Traditionalists are often caricatured as sentimentalists hankering for a Golden Age that never was. Our critics will often say that every generation thinks society is going to hell-in-a-handbasket; or that cultural decline is a myth fabricated by those classes which have lost power and influence; or that all generations are equally good and equally bad; or, more boldly, that the things traditionalists lament in reality constitute social progress. Sometimes they will also say things like: “Do you really want to go back to slavery or racial segregation?” “Do you really want to go back to sweat shops and child labor?” “Do you really want to go back to keeping women barefoot and pregnant and in the kitchen?” “Do you really want to go back to high rates of poverty and illiteracy and infant mortality (forgetting about abortion, of course)?” Etc.
Beware of those who argue thus. These claims are designed to be conversation stoppers, to divert attention from the specific issues raised by cultural traditionalists. Defining the past by its worst characteristics is an illegitimate argument. Distorting the faults of the past (e.g., the “subjugation” of women, infant mortality, etc.) is also an illegitimate argument. When your critics throw these kinds of arguments at you, it simply means they are not willing to address the issues you are raising.
The old days were better days. We didn’t need William Bennett’s famous Index of Cultural Indicators to tell us this. We know this because we know the character of our grandparents and great-grandparents and their respective generations, we’ve read the old literature, we’ve prayed the old devotions, we’ve worshipped with the old liturgy, we’ve heard the old music, we’ve sung the old songs, we’ve admired the old artistry, we’ve seen the old craftsmanship, and we’ve marveled at the old architecture. In short, a few of us have been blessed with an education beyond what is allowed by today’s official indoctrination. That education has been scattershot and inadequate, but it has been enough to thoroughly discredit the modernist experiment presently being shoved down our throats.
It doesn’t matter what field you choose. Read the Lincoln-Douglas debates, and then watch reruns of the Bush-Kerry debates on television. Read the complex sentence structure and advanced vocabulary of an old newspaper article and compare it with the amateurish fourth-grade journalism of today. Read the letters your great-grandfather wrote to your great-grandmother, and compare it with the electronic “IM courtship” of today’s youth. Peruse the plays and music and entertainments of the past and compare them with the unprecedented vulgarity of today’s rock music and reality shows. Compare Life Magazine of 1945 with People Magazine of 2005. Compare the architecture of the oldest church in your town with the newest church in your town. Compare the oldest photographic portraits in your family with the newest portraits in your family. Compare the garden hoe your grandfather used (which lasted 50 years) with the garden hoe you bought last year and have already replaced.
The old days were better days.
Large extended families were the norm and welfare was largely unnecessary. Divorce was infrequent and always scandalous. Sexual indiscretions happened less frequently due to intense social pressure, and when they did happen, they were seldom discussed except in the most discreet manner. Gossip and detraction were still frowned upon, and those who indulged in it did so in private.
Crime was punished more severely and violent criminals were not coddled. Most women in need of a quart of milk could still walk alone on city streets after dark without any fear. At the same time, everyday human activity (smoking, hunting, fishing, selling lemonade, etc.) had not yet been defined as criminal behavior.
Those who received a high school education in the 1940s were better educated than your blog host who earned a bachelor’s degree in 1993. Educational standards were high in the old days and unashamedly objective.
Abortion and contraception and pornography were still illegal in most places, and where they were legal, they were still considered immoral by the general public.
As an elderly Lutheran pastor once told me, in the days of his youth everyone respected the clergy. Men who had never darkened the door of a church would still remove their hats when greeting a clergyman, whether Protestant or Catholic. You might be surprised to know that there are still a few places in America where this kind of old-fashioned respect is not uncommon. I was once pulled over for a traffic violation at 3:00am in Scranton, Pennsylvania – a city that is thirty or forty years behind the times – with two Catholic priests in my vehicle. (It’s a long story.) The young officer, seeing the priests and hearing their explanation, did not issue a citation but instead offered us an escort to the rectory. One of the priests later explained to me that the people of Scranton still have a great respect for the clergy.
In the old days there was not the same artificial “generation gap” we have today. For generations children were expected to keep the values and the faith of their parents, and for the most part they did, proudly, and this was simply normal – not the object of ridicule that it has become in our degenerate times.
As Russell Kirk has written, our society languishes in an advanced state of decay. This is not an illusion, and it is not nostalgia, but is an empirically verifiable fact in light of every objective standard. “Wise men know that wicked things are written on the sky.”
But where do our adversaries stand? Those who call good, evil, and evil, good, are really not worth conversing with. They are enemies to be defeated, and that’s that. I suppose it is OK to pray for their conversion while fighting to overthrow their unholy empire. But apart from these intransigent souls, there are many others whose hearts are in the right place even though they seem to have bought into the false religion of Progress. These are the people who must be reached in the Culture Wars. These are the good people of Middle America – Red State and Red County America – whose Christian instincts are still intact, but whose traditional loyalties still draw them towards the lies of the present regime.
Hilaire Belloc once noted that, yes, the men of the 13th century did not have running water or other modern conveniences. But, he observed, there were few suicides. Life was harder in some ways, but it was worth living. We might say the same thing of earlier generations in America. Life was hard and sometimes unjust, but it was worth living. And we need to get back to that, whatever the cost.