Yesterday, due to something other than raging allergies (I’m almost sure it’s not a cold, but if I don’t hit the antihistamines, I will have an ear infection again) I got really depressed. So depressed I gave up on writing and went to see elephants.
I got really depressed because I called mom, (to see if she’s gone to the doctor yet. No, of course she’s hasn’t. She’s calling HER doctor next week when he comes back from vacation because the other doctors have cooties, and her follow-up can wait till then. Why does she have to be so stubborn?) and caught up on a lot of old classmates/relatives/acquaintances.
No, it wasn’t the usual “and then they died screaming” though when I go over I always find some number of my contemporaries, and even some of my old students have.
No, this was in a way worse.
Look, indulge me, will you? I’ll explain why this isn’t just “Hey kids get off my lawn” afterwards.
It just seems that every woman my age has been divorced three times, or is shacked up with some guy half her age who is eating out her savings. Every younger woman is having kids out of wedlock starting well before seventeen. And I keep thinking: Oh, h*ll. When did everyone who grew up with me become… low class?”
Look, the village was poor as Job, and financially we were probably the wretched of the Earth. Things I remember from my childhood could fit in a documentary on “growing up in the third world.” Stuff like getting clothes stolen from the line, because there were people who genuinely couldn’t afford clothes for their kids; stuff like eating day old peasant bed fried in lard for a meal, to stretch out the grocery money of the household; things like getting the toes of my shoes cut off when I outgrew them, so I had ersatz sandals for spring. Other things, like playing with empty containers, or thinking the days the crops were irrigated (not with water!) ideal for cork boat races (disposable, thank heavens, but…)
We weren’t rich, and my family was relatively well off.
But dear Lord, we were middle class, no matter what our actually available money was.
Middle class consisted of this, in the end: if she was pregnant, you married her; if the marriage wasn’t unbearable, you stayed married; if there was an oopsie, there might be gossip about it, but neither the husband nor the wife admitted to anything, and save for the older women everyone pretended the kid was legitimate. (And the older women just LOOKED;) men had jobs (they might not be very good at them, but they had jobs,) and most women had jobs (working in the factories was declasse, unless you were a young woman saving for a trousseau, but cleaning houses, or having your own craft business of some sort, or even “buying and selling” were normal,) kids went to school and stayed in school till 4th grade, (that is something that’s way better now) and then were encouraged to get jobs; kids behaved well in public (and when they didn’t, there were a hundred grannies to punish or report to the proper punishment authority).
If you’re thinking that sounds like a lot of hypocrisy. Yeah, a lot of it was, but not quite hypocrisy. People had an image of themselves as decent people, and if they failed they tried to fail in private and show the proper image in public.
Look, I have absolutely no clue whether Heinlein was right, and whether most marriages are rife with adultery. How would I know? Mine isn’t. My friends don’t seem to be. Maybe it’s a function of his having lived in a bohemian class for a time. For all I knew everyone in the village was beating mattresses with everyone else’s wife. The old women sort of assumed so, which was why if your distant cousin they’d never seen called on you and you were alone in the house, you had to talk on the front stoop or risk everyone thinking you were an abandoned woman. And why I was ipso facto an abandoned woman because I thought all of my brother’s friends, who’d known me from birth were as brothers to me. Being left alone with them just meant they lent me comic books. But the old women in the village knew better. (Insert the knowing ah! Here.)
And I’m not going to lie and say that all things that went on and the established mode was the best one. It very well wasn’t. For one, it was a genuinely patriarchal society in the sense that women had almost no power. And before you think this is good, think domestic violence; think someone married to someone who is a genuine head case; think child mortality that might or might not be infanticide (that was normally women, but); think having to get a letter from your husband before you find a paying job (you could start your business without any of that, though,) think being judged on whether your stoop and your curtains were QUITE clean, even though you might be starving; think having your head shaved because your dad caught you smoking; think being grounded because you let a guy walk you home from school at 10. Think too that the only case of genuine immorality in which the woman didn’t get blamed, regardless of the age difference/circumstances was the farmer’s mentally disabled daughter to whom a passing stranger “did a favor” (read, raped, since she was at best around age 4 mentally.)
And the men didn’t have it all their own way. A known adulterer might (probably would) be ambushed by the married women of the village late one night and beaten (the caveat there is that if he was looking after his wife and children they turned a blind eye to his having another arrangement on the side. But neglect or leaving the wife and children destitute wasn’t tolerated) and if a man was genuinely horrible with money, the men in the village would try to have a talk with him. And if the parents had issues, somehow their kids would always be invited to play at someone else’s house all afternoon and stay for dinner. You had to be really far gone/aggressive/scary to be left on your own. Some people managed it. (More on that later.)
It wasn’t ideal. It wasn’t in any circumstances ideal. But it was “decent.”
As I said, regardless of the fact we were all very poor, even those of us who thought (by comparison) we were well off, we were decent folk. We looked after ourselves and we looked after our own. And our clothes were clean, and so were our kids, and if a kid was sent home with lice, his mother couldn’t raise her head for a year.
To quote from Pratchett, there might be nothing to put on the table, but at least the table was well scrubbed. (And in the village most people made their own soap.)
There were people who were unhappy, of course. And there were people who managed to fall through the cracks. Women who lived in shacks and had a dozen kids by different men, and who spent their entire day drunk. Men who were horrible people and drunkards and whom the rest of the village had learned to leave alone. Maybe ten people or one per thousand.
But those were the people we looked down on “low class” people; people “without standards.” People like us, who were properly raised, even those whose parents were separated (or later divorced) or who were very, very poor, were never going to be like that. We had standards. We were middle class.
Look, I’m open to a lot of alternate societies. I grew up reading Heinlein. I confess I don’t like the idea of polygamy because someone always ends up with the wrong end of the stick. (And even Heinlein saw the potential for that to happen. Think Friday.) BUT—
But even in Heinlein’s type of group marriage, there were laws and there were protections. I didn’t know how they could work, exactly, but I kept an open mind that a way could be found to make them work.
That’s not where the future went. All my old classmates, all my old acquaintances – or a significant number of them – are living in arrangements that are more similar to those of the “low class” people, the “people without standards.”
The standards of the middle class, narrow and blinkered and often unjust as they were had one thing in common: they protected women. Given a state much less willing to pay for illegitimate babies, it did its best to encourage the father to marry the mother (or SOMEONE to marry the mother) and to form a family and to at least PRETEND to be decent people, while they raised the kid in habits of social politeness, thrift and diligence.
Kids aren’t being raised that way now and my kids’ generation (I had children late) are loitering around their parents’ (mostly their mother’s) house, with no job, no degree, no future. Part of it is the economy, which sucks, of course, but the economy also sucked back when I was little and it sucked, yay, mightily in the late seventies, as my generation started selling handicrafts and tutoring and doing other minor work so as not to be a burden on anyone. Because we were raised to be decent.
And young women are being taken advantage of, because being promiscuous is hip, and guys can have kids with them and promise marriage eventually in a future that never comes. And women my age will fall for young men who just want them to support the young men in idleness and to eat out these women’s savings. (Can I say it disturbs me that a number of these are immigrants from Islamic countries? Before you call me racist – and some glittery person will – remember that Islam is not a religion. It is, however, a culture, and by and large a misogynistic culture and one hostile to protecting women – yes, whatever they say. I’d rather be homeless on the streets of New York than a princess in a palace in Dubai.)
The “middle class” standards weren’t there because people were perfect, or because people wanted to look down on those who failed to keep them. At least in my experience we were not puritans, and no one got branded with a scarlet letter. Yes, the people in the village (particularly the old women) glared at anyone they thought was doing anything wrong, but give it enough time and a slip up would be forgiven, if you went ahead and kept the standards in everything else.
The standards were there, evolved over time, because they protected women and children. A man who left his wife for the new new thing was as looked down upon (and possibly smacked) as a woman who slept with married men and lured them away from their wives. That meant when you were older, and you gained a little weight (who am I kidding? Mediterranean. We explode outward and grow a mustache!) your husband was encouraged to stay with you anyway, and your kids had their parents together to look up to, and you had someone to look after you in your old age. That meant if a man did you “an injury” and it could at all be managed, he married you and supported the kid. And if (we weren’t Jane Austen either) it was clearly statutory rape or any other form of rape, very often someone else who hadn’t dared approach would step up to keep up appearances or the child would be found a family, and you took a visit to the country and came back, miraculously still a virgin. It meant that young men who loitered idly living off a woman’s income, be she mother, mistress or wife, got the glare and hints to shape up, and fell at least for a while out of the “decent folk” category.
Restrictive? Of course they were. The standards were supposed to be restrictive. They were a rail that kept you from losing track and living out in the wilderness, with no protection.
Most of the standards were to protect women, though I suppose the ones relating to honesty in your dealings also protected men – at least in business. And the ones about respecting your elders meant that one school mistress could hold 30 unruly teenagers under her spell.
But mostly it was there to protect women and children, to provide them with face-saving stories, with ways to go on living “decent middle class lives.” Even if those were a lie, the encouragement to look after yourself and your kids and stay solvent would – I’m guessing – keep many people from living as horribly as they’d otherwise have done.
Look, human beings aren’t saints. Whatever the romantics believed, man in state of nature isn’t an angel. Man in a state of nature is in fact a savage. Man who doesn’t need to work for a living is at best a wastrel, and at worst wasted. Some exceptions who work when they don’t have to to maintain more than a minimal level of living (Hi guys) are clearly the head cases. Evolutionarily, saving your strength is what pays off.
So if the community doesn’t set standards – of clean clothes, of decently looked-after kids, of being out of bed early morning, of not spending all your money on wine, of not sleeping with every guy who comes around – who does? And why keep them?
If there are no standards, who looks after the girls and the older women? Who looks after the children had in hope of luring some guy to marriage?
The state? Ah, that’s a laugh. Who will do that when (as there as it seems) the majority of people are living without standards, and not looking after themselves or theirs. And besides bureaucracies mostly serve themselves.
Yes, part of it is enabled by greater wealth. If someone had let things slip like that back when we were all poor, they’d have died of starvation.
But does the wealth stay once the habits that brought wealth and decent living fall? Do the walls collapse and the roof stay miraculously up?
And what about all the foreign men of a machistic (totally a word) religion who are coming over and preying on women when the local men no longer have standards and no longer look after their women? Are they becoming women of the veil? (I’d bet you a few are.)
Are people, in fact, after losing their standards taking up the standards of a civilization that produces nothing, creates nothing, and which hates modernity and its wealth and blessings? They will you know, because multi-culti and no one wants to be “racist” so they swallow ridiculous standards and tolerate child rape and elder women exploitation and cruelty to everything from women to animals to other men.
Again, I ask you – can the roof stay up when the walls fall? Will we turn in the “middle class” standards so many found so oppressive for medieval standards that bring poverty and misery? For places where women and children are only safe while a man is willing to defend them; where the bad men aren’t looked down on by other men?
Is this what we want?
And how is it possible we came so far so fast? How did we tumble to this?
I’m not saying the village was a bucolic land that time forgot. But it was that compared to most of the US. And how did it tumble further than most places in the US?
Socialism; statism; constant propaganda about liberation from standards and how freeing that was, and also the injustices of middle-class judging; just enough wealth to be stupid, and not minding what the kids are/were learning; vast waves of immigration (both intranational and international) with no time to acculturate and no encouragement to; multiculturalism; you’re all right, I’m all right.
I’d have been all right if we had evolved a different type of standards — if we’d evolved some legal way to make polygamy work; if we had some kind of arrangement to raise the kids to be decent people; if it were understood that you looked after yourselves and your own, even if it were quite different from what I grew up with. What I grew up with wasn’t great and it wasn’t paradise. It just… did the job.
Don’t get off my lawn. Stay right here and answer. Are we now all Rotherham? And is that what we wanted to be?
If it isn’t remember – it’s no longer fun to make fun of the “squares.” “Squares” might be our only hope of surviving this without devolving to medieval (or worse) life standards and having to claw our way back up again for a thousand years or so.