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?