By Wayne Allensworth
For many of us, what we consider to be our prelapsarian memories help us to get out of bed in the morning and face an increasingly bleak reality. To live is to remember, for every step taken has moved us to where we are now, for better or for worse. Without memory, however faulty at times, we have no context for the present, and can imagine no future, one we can attempt to make happen in the next few steps we take, one we hope will materialize. And that imagination itself is cause for some measure of hope.
The world has always been going to blazes. The 60s, the era of my boyhood (I was born in 1959), were tumultuous, the proximate seedbed of all the lunacy that came after, though the “root causes” of the fall were much older. But in my little world, there remained an approximation of what sociologists used to call “thick culture,” one bound by a supporting web of family, belief, practice, and certain cultural assumptions and boundaries reinforced by everyday thoughts, words, and deeds. Those were the foundation of communal memory, a basis for at least a modicum of stability in life, that is, God knows, unsteady enough as a matter of course.
It was those cultural assumptions and practices that came under such vigorous attack at the time. Things like watching your language in mixed company, saying a prayer to start the school day, simple patriotism, respecting your elders, and, to turn a now aging saw on its head, taking your own side in a fight. Most people paid proper respect to Christianity, even if they obeyed its strictures only in the breach. Some things were done, others were not. And there were other subjects better left alone.
We simply assumed that the aim of growing up was to marry, have a family, and perpetuate the cultural safety net, something that as I look back, was less a restraint than a warm sun that arose on the horizon no matter how bitter and cold the world seemed at times.
This cultural bricolage was still largely unchallenged and deeply ingrained in us in our world, even as the revolution began openly and in earnest all around.
It’s not that the hippies were all wrong. Some things needed to be questioned, like the American government acting as policeman of the world, or the desirability of a barren life of corporatized consumerism. What did “success” really mean? Some of us did harbor an ugly animus toward blacks (and vice versa, by the way). As I grew older, I came to understand that everyone had their reasons, reasons which were not easy to ignore or erase: Racial tensions were part of the human condition. It was wise to contain them.
Yet the fundamental truth about the New Left’s spoiled campus rioters was that they were arrogant, sanctimonious kids with just enough education to believe they were a lot smarter and more worldly than they actually were. A mind might be a terrible thing to waste, but a little “higher” education might be more dangerous than none.
Unlike us, and my “us” was made up of working-class people with rural roots, the campus Baby Boomer radicals lacked a sense of tragedy and a certain folkish fatalism. It was unspoken, but very much a part of us, to believe that some things were best left alone, that no one was spotless, and nobody could answer all the questions. Be careful out there. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Sometimes, more often than we would like to admit, the best thing to do is nothing. This, too, shall pass.
The New Left’s seething resentment was manifest in an affected stance of detached subversive irony. The kids were engaged in a permanent revolt against authority — not “power” as they imagined it, but legitimate authority. They were on Cain’s side against Abel. That style was ever present in their mock Socratic “dialogues” (really dreary monologues at best or angry diatribes at worst) that wielded “reason” (read “a smug sense of condescending superiority”) against “irrational prejudice.” It was the style of post-modern deconstruction. What was “marriage,” anyway? Couldn’t any person be “married” to any other? Why should I respect my elders, who had so fouled up the world? Why should I be loyal to my hometown or my country, don’t I have a right to choose (The correct answer was and is “No.”)?
Their tantrums proved quite effective. The intense scream of the fathers and mothers of wokeness drowned out everything else. And our people, adrift in an increasingly hostile media-driven ocean, didn’t know how to defend themselves or their intuitive, instinctual beliefs. Pulling straw men out of their hats wasn’t the forte of the Middle Americans I knew. In a way, the New Left was correct: They hadn’t really given much thought to their most cherished beliefs. Their respect, even reverence, for home, country, family, and God, was an instinctual loyalty normal people had never considered as requiring an explanation. Those given things were not irrational in their origins, but non-rational expressions of the deepest truths about us, truths that been confirmed by experience over a vast expanse of time and internalized, bequeathed to posterity through memory and habit.
Some of those givens were, in fact, socially constructed, as the woke like to point out. Monogamous marriage is not evidently “natural,” but tested and true as the best way to build a coherent society with an opportunity for most people to marry and have a family — and a stake in the society. Traditional sex roles are also to some extent “constructed.” Cultural evolution emphasized certain innate qualities in men and women that defined stations and responsibilities in a hierarchy of value, with that construction supporting the formation of families, which, in turn, socialized children. Human aggression and sexuality were harnessed for the common good.
Conservatives who balk at the expansion of women’s roles in the military, for instance, often only get the story half right. True, women are not on average physically or temperamentally suited for combat roles, but the right often misses the deeper issue at hand: Any society that promotes the masculinization of its women and puts prospective mothers in harm’s way is courting not just military disaster, but societal collapse. The same is true in sports: How can our boys be taught to protect our girls and respect women if they are competing against them in what are, after all, mock battles? (I’ll leave aside the absurdity of “trans women” competing in women’s sports).
We become the roles we play in the set piece interactions of our lives. Thus, “coding” as the postmodernists would have it, is necessary, in dress, acceptable behavior patterns, and the mating dance that is male-female interaction. Culture is the vessel that contains these games, and culture can be, and sometimes must be, a hard teacher. Tragedy is built into the human condition, and decent people have usually found a way to quietly tolerate those who did not quite fit the molds for the roles nature and culture had assigned to them. Hypocrisy, if we mean saying one thing and doing another, is not always a bad thing.
Live and remember the sometimes inconsistent, often necessary human games we have to play, the roles we must attempt to fulfill however imperfectly. We can see the apocalyptic results of attempting to erase those roles and that collective memory playing out before us. Some truths are self-evident and in no need of explanation.
Wayne Allensworth is a Corresponding Editor of Chronicles magazine. He is the author of The Russian Question: Nationalism, Modernization, and Post-Communist Russia, and a novel, Field of Blood.