A conservative article I once read, I can’t recall where, began by remarking that we really ought to put dates on conservatives. That is, what past era does the conservative in question consider the best example of How It Spoze To Be.
Joseph of Arimathea commented here a few days ago, asking, “Was Victorian and Edwardian England ideal for you? Bourgeois standards for most, with the good sense to look the other way while Oscar Wilde self-destructed?”
He was very close. My preferred era is from 1890-1955. I love the old miniseries of Brideshead Revisited, but I found it deeply ironic that the protagonist decided to reject his own time for its alleged materialism and corruption. I would literally give my right arm to live in the time of that novel. Waugh, it seems, was a medievalist. I accept that the medieval period was not the unmitigated nightmare progressives like to claim it was, but nor was it an era in which I would care to live.
I don’t argue that my preferred era is the ideal for humanity. In my ideal world, there would be numerous countries which roughly corresponded to different time periods. Medievalists could have their feudal dream, I could have my Edwardian idyll, perhaps we could have a Classical region, and so on.
One reason I prefer the era I do is the one Joseph mentioned. Few people cared about such ultimately trivial matters as a handful of decadent people getting up to assorted vices. Nowadays, vices (drugs, nonreproductive sex) have been politicized and used to destroy those bourgeois standards Joseph mentioned, forcing people who really should have better things to think about to pay attention to the hanky-panky of strangers. Back then, people who practiced a measure of discretion could get up to all sorts of things behind closed doors, so long as they didn’t wreck civilization or scare the horses. Today the mere idea of discretion causes good progressives to break out in hives, but as Florence King once said, “Hypocrisy is another name for civilization.” Good manners and good grooming were expected of everyone on a daily basis, to a level not found today in most churches.
Another reason is a purely emotional one: I respond powerfully to the aesthetic of that era, particularly Art Nouveau and Art Deco. I listen to Big Band music in my car, I eat off Ballerina Porcelain made in the Fifties, I watch black and white movies, I brush my hair with a Victorian-looking silver brush, I paint my face with Airspun face powder and Besame mascara (neither of which has changed their design since the 1930’s, nor do I see any reason that they should), I even wear a garter belt instead of panty hose. I have no use for the aesthetic of my own lifetime.
I don’t really believe that people were less materialistic before that. Indeed, they usually couldn’t afford to be; most people have spent most of human history trying to feed themselves. The moral and cultural collapse of the 1960s, which took centuries to work up to, is historically unique. Excluding the post-1960 era, I doubt that people in general were ever a great deal more or less spiritual from one time to another. Humans are still humans, and have needs of their bodies and their souls during all times.
It was in the late nineteenth century that technology began to really advance, and I like technology. I have no wish to fetch my water from a well, scrub my clothes against a washboard, or do the other backbreaking manual labor in which most human lifetimes have always been spent. Of course, I would likely have servants to do that for me, but I find that idea every bit as depressing. Some of the nuttier traditionalists have no interest in manual labor for themselves, but believe that it would be beneficial for the rabble. Granted it would be useful in preventing said rabble from listening to whatever statist snake oil is being promoted by carpetbaggers at the moment, but really, even for us reactionaries there is a line where the good of society has to yield to the rights of the individual, and sentencing most of mankind to a lifetime of drudgery so stupid people won’t join spurious religions and vote for slimeballs is definitely over that line.
It really gets my goat when people try to claim that it was moralistic crusades that ended this kind of drudgery. I can’t find the source now, but a few years ago a journalist asserted that if it weren’t for the heroism of journalists before him, we would still be having our chimneys cleaned by underfed, overworked children. Did he actually believe that? For most of my adult life I haven’t even had a chimney. There are reasons for this, such as “central heating” and “electric stoves”. Notice that “valiant newspaper writers” is not on this list. Some years back I moved into a house with a chimney, and when I hired a (grown) man to clean it, he did it with a mechanical contraption that didn’t even exist in the Victorian era. It was these inventions, this technology, that freed us from the necessity of sending children down into chimneys which only they were small enough to fit into. Similarly, it was the much-reviled Industrial Revolution which made the abolition of slavery and serfdom actually practicable for the first time in human history. Without machines, well, human societies need stuff in order to thrive, and making stuff is a lot of boring and unpleasant work that no one wants to do, and the temptation to press people into servitude to do it is, history tells us, irresistible. Even my own faith, revolutionary when its laws were first written down, nevertheless only dared to regulate slavery, not abolish it. (Thousands of years later American slave owners were to use this as their proof that God approved of slavery, though they blithely ignored the many rules He gave us concerning it.) I doubt that outright forbidding slavery in the ancient Fertile Crescent would have been even possible.
Mention of slavery leads me to another of the reasons I am drawn to this era. In my opinion, this is the time when we foolish mortals came the closest to getting the balance between individual rights and societal need right. Slavery had been abolished. Many will point to the continuing segregation and discrimination, but the fact remained that it was possible for people of any ethnicity to achieve and advance. At the same time, no one suggested that people whose ancestors had been oppressed were therefore exempt from society’s laws, whereas today, it is commonplace for news articles to suggest that nonwhite violent criminals are only helplessly lashing out because of all the terrible discrimination they endure. I heard that one a great deal after 9/11; one silly bint pleaded on her livejournal, “Americans, please pay attention to these people who are so desperate to be heard.” So desperate that they murder 3,000 innocent people – oh, excuse me, 3,000 little Eichmanns. It never occurred to our grandparents to react to Pearl Harbor by dumping ashes on their heads for having given the Japanese too little indulgence.
One thing that worries me about this is that the reverse racism of such absurdities is likely to inspire a resurgence of racism. Now that we have an American president who hates white people and clearly intends to pay off the “people of color” who elected him by taking away even more of our rights and property, I would say this is going to happen very soon. Most likely, all of the progress that has been made towards racial harmony will be lost.
But I am straying from my point, which is the balance of personal freedom and societal expectations. In this era, the very unhealthy concept of “adolescence” had not been invented, let alone extended far into adulthood as it now is. If a fifteen-year-old was living with his parents and going to school, he was a child. If his father was dead and he was working to support himself and perhaps his family, he was an adult. Nor did today’s insane boundaries separating healthy young adults from productive work exist. For that matter, productive work still existed; Europeans and Americans could still work in factories, as we had not yet made the disastrous conversion to a service economy.
For most of the period I am discussing, most professions were open to women. The only exceptions were the sensible ones, such as steel worker or soldier, jobs which few if any women are physically capable of doing. Feminists insist that discrimination was so intense that women, weak and retiring creatures that we are, were helpless to fight it, but authors such as Carolyn Graglia and Phyllis Schafly have debunked these claims. But while a woman who was genuinely motivated could build a career for herself, the understanding was that most women would get married and be fulltime wives and mothers, and that sex and childbearing were reserved for after marriage. Only a small handful of lunatics actually believed that the sexes would grow up identically if little girls were dressed in pants instead of pretty dresses and given short haircuts and told to play ball games.
Those lunatics, by the way, had their heyday in the 60’s and 70’s (I remember those poor little girls in my school with their cropped hair and ugly clothes), but when their daughters still insisted on playing with Barbies and their sons, denied toy guns, fashioned them out of sticks, most people admitted that men and women are different despite being “equal”. Still, there are some stubborn holdouts, chiefly in academia. Last summer I read some rant by a female professor about gender being a social construct, and then a couple of days later noticed a toy in the grocery store: a sparkly purple unicorn doll with a pink mane. I indulged in a brief fantasy of presenting that professor with this evidence of the failure of forty years of feminism.
I freely admit that my favorite era was not perfect, although like all eras since we figured out how to use fire, it was better than today’s. A few years ago I contemplating writing a historical novel set in the first few decades of the twentieth century. I could see all sorts of potential for drama in Prohibition and jazz music and the World Wars. But as I thought about it more, I realized that I would not be able to leave out the sinister notions which were then fads confined to a handful of intellectuals, but which have since infected the entire world and all but destroyed everything good which mankind hath wrought: Freudianism, Marxism, antinationalism, feminism, alternate religions, and so on. I would not be able to ignore such seminal catastrophes as the League of Nations and the Square Deal and the dissolution of the Hapsburg Empire. And seeing the doom that these dark forces led to would have caused me tremendous distress. So I abandoned the project.