21.3.06

WHY GENERATIONAL MORPHOLOGY MISLEADS. The local coffee house has been helping a used-book seller liquidate his inventory. One of the titles on the rack is part one of William L. Shirer's 20th Century Journey. I flipped through it. Let me quote from the opening chapter, for the further edification of those who might think the world-view of the parents might shape the world-view of the children.
Paris loomed as paradise, the City of Light and Enlightenment, the Center of Civilization, after our growing up in the American wasteland. We wanted to get away from Prohibition, fundamentalism, puritanism, Coolidgeism, Babbittry, ballyhoo, the booster antics of Rotary and the Chamber of Commerce -- all the cant of the bourgeois who dominated our land and made it, we thought, such a mindless, shoddy place to live in.

We had grown up in our college years, despite the efforts of our teachers to keep our minds off current literature, on the novels of Sinclair Lewis, Main Street and Babbitt, and the thunderings of H. L. Mencken in The American Mercury against the homo boobiens of the American hinterland. They had rubbed in what we knew all too well from our young lives: the cultural poverty of the Midwest small town; the tyrannical pressures to conform to a narrow, conservative puritan norm; the hollowness of the small-town booster Babbitt businessman; the worship of business and profits and financial success by our sanctimonious and churchy Christians.
Leave aside for the moment that a septuagenarian Mr Shirer would describe the era in those terms. Abstract from the contemporary Culture Wars division in which the puritan norms might be the sexual strictures of the Christian Right or the pleasure strictures of the Environmental Left. And don't dwell on Mencken's subsequent adoption by the libertarians. Consider instead the strength of self-reinforcing structures of conformity in a pre-television, pre-Internet, pre-Civil Rights, pre-Super Power United States. If ever the correlation of forces would have favored the parents replicating their own norms, one would expect them to have been at work in the early 1920s. All the same, the worldview of Mr Shirer and his co-cosmopolitans had a non-trivial effect on the culture to come.

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