It's the absurd notion that the past has nothing to teach us that has gotten us where we are today. It's popular to deride the millennial generation as coddled "special snowflakes." But it's the baby boomers who absolutely cannot admit that they were wrong.The baby boomers were victory babies, whose G. I. parents had been through hell and simply wanted to kick back. Between the boomers and the Greatest Generation were the so-called Silents (anybody who ever sat through a faculty meeting any time between 1970 and 2010 would know otherwise) who, unable to embark on a long march to victory through Europe, made a long march through the institutions. That set the kids free, and kids will be kids.
And oh, were they wrong. Theirs was the generation that gave us "Don't trust anyone over 30," and their obsession with youth has produced 50 years of deliberate disregard of the wisdom that comes with age. Etiquette was one of the first casualties.
Nowhere is this clearer than with the "sexual revolution," which has been an unmitigated disaster. Rampant divorce? Check. Fatherless children and impoverished families? Check. Spread of sexually transmitted diseases among young people? Check. Hyper-sexualization of children? Check. "Rape culture" on college campuses? Check. (Seriously -- you cannot have a culture that treats sex like a spectator sport and then feign shock when young people treat it like a spectator sport.)
Even some of the most contentious issues of our day could have a significant amount of friction lessened with a little bit of etiquette and propriety: a young woman has too much to drink on a date? A young man raised to be a gentleman would not dream of taking advantage of her. A man is walking down the street wearing women's clothing? Propriety would suggest a smile and a "Good morning" and not remarking any further upon it. Your gay nephew and his significant other announce their marriage, civil union or commitment ceremony? Good manners dictate a thoughtful gift and a handwritten card if you cannot -- or prefer not to -- attend.But the institutions that were deconstructed were civilization itself.
A number of societal trends have rushed into the vacuum left by etiquette's unceremonious expulsion, and none of them are good. The first of these is the adolescent insistence upon constant affirmation and public expressions of approval. This attitude has created nothing short of an ongoing national temper tantrum. For heaven's sake, grow up. Everyone isn't going to "approve" of you, and it is puerile to insist upon it.
As counterintuitive as it may sound, polite behavior based upon widely acknowledged social mores is vitally important to the smooth operation of a liberal society. In its absence, we do not have more freedom, but exhibitionism and offense and conflict and oppression.Indeed so. Rediscovering a fundamental principle is not the same thing as restoring a lost era.
[N]ot everything contemporary is "better," nor does progress preclude us from appreciating things in the past that actually have something to offer. Chaucer is still wickedly funny; Shakespeare's plays and poetry are still genius; John Milton is still poignant and inspirational, and we still teach -- and play -- the works of Mozart and Beethoven. That's not saying we want to live in the 14th, 16th or 18th centuries.Robert Tracinski (I always want to insert an "syz" in there somewhere) offers a variation on that last theme.
If we can appreciate Botticelli and Bach without a desire to live in their eras, so, too, can we look back and decide that the decorum associated with an earlier age still has a place today, notwithstanding -- or perhaps because of -- our modernity.
Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, the great works in the canon of serious music, do have a timeless and universal value. They are more complex, deeper, more profound, and the more you listen to them the more you get out of them, over a period of decades.Reclaim education. Reclaim manners. Reclaim the fine arts.
I played Chopin’s Etude in E Major (well, a simplified version) when I was taking piano lessons as a kid, but it was only much later that I really understand what it’s about, both the technical aspects of it and its emotional meaning. So I’m slowly working on learning it again (the full, hi-test version). I’m still only a so-so musician and Chopin is fiendishly difficult, so give me a year of solid work and I might get somewhere with it. But my point is that it’s worth that kind of effort, even if you’re only playing for your own pleasure—which popular music rarely is.
Put another way, in 400 years, how familiar will people be with Bowie and Prince? What are the odds on Cervantes or Shakespeare, better-known, or unknown?
I don’t say this to disparage popular music, even though I suspect that in a hundred years, most of it will be remembered about as widely as Mairzy Doats. (Look it up, kids.(*)) A simple and catchy tune is perfectly valuable on its own merits, and not every piece of music or television show or movie has to engage the brain at full capacity.What the gatekeepers reward, they get more of. Theorizing crap (or gendering Thomas the Tank Engine) gets you tenure.
But the middle-brow cultural establishment is determined to freight the flotsam and jetsam of popular culture with more intellectual weight than it can carry, sinking it under a lot of pretentious commentary about its very great significance.
Back when I lived in Chicago, I went to a public concert put on by the Lyric Opera, and in amongst the crowd-pleasers by Mozart and Puccini they slipped some screeching piece of modern opera. Afterwards, observing the fidgeting impatience of the audience, the emcee informed us—and I’ll never forget his exact words—”It’s really quite beautiful, I assure you.” We had just heard it with our own ears, and if it had been beautiful, we probably would have noticed. But he had to tell us the correct conclusion we were supposed to come to.Like anything else, when people figure out that something useful is missing, they'll figure out a way to reclaim it.
That pretty much sums up the impact of twentieth-century modernism, which knocked down all of the conventions of highbrow art while still trying to steal its prestige. Instead, they simply used up its credibility and drove away its audience.
(*)If the words sound queer, And funny to your ears, A little bit jumbled and jivey, Sing Mares Eat Oats. And Does Eat Oats. And Little Lambs Eat Ivy.