My grandmother passed away a few years ago at the age of ninety-four. It’s a cliché to say that as a young woman living in Independence, MO, she couldn’t have imagined the world in which she died. But you might be surprised — I’m not referring to technology or even most cultural differences.
After all, in the 1920s phones, movies, and radios existed, early prototypes of televisions were being researched, and electromechanical computers were only a few years off. Medicine, too, had made huge strides in the prior eighty years. Anyone with a little imagination (and she had plenty) could see where things were headed. And on the cultural side of things, any moderately prescient person could see that the days of Victorian morality were over, and there was no going back.
No, I mean that as a young woman, my grandmother would never have thought that the average person could become as indifferent to morality as he has grown to be over the last forty years. In her youth, even unsavory men would not use the kind of language towards someone that is barely considered an insult by today’s standards.
In her day, no one would have thought twice if a man shot an intruder breaking into his house in the middle of the night. Most men would not have even been tempted to exhibit the kind of casual lying and pragmatic manipulation that is commonplace in business today. Nor would those men have so passively accepted it when someone else did so.
Was this some sort of Eden? No. It’s just that the scoundrels were generally known, heartily condemned, and marginalized into a small minority. Today, they are no longer a minority. (One need only look at the music, television, or motion picture industries to see what is considered ‘the norm.’)
Is this just rose-colored glasses — a nostalgic view of a past that never existed? If you think so, ask your grandmother. Or read any of dozens of magazines or books from the period. Sooner or later you will accumulate enough inductive evidence to be persuaded that things really were really different then.
But all this you could hear from your average conservative commentator.
And about this, they’re right.
Of course, this isn’t to suggest that all was cake and cookies seventy-five years ago, or that nothing has improved. The depression was beginning, and lasted for several years. Italians, Irish, and others were routinely treated harshly merely for being identifiable members of those groups. One major war had finished not long before, and others even more devastating were on the horizon. Religion and adherence to authoritarian codes of morality were as oppressive as today’s legislation, with even fewer bolt holes.
On the positive end of the scale, there has been much erosion of prejudice. Technology (along with changes in social mores) has provided a much wider choice of potentially life-enhancing forms of art, food, gadgets, personal interaction options, and so on. And Ayn Rand and others have published in the intervening decades.
All that said, I come back to one thing that has gone steadily downhill until hitting the recent trough and starting back up: morality.
For decades, the overwhelming majority of the populace (in America at any rate) has not been hostile to, but rather largely indifferent to considerations of good and evil in everyday life. Pragmatism has conquered the field.
As with any social-historical phenomenon, it is difficult to pinpoint when this began. The mid-60s are as good a date as can be had, though of course the roots of those changes started much earlier.
This is not to imply that no one cared. In the years between then and now, Objectivists, conservatives, even some Democrats saw and were concerned about what was happening. And of course, there were and still are debates about what was good and bad, on the level of individuals, within families, and in the society or world at large.
But for the most part, most people didn’t take the subject very seriously. The average person, who was not intellectually inclined anyway, just wasn’t very interested. It didn’t affect them (they thought), or it was all just a bunch of arbitrary rules (imposed by Society or The Church or some other bogeyman) anyway. At any rate, it had little to do with getting a new car, or getting ahead at work, or even getting along with your neighbor.
Then came Ayn Rand. Or Ronald Reagan. Or Rush Limbaugh. Or the internet. Or the 2004 Presidential election. Take your pick of possible causes. (Among all the possible influences, it may be left to historians to sort out how much of each was responsible. Naturally, I have my own opinions on the subject.)
Suddenly, if a twenty or more year ramp can be considered sudden, everyone is talking about morality. Exit polls from the recent presidential election suggest that Bush voters made their choice based 22% on considerations of Moral Values.
(Or was it that 22% of voters made their choice based on considerations of moral values? It doesn’t matter. We won’t get into whether those polls are in any way meaningful, or what they actually imply.)
Pundits, both right and left, are suddenly filling the airwaves with their interpretation of what this means and what it implies. And how the Democratic party can use this information to actually win an election again before it disintegrates entirely.
But whatever the causes or long-term effects, the subject is back on the table again. And this is a damned good thing.
A cynic might suggest that this is all just another fad which will fade in a few months as Americans get bored of thinking too much about hard subjects, and go back to watching another episode of Everybody Loves Raymond. Maybe. Time will tell. But I doubt it.
It is clearer than ever that most people are seeing the effects of the ‘philosophy’ of the last few decades. And just as capitalism has become a respectable and respected topic like it hasn’t been for decades, so I think will morality. If the right things are said.
But one thing is for sure. Now, more than at any time in the last forty years, there is a golden opportunity to influence the values of American culture (and by extension, the world) in ways beneficial to pro-reason individualists. (And, of course, thereby for everyone but the parasites. One could argue it would be good even for them.)
You, of course, don’t need to be told what to say. And you’ve been saying it all along, anyway. But now people are listening.
Jeffrey Perren is a professional writer with a background in Physics and Philosophy. His latest novel, The Endangered Specie (in progress), is the story of a Bridge Engineer whose work is opposed by a group of radical environmentalists.