The Myth of a Decaying Society

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How many times have you read it or heard it? The world is going (or has gone) to hell in a hand basket. If only we displayed the Ten Commandments in more places. If only we had more capital punishment. If only kids didn’t wear such strange clothes and listen to such strange music. If only parents and teachers beat their kids more like they used to . If only movies didn’t have four-letter words. If only we had another B-movie president.

This year, 2016, will go down in history as the year when one of America’s two major political parties nominated a presidential candidate with no qualifications whatsoever. All he offered (besides a galactic ego and a very long history of very shady business deals) was a vacuous slogan: Make America Great Again. But that was enough to persuade millions of voters to march behind him. Because many of them, though they’d never had it so good, had been convinced that the nation was in such rotten shape that they were willing to entrust it to a crackpot demagogue snake oil salesman.

This phenomenon is by no means limited to Twenty-First Century America; it’s as timeless as civilization itself. Some 600 years ago, at the height of the Renaissance, a poet wrote what at first appeared to be a celebration of the richness, the vitality, the color and panache of his age, but he wrapped up his poem by concluding that he’d never seen things so bad. A couple of millenniums before that, Confucius was complaining that the music of his time was corrupting the morals of society, and the celebrated Hebrew prophet Jeremiah (or someone) was authoring the Lamentations bemoaning an utterly bleak world. Go back to just about any age, in just about any country, and chances are you’ll find a record of someone complaining about how things were just not like they used to be in the Good Old Days.

Time out. If all of these wailers were correct, then that means that civilization has been on a steady plunge since day one. And the world is now in the worst shape it’s ever been. Take a good look around you; do you really believe that’s the case?

It’s not unusual to look back upon one’s formative years with fondness. But as they age, many people grow more jaded, more disillusioned, more cynical, more bitter. And, unwilling to acknowledge that they themselves have changed, they often ascribe the difference to  a worsening environment.

Today, you’ll hear many people say that “this is not the country I grew up in.” And the turning point you’ll often hear them invoke is the Sixties — more specifically, the Summer Of Love, and the few years thereafter. In their minds, everything has gone downhill since then, and we could make America Great Again if only we could return to the Ozzie and Harriet Utopia of the Fifties. But, like the Jeremiahs of ages past, they are viewing their youth through rosy glasses.  To paraphrase a popular saying, the past ain’t what it used to be — and it never was.

As it happens, I’m old enough to remember what times were like before the hippies ruined everything. And what I remember is a bit different from what the nostalgia addicts remember.

I grew up in a world where “colored people” had separate schools,  courts and water fountains. Women, if they were lucky enough to get jobs as secretaries and receptionists, could maybe earn half of what men did. Gays could be arrested and beaten for their “crime”. Adults could physically and sexually abuse children with little fear of reprisal. Police brutality occurred with impunity, since nobody was recording their conduct and posting it on Youtube. Those of us who were lucky enough to have telephones had them mounted on the wall in our homes; and we didn’t own them; they were on loan from the phone company. “Religious freedom” meant forcing kids to pray in school — and there was plenty to pray about.

We were taught to live in constant fear that we could be annihilated at any moment by a nuclear attack from the Evil Empire of the Soviet Union; and just in case ducking and covering under our school desks didn’t protect us, we wore military-style dog tags to school so our bodies could be identified when recovered from the rubble. We knew the end of the world was surely at hand when a Catholic was elected president.

Pollution and crime were sharply on the rise. Plenty of abortions were performed, but in secret by unqualified personnel; with the result that many women and girls died horrible deaths, which were hushed up and disguised as death by other means. When I was 19, men of my age not only had to register for the draft, but were drafted — it was literally the luck of the draw that kept me from being shipped off to Vietnam. In college, I knew a young man who was sentenced to 3 years in prison for possession of marijuana. Yet everyone was encouraged to smoke cigarettes, because they were just so cool.

My, but times have changed, haven’t they?

Today, while racism and racial tension certainly still exist, race relations and equality have never been better. Women can be CEOs or just about any other thing they damn well want to. Gays can get married. Religious freedom includes (in some cases at least) freedom from religion, just as the founders intended. The economy is not in the best shape it’s ever been, but it’s been much worse, even in my lifetime; in fact, it’s been improving for the past.. oh, 7 years or so. We’ve had an all-volunteer military for years. Pollution has been declining for about 35 years; and contrary to the impression you might get from the media, crime has been declining steadily for at least 25 years or so.

Sure, we still have problems. And some of those problems would have been unthinkable when I was a kid. We never worried then about AIDS, overpopulation, climate change or ISIS. But every age has its own unique challenges. What’s different now is that we have the knowledge and the technology to meet those challenges head-on. In the past, all people could do when a plague or a meteor collision or an ice age occurred was just pray and hope. And today, even though we have an unprecedented level of misinformation stranglehold on the masses courtesy of the mass media, we also have the means of counteracting it — such as, ahem, websites like this one. Not only are things better than ever in the U.S., they are, on the whole, better than ever worldwide.

In short, the better they have it, the more stridently people complain. Polls consistently show that most Americans think their country is “headed in the wrong direction”. Maybe it has been, in some ways, over the period of a year or two. But many people believe it’s been heading in the wrong direction consistently for decades. What do they want — more crime, more racism, more pollution, more war, more disease, and less freedom?

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4 thoughts on “The Myth of a Decaying Society

  1. I’ve heard this perspective before. It’s amusing, in it’s own way. I wonder if it has something to do with a subtle, intuitive sense of the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics?

    Most ways, I think the world a much better place than the one I grew up in. The one ‘fly in the ointment’ is climate change. We can be pretty sure that youth culture is more shallow/decadent/whatever than what we had going on at that age (Haha!). But no one has any feel for what effect CO2 has on atmospheric radiative transfer. And no one knows for sure where the increasing trend in atmospheric CO2 concentrations is taking us.

    Thanks for the post!

    Martin

  2. After listening to a couple of people bemoaning what we’ve lost from the good old days, I asked a student of history and ancient languages if there was ever a time in all of history when people were happy with their government and way of life? She answered with one word: Sparta.

    To this day I’m not sure whether she was serious or just being sarcastic. I still laugh when I think of it, though.

    You mentioned, however, that as people age they “grow more jaded, more disillusioned, more cynical, more bitter.”

    I agree, and only want to add that as we age we also become more fearful. We are physically weaker, which makes the world a scarier place. Adaption is more difficult. Where once upon a time change was exciting (college, new job, marriage, etc.,) now, it’s frightening. And being frightened, we react with resistance and anger.

    I have recognized the fear of change in myself and am trying not to give into it, that is, to lay the blame where it belongs, on my stiffening joints.

  3. Thanks POP,

    This of course touches on a timeless theme that, no matter how bad we think things are, “there is nothing new under the sun.”

    Part of the problem is that, most of us do become more jaded and discontent over the state the world, just because it is not the way we want it to be. And to be sure, every generation sets out its Ideals and later tries to make improvements on the world–minus some of the starry-eyed idealism that younger people seem to have no trouble mustering. I have one friend who, when asked if he thought the world was doing better or worse than it had before, his simple common-sense response was that in some ways it is, and in some ways it isn’t, which is basically what your article seems to agree with.

    So even though, when it comes to civil rights for black people, gay people and in general, any who have been unfairly treated, for basically much ado about nothing, many of us believe that the world is relatively less Crazy today than it was in those times and places. Yet, when a nation clearly states in its Declaration of Independence, that, ALL MEN ARE CREATED EQUAL AND HAVE CERTAIN UNALIENABLE RIGHTS, even though our segregationist government had completely failed to live up to its own promise—to view all of us equally—and promised to give black Americans the same access to lunch counters, city busses, polling places, and, incredibly—even more than that!

    The fact is that what is new today, won’t be tomorrow, and, whether we view its advent as being good or bad, I too grew up in the early 50s and 60s! So I remember looking into a separate bathroom designated black people, at a road side gas station somewhere, and asking my mother why ours was so clean and shiny but the other was dirty, uncleaned, and neglected? Her answer was typical of the times and she said something like, “that’s for black people. They don’t clean their own restrooms like they should. So although in many ways, my mother was a tender hearted soul who cried and became physically upset after watching German Shepherds being unleashed at the freedom riders and seeing these incredibly brave people (black, white, religious and, non-religious, Democrats and Republicans both) all being severely beaten by southern policemen for simply wanting to be treated as human beings, like everyone else) scenes like this are etched on my mind as evidence that somethings in this world are just not right!

    I recognize the common thread that creates generation gaps during every successive generation. And this universal theme was best expressed by a popular band called “Crosby stills, Nash and Young” which later, minus Young, became known as “Crosby Stills and Nash.” Their well-known and self-named, Iconic album included a remarkable song titled “Teach Your Children Well,” which, among those of us who were fans, is well remember for its even handed and profound wisdom concerning the troubles and common fears shared by all young and older generations. In essence, younger children were musically urged to understand their parents, and advised our parents also to understand our all our fears, hopes and dreams, and for both generations, to know they love you! And although those were exciting time, like everything else, they came and went like the direction of the wind.

    So POP, in general I agree with the observation that things are better today and in some ways even worse–just as they were to the great poets, philosophers, scientists, and for any of the people who might deliver our daily mail. However, a few things still set off my danger alarms—especially the possibility of becoming extremely, Negative, decadent, and biased like a large part of the world has been throughout the ages.

    I don’t mean to be a Bible banger, but whatever happened to the real beauty of the music that was present in so many songs from the 1930s until the 1980s, and which could truly be considered works of musical beauty which even inspired political change. I don’t want to deny any artists today of the chance to express their sexual freedom and creative energy in popular music—delivered in front of a very large audience of young people—who are still as sex crazed as we once were—unfortunately too many modern recordings hide their artist’s true gifts, and the honor of being known as the great vocalists that they really are. Instead, many female performances in particular, have been reduced to lewd gyrations and complex dance numbers in which dozens of scantily clad young women, do flips, cartwheels and other gymnastic routines, while the featured artist warbles passionately about her lovely lady bumps, or her exceptional booty, and/or the fact that she just can’t’ live without constantly making love to her celebrity studs. Displays of sexuality are ok, but if I want to hear mediocre music written by one track divas, climbing over handsome men with their abs showing while grabbing their crotches as part of some heathen symbolic ritual, I have just got to let myself understand that performances of this kind are actually typical of decadence, rather than inspired artists? Decadence for which I must be willing to shell out big bucks, just to see a popular artists dance without revealing what truly wonderful vocalists they are is—until I heard Lady Gaga’s duet album with Tony Bennet, I was clueless about what a truly wonderful artist she is!

    Of course we had a few bad boys, and sexually suggestive groups, like Lead Zeppelin, The Doors, The Rolling Stones, not to mention David Bowie and the (UGG!) makeup wearing, snake tongued circus act known as KISS, but even those groups for a time, seemed more musically unique and dedicated while appealing to some pretty strange fans, like those who might be considered hip today. We have also witnessed pure artistry in so many of Paul Simon’s songs, as well as those of the Beetles, Neil Diamond, Elvis, Buddy Holly and the Everly brothers—not to mention the worlds conscience of that time—Bob Dylan! And yes, we even had some memorable tunes from Led Zeppelin in the haunting, “Stairway to Heaven.” But if my preference in music seems old fashioned and I hesitate to love viewing mostly naked singers and dancers, writhing obsessively about, while mourning the most recent long lost, and hot, love affair that got away—I understand that if I want to see nakedness, erotica, or to be inspired by passionate sex and love, there are many other places I can look, rather than ogling a naked Miley Cirrus riding atop of a huge yellow banana. And None of the so called rap groups, heavy metal groups, or Gangsta artists today can hold a candle to Marvin Gay, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross, Dione Warwick, or Joe Cocker! —to name a few.

    if you ever lived through those days and finally came down from your last acid trip, you no doubt can name many others artists and wonderful performers that add to the musical quality shared by this list of all-time greats. However, many of us old folks really liked much of the music our parents listened to, like those in the Big Band Era, or the exceptional artist who wrote the music for Broadway—and even Johnny Cash, as well as Barbara Streisand!

    As far as the good old days of music, I don’t think my pick of artists is made narrowly or with generational bias—I think all of my old and favorite artists and vocalists of today, were actually far better artists and/or produced far better recordings, than most artists of today!

    However, my short list of anxiety provoking situations today, includes the fact that there is no guarantee that some madman dictator won’t decide to fire nuclear weapons that might start a full scale war! And, my awareness is that most politicians today are not elected on their reputations, or for being intelligent, and moral human’s beings. Rather, they’re skilled in the dubious art of, deceiving or most fooling the most people! —but do you really need to so quickly and/or frequently convince the greatest number of people to vote against their own wishes!

    Moral character is also, is all too often overrated among our world leaders, and is virtually absent from the playbooks or even the cleverest and most politically motivated the anywhere. and somehow, they share too many common goals with global warming denier, who have no compunctions against distributing false and misleading propaganda? —and presumably while enabling us to use my own to keep us from embarrassing all those poor, suffering, and fragile billionaires— who might feel too embarrassed to reveal the amounts in their political contributions, or from becoming being so picked upon, and underappreciated? Good Greif! What’s next?

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