Wednesday, July 20, 2011

It Looked Different Then - Part II

The Simple Life.

There is a competition between those who believe that everything must be made new and those who believe we can remain in - or return to – the old order. Few people are purists in these. Nearly everyone would see some virtue on both sides and put themselves in the middle. Yet the competition is very strong, and plays out quite visibly in national culture. Obama is an extreme example of the “everything must be made new” attitude. Tea Partiers are the current dramatic example of America having to “get back to” something. In their case it is smaller government, but other movements in our history have focused on getting back to better moral or social times.

It may be a cast of mind, or even a genetic tendency whether to be a Returner or a Remaker. Various groups of Christians try to return to the 1st C church, which is not only impossible, but not recommended even if we could. OTOH, it is currently fashionable to emphasise how Jesus “overturned the political/social/religious/indiemusic order of his day.” I am undecided which of these is more false, more vacuous, and more irritating. Both of them have some truth behind them, of course. It’s actually difficult to find popular ideas that have absolutely nothing in them. But it’s well less than half in both instances.

This is not a new competition. One can find it just about anywhere one touches down in American history. Marxism and the various utopias wanted to remake the social and economic order – but then, so did the American Revolution. It was in the air then to remake everything. But those Remakers were also Returners – to imagined smaller and more egalitarian societies, to natural rights that had been obscured by growing governments and economic pressures – to Noble Savages or edenic gardens.

In the 1970’s people were worried that society was going to collapse, for many of the same reasons that people fear it will collapse now. I won’t list those. Choose your own favorites. I thought it largely had collapsed already – the old order was broken, society was going to have to change radically, which might or might not be a horrifying process.* I saw a post-christian, post-western world. There would never be any going back to the 50’s or any imagined Golden Age. All that remained was to identify the pieces worth saving from the ruins and reassemble them somehow, so that those who lived after might not have to suffer so badly.

Some – the Remakers - believed that almost nothing was worth saving from the past, and all had to be rethought and made anew. Others – the Returners – dug in their heels as if trying to prevent a horse from dragging them on. I was neither. But the theme of preserving through destruction was a strong literary theme of speculative literature of the 20th C, showing up in both Sci-Fi and fantasy literature. One would think that you could find it over a few thousand years of literature, but I don’t. I may be blinding myself to it, but I think that each work of literature has gone in either a Remaker or Returner direction (or many unrelated places) until the 20th C. Then we start to get A Canticle For Liebowitz, the modern versions of the Arthurian Legend that stress that bridge between Roman civilization, through the Dark Ages, into Early Medieval times, Lewis’s Prince Caspian (and much of his nonfiction). Many of Asimov’s stories carry the idea of ancient knowledge preserved, brought forth for a new use. Something like it floats through Tolkien, and Star Wars.

I wrote an interminable novel three decades ago The Book Of Years: By Daniel, whose dominant theme was the preservation of older knowledge through an apocalypse. It is clearly a popular and romantic idea in our age. It may be what most of us prefer as a vision for the future, but somehow, the culture war asks us to choose one of the other two false visions. Greens and Libertarians, the two main subgroups in our political divide, both have an uneasy relationship with the major parties because of this clash of visions. The Greens are Returners in technology, Remakers in social and economic thought. Libertarians, something opposite.

The artsy, folksinger/poet/actor types thought one of the signs of this impending collapse was the soullessness and materialism of modern society, especially Americans, especially businessmen. We thought these were in continual competition with higher values for space in our hearts. By higher values, some of us meant God, or at least Gospel of Niceness; feeling Things deeply; arts of many sorts…

It’s actually too irritating for me to go much further with that. We knew they were higher values, and other people’s were lower values, so our contempt wasn’t really an evil thing, because we really wanted them to become elevated. Lots of sermons began to be preached about this as well. Boatloads of seminarians bought this idea that this turning of the world was like a lot of things that Jesus taught, and nestled comfortably into those values, quite convinced they were largely Christian. And we’ve been hearing it ever since.

It’s not completely untrue, of course. Jesus did indeed say that owning things was dangerous, because we could become attached to them, and embracing poverty has been a re-emerging theme throughout church history. The other monastic vows, chastity and obedience, didn’t sit so well in the 70’s. Or now, either. And artistic expression, sensitivity, niceness, being against the war – Jesus didn’t actually mention those things a lot.

I digress. I wander. Sorry. I will tighten up for the next part.

The Simple Life. A lot of people, Christian and secular, thought that was going to be the key, then. Funny things started to happen when these Simple Life people, who had started from different visions, moved in next to each other in a hundred places around the country. Yet in the end, most of them moved either left or right, not to any independent hybrid. Odd. I think I can trace some of it by describing The Mother Earth News, which Tracy and I read cover to cover, in those years

*It was interesting - rather shocking actually - to find this idea in different form in CS Lewis's De Description Temporum.


terri said...

Returner/Remaker....I'm not sure which I would be. I see the value in parts of each.

On the other hand...I sometimes get the feeling that The Returners frequently invoke an illusion to return to, exaggerating the perfectness of whatever perceived thing it is that they want to get back to.

The "good old days" were invariably not so good for some people.

This is actually what gets my goat about the whole "take America back" theme of the hard right. Take it back from who? Those "other" Americans who aren't really Americans?

On the the other, other hand....watching NASA largely become defunct and knowing that the USA is giving up dominance and prominence in space exploration makes me feel like a Returner.

There's some fear involved in seeing a source of past American power and pride and innovation go out with a whimper.

Texan99 said...

The simple life sounds pretty good to me, until I can't get dentistry or anesthesia for an appendectomy.

I'm not sure the small-government movement can be easily categorized as either Remaker or Returner. We small-government enthusiasts certainly think that the growth of big government since the 1930s, and more dramatically in the last three years, is a mistake. We'd like to reverse it, which sounds like Returning, unless you focus on the radical-change aspect, in which case it's more like Remaking. Certainly, we encounter protests that the change we propose would wreak catastrophic harm. That sounds like a Returner criticism. We reply that, in the not too distant past, people got on with their lives pretty well even with a smaller government. That also sounds like Returning. But we also argue for American exceptionalism and the bracing challenge of pursuing a kind of free-market experiment that burst onto the human scene in the relatively recent past and, by the standards of the 1950s, virtually eliminated poverty in this country. That sounds like Remaker thinking.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

terri and texan99, yes certainly. Nearly all of us are mixed or hybrid, but the political groups tend to go with branding. Progressives are Remakers, but they play the 60's and 70's nostalgia well - not accidentally, their own childhoods. Garrison Keillor comes to mind, though he does at least see through some of himself, such as "We think of those as simpler times, because we were children, and our needs were attended to by others."

The small government crew - which I have considerable sympathy with - does nonetheless have this strong Returner sales pitch, sometimes quite explicitly evoking the 50's or the 80's. Yet they too have the subtheme T99 identifies - the new technology that is going to liberate us all if we just let it. Problem is, they seem to like the idea of tech more than the reality, which they keep finding ways of deploring.

The sensibleness of hybrid visions - that 20th C literary theme of preservation through destruction - seems to be salable in art but not politics. I don't know why.

Texan99 said...

I don't know. I'm interested both in what's right and what works. Sometimes that leads me to cherish tradition and sometimes to blow it up.