Monday, May 17, 2010

When I was a boy...

Everything was better. In a nutshell, this seems to be one of the prevailing winds in American sentiment today.  Luckily we have given it a name: declinism.
Judis identifies three strains of American thinking that help to define the Tea Party movement:
The first is an obsession with decline. This idea, which traces back to the outlook of New England Puritans during the seventeenth century, consists of a belief that a golden age occurred some time ago; that we are now in a period of severe social, economic, or moral decay; that evil forces and individuals are the cause of this situation; that the goal of politics is to restore the earlier period; and that the key to doing so is heeding a special text that can serve as a guidebook for the journey backward.
I’ve offered a dissent from the common libertarian perception that we have declined from a golden age of liberty, but declinism is certainly a strong theme in conservative thought. (Not to mention in Club of Rome environmentalist thought.) Judis suggests that declinism often takes conspiratorial form and wonders “how could a movement that cultivates such crazy, conspiratorial views be regarded favorably by as much as 40 percent of the electorate?” [More*][Note the shameless end-around to gated (subscription) material I am using here]
This world-view is in vogue for unhappy citizens of lots of countries, but I think especially pronounced here as we seek to reconstruct a past that probably didn't really exist. In fact, there is an entire 1984-ish cottage industry set up to manufacture a past to fit these desires.

It even affects our thoughts about food, as Steve Cornett wanders again where only the the brave or foolish go.
Steaks don’t taste as good as they used to.
That’s what Mark Schatzker thinks, and it’s what I think, too.
And, yes, I’m aware that there is more Choice and Prime beef today than there was a few years ago. But we’re agreed that USDA quality grade is not a precisely precise indicator of eating quality.
But we have our differences. I think USDA grades are the best measure we have in a commodity-graded industry. I wish we had something better, but I’m not sure we ever will.
He seems to blame corn feeding.
I am compelled to revisit Mark’s book, Steak: One Man’s Search for the World’s Tastiest Piece of Beef, because I did a short blog last week that seems to have been misunderstood. To the point that one responder accused me of not having tastebuds. [More worth reading if you eat beef]
My first reaction is starting from a perspective of decline can be a debilitating handicap in the pursuit of satisfaction. I am not immune, I must admit, but my looking backward takes a more bizarre countenance: I like paintings by Robert Hubert Hubert Robert (Always have trouble with that name!)

No kidding.  I can stand for long periods looking at depictions of places that never were, but should have been.  In fact, tomorrow, Jan and I are escaping to Chicago and I will go the the Art Institute to view my favorite work.

Okay, given my other strange predilections, why am I mesmerized by very large oil paintings of non-existent ruins?

Man, I have asked myself that a million times.  So far, I have come up with these possibilities:

First, I had a pretty happy, clueless childhood.  I think romanticizing the past comes easily to those of us who don't have many sad chapters to recall. Hence, the idea of a better, more-everything yesterday is at hand to embrace.

Second, melancholic nostalgia must be a common human trait.  I say that because it sells like crazy.  It must evoke some emotional rewards that cannot be duplicated by other stimuli.  From collectors to re-enactors, people love to rebuild a past to their own specs.

Third and most powerful perhaps, our memory is the worst possible source of data about the past, so much of the time we are misremembering a past that did not really happen.

Given the restless dissatifaction of many today, escaping to a "past", or deciding we should reverse course is understandable. Even if it is infeasible or chimerical.

Like the way steaks used to taste.

But the growing belief our culture and lives are going downhill is far from harmless. Mostly because the folks deciding which way is "downhill" seem to be convinced they alone know the slope. 

* Link fixed - sorry.


Anonymous said...

Declinism appears to be a societal equivalent to personal midlife crisis. A point in time when we reconcile the realities of life with our preconceived expectations of purpose and accomplishments in a given span of time.
Unfortunately we long for a past that that we benchmarked but unknowingly we benchmarked marked it with flawed observations of reality. For example, Grandmothers house is not as large, warm and cozy as we remember.

Declinism will continue until we choose do what is right, and stop trying to legislate our way to a better society.

Anonymous said...

I think its the regulations and all we have to keep track of thats the problem. Remember the song "signs, signs, everywhere are signs"? Now its "forms, forms..." The effort needed to collect health insurance claims is a prime example. I don't think I am dreaming when I say that used to be a lot simplier. I am just tired of it and want a simple life or at least hope that we can all head in that direction. The more the government gets involved, the more it is not heading in that direction. Bureaucracy is a good thing for civilization, if applied wisely. These folks are not stopping for anything! I think we have go 1960's on em!

Anonymous said...

Must be nice to create a definition (declinism) and then redefine a group you don't agree with (tea party) by smearing them with negative conitations (conspiracy, crazy views).
I don't think anyone wants to go back to the Pre-polio vaccine days or eating dirt in on a cabless tractor. But at least 40 percent of the people would like a decline in taxes and less government intrusion in our lives.
To say we cannot have both is showing a closed mindness that conservatives are branded with.

John Phipps said...


The idea of declinism long predates the Tea Party, regardless of my views. And any movement withe themes using the word "back" and in "take the country back" clearly is seeking a reversion to a previous and hence presumably better time. Hence the idea of declinism is an accurate description of one aspect their worldview, IMHO.

It is also, as I tried to illustrate, pretty common in much of rural America. Edgar County sort of peaked demographically and socially in my early years and both population and the culture have in several ways declined since (even if the economy has grown). So I can relate to this sense declinism.

I will post a link to the whole initial article which is a pretty fair analysis of why the TP has gained traction, and how that could matter.

As for their policies, tax cuts seem to be the central theme. Even though the give lip service to cutting the budget, along with others they have yet to voice a willingness to tackle the main elements of spending: Medicare, defense, Medicaid. The minute the TP outlines reductions sufficient to offset the tax cuts they want, I think the rallies will shrink.

Jake in OH said...

Anon Number 3, I think John has made this point very well in his previous blogs but let me repeat it here again:

It is very easy to say "we want lower taxes and less government intrusion". That plays very well in sound bites and makes you sound very appealing, either as a candidate or the guy sitting at the lunch counter.

But the fact is this money has to be cut from somewhere. Yes farm subsidies and goverment waste are prime targets, but that is such a miniscule part of the budget that it would hardly make a dent.

Cuts need made in big ticket items like Social Security, Defense, Welfare, Medicare and Medicaid in order to make a difference.

I think any statement that starts out with "we should cut the government" should end with a suggestion of how to do it. Then see how your suggestions play out with the splintered special interests across the country.

And that suggestion should be more than "get rid of the Office of Communications" or other operations that account for less than .001% of governmental largess. Do the math yourself....if you totally eliminate an operation that is 0.001% of government spending, you would need to do this 1000 times just to get a 1% reduction. Wow.