back". There is no "back there". You cannot halt change. And wanting to halt change - on a political level, or on a human level - is a sign of dysfunction. Sorry, but it is. It's like an 80 year old woman, wearing deep purple lipstick, dressing in skintight clothes, trying to pick up 24 year old boys. I mean, God bless her for trying! But she has not halted the clock - she cannot halt the clock no matter what she does - she is still 80 years old. You cannot go back in time.

I have a friend who constantly romanticizes what it was to be a child, or a teenager ... "Wouldn't it be great to go back to such a simpler time?"

To my view, she is ignoring huge chunks of reality in order to say that. I say to her, "I don't know ... In retrospect I may be able to laugh at what I thought was tragic when I was 7 years old, or 14 years old ... but at the time, while I was in it, I remember feeling all KINDS of emotions, not just happy ones. I remember feeling insecure, unhappy, scared, intimidated ... I don't want to 'go back' to that time ... because it wasn't all good."

We think this is a particularly acute point, because it is certainly true that not only can one not return to the Good Old Days, the Good Old Days were not as good as we remember them. It is human nature to excise the bad when thinking of the good.

But do traditionalists really want to go back to the halcyon days of old? No more than we would want to permanently move to Maui or St. Martin or some other vacation destination. They are wonderful places to visit, of course, but one would probably not want to live there; it's not home. Even back in the Good Old Days, a fellow named Rod Serling made some quality television examining how folks then wanted to go back to what they considered the Good Old Days.

That said, it is foolish to throw the baby out with the bathwater. For we have lost sight of so many good things that our old society had in plenty: a greater reverence for religion; greater clarity in terms of defining right and wrong; a greater willingness to accept personal responsibility. We have not lost sight of those things entirely, of course; but things have changed. There is no denying that.

To fervently hope that we, as a society, take the good things from the past and really apply them to the future should not be considered foolishness. It should rather be considered thoughtful. And, as we have no doubt that folks who do not think like us in many respects would hold a similar mindset, why is it legitimate for them but not for us?

But Ms O'Malley continues:

Here's a quote from the article I link to above: "Conservatives once defined themselves as “standing athwart history yelling ‘Stop!’” This antiquated thinking doesn’t suit (if it ever did) young generations who see the future as promising more freedom, more prosperity, and more potential. We don’t want to freeze progress; we want to unbridle it. " ...

... That's why people like me, people not so easily classified, people who think artists should have the freedom to express themselves however the hell they want to, and then let the PUBLIC decide whether or not they like it, people who love art, and culture, and who live on the fringes of normal society, want absolutely NOTHING to do with the social conservatives who try to push this conservative agenda.

Left unsaid in the quote Ms O'Malley references is a particular time element. The quote in question comes from none other than William F. Buckley Jr, who was writing in the Fifties. An examination of the near-collapse of traditional culture during the late Sixties and Seventies shows that this was by no means an unreasonable position for Mr Buckley to hold.

Today, of course, we as a society are in the opposite position we were then. No one in American life today still seriously believes in many of the tenets held dear during what Heinlein called the Crazy Years. No one still thinks Communism is a good idea; no one thinks fondly of wage and price controls and fuel rationing and pleather and the unlimited welfare state. Everyone in authority considers these ideas as outdated as leaded gasoline. We all may have different ideas of what progress entails and how to proceed in future. But, as we said above, those differences are irrelevant to the topic at hand. What we can say is that as a society, we've moved on from that particular way of thinking.

But then we have Ms O'Malley's paragraph.

We were not under the impression that we here at The Rant, traditionalists though we are, were openly hostile to the arts and modern culture. Indeed, we can assure Ms O'Malley that we are appreciate of both things. We enjoy modern music, even going so far as to enjoy rap music.

That admission may very well cost us our membership down at the Old Fashioned Club, but we do recognize the talent embodied in the music of Eminem, and also musicians such as Dr Dre and the late Tupac Shakur. Really. (We think a lot of rap music is patently miserable too, but that is simply because much of it is incompetent rambling, solely dedicated to glorifying irresponsible sexual practices and the feckless purchase of designer goods and other depreciable assets).

In any event, we would argue that liking such music is not incompatible with the shizzle our nizzle dribble down in VA. Word.

But let us move on. After a bit, Ms O'Malley continues on about the subject of art. At one point, she admonishes traditionalists to not confuse propaganda with good art. That is a fair enough point, but our question is this: is art for art's sake always a truly good thing?

For there is rather a lot of bad art out there -- puerile, blasphemous, wretched stuff in every medium of the field. We do not disagree, obviously, with the idea that artists as a class should be allowed to "express" themselves -- even if some would probably be better served by a lot of intensive technical training in their fields. But shouldn't we value good art over bad?

Are we traditionalists supposed to clap and cheer just because some third-rate hack happens to find art in -- for instance -- throwing dung on a representation of the Virgin Mary? Are we supposed to acquiesce in silence if we do not care for something patently offensive? It is one thing if an artist puts such art on private display, but must we as a society give acclaim and backing in our museums to art that is no more than worthless juvenalia?

Finally, we would note that at the end of Ms O'Malley's article, she writes a few blanket generalizations; things that we find astounding taken at their face value. For instance, the ideas that traditionalists are against a clean environment and against the works of Madeline L'Engle --

Now that's frustrating. It really is. And we're just going to leave it at that.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at December 5, 2003 12:07 AM | TrackBack