I always thought that the expression about throwing out the baby with the bath water was silly. I mean, who doesn’t know the difference between slightly soapy liquid and small human? Unless, of course, every adult involved in this is blind and lacks the sense of touch.
Now I’m not so sure, because I see people all around me do it. They mix up baby and bath water, and confuse signs of health and signs of decadence, and generally take the opportunity to bewail the current state of affairs as a sign of terrible things to come, and evil days ahead. And generally make me want to get my broomstick and crack some heads.
Look, I’m not going to say we’re in the best situation possible. I don’t lie to my friends. (I almost typed that fiends, which also applies: Sarah’s Fiends or Shall We Toss Out Baby is a title for a great Victorian novel.)
I have in the past – on this very blog – explained to people the mess we’re in. From the fiat currency in which no one with half a brain can put any faith at all, to the miserable state of underemployment, to the fact that most of us keep retrenching and still coming up short on money.
So, the picture is not rosy. For any other country I’d say it’s impossible. But we’re not any other country. We’re Americans. We fix things. We do things. We built new things. And we have enough of an history of consistently pulling rabbits out of the hat (ours or someone else’s) that I expect we’ll do it once again. Maybe G-d does love children, drunkards and the United States of America. Or maybe we just aren’t good at laying down and dying. Who knows?
What I know is that I’m hearing bewailed as signs of our decadence (supposed. I think rumors of our decadence, like rumors of our death, are grossly exaggerated) aren’t.
I’ll start by explaining: I was raised in a very traditional society. The ah… state capitalism system I was born under (I’m not using “fascist” simply because the regime by itself was neither anti-Semitic nor allied with the Axis and if it stayed neutral in world war two it was more penury and the fact that Spain could have marched in any minute. But State Capitalist it was. Say like China today, if a little less ruthless) was a very traditional society. Very. Like most societies ruled from above by people who think of themselves as do-gooders, it behooved everyone to fit in as much as they could. It wasn’t a good idea, for instance, to shout out bad things about the politicians in charge or the country, or the countries history. And if you were a foreigner, it wasn’t safe to tell people how poor they were compared to the rest of the world. At any rate we already knew it.
There were certain advantages to the situation – no, I’m not actually joking. I’m not defending the regime either – in the sense that it almost stopped innovation, and that things were comfy and familiar. My childhood was better than my mother’s in that we had antibiotics and vaccines, and most of my generation didn’t die. (Though a substantial number did in one epidemic.)
Oh, we were poor as Job and there were no imported luxuries because things like coke were strictly forbidden (in fact the only – very expensive – soft drink I remember from childhood was orange soda. I got it as a treat once a month or so in summer. With peanuts.) And people were so destitute they stole clothes from the line. Also, people would unravel an old sweater, re-dye the wool and knit a “new” sweater.
But we also all lived more or less at the same level. And there were no surprises. No one suddenly struck it rich. No one became poor overnight.
When that changed (and the people who came in were another flavor of socialist but that’s a long story) people became panicky and started talking about things like it was the end of the world.
And I don’t mean political stuff, which sometimes was almost the end of the world, but society stuff. As in, “We now have coke in stores. This is decadence and misery.” Yeah. Because for some reason in humans’ heads the trigger for “Run and hide” is close to the trigger for “things are changing and I have to adapt to new things.”
The reason is probably because when everything changed and our ancestors were barely human, running and hiding was the only sensible thing. Right?
New tribe over the ridge? Run and hide. Earthquake? Run and hide. River dried out? Run and hide.
Unfortunately this doesn’t help in the current state of affairs.
Again, I’m not saying we don’t have reasons to worry. We have tons of reasons to worry. But I’d bet you dollars to doughnuts that most of the free-floating anxiety you feel right now has more to do with the fact that things are changing really fast.
Used to be you could look ahead and sort of predict where you’d be in five/ten years. And I don’t mean the fact none of us knows where he/she will be because, well, we don’t know how to survive in this economy just now. I mean…
Take my profession. In ten years, I have no idea what it will look like, or what things I’ll be doing. Take the launch of Witchfinder. It is not something I’d have even THOUGHT of ten years ago. Or five. Three, perhaps. Barely.
Things change. Fast. This scares us and we mumble of decadence and disorder.
Then there’s yeah, our education is for sh*t right now, partly intentional I’m sure on the part of education luminaries taught by Ayers. But that’s neither here nor there. Over the next ten years, people will find new ways of learning what they know. People are good at adapting. We’ll lose some percentage, but there’s no perfect system. We always lose some percentage. Right now, most of what school teaches is wrong, and do we want them better at teaching wrong things.
But of course what we get is “those illiterate kids! It’s the end of the world.”
And then there Americans’ acceptance of the oddball, the weird, the frankly strange. We have it, you know. All of us.
Look, that was the first thing I noticed when I came here, and remember I was in the North East which is a bastion of conformity, compared to the rest of us.
Anywhere else in the world, an adult with an accent is not just an oddity; he or she is someone to be shunned.
And I don’t know if it’s Portugal’s totalitarian heritage, or just a cultural thing, but I used to agonize about wearing the “wrong” length skirt. Because people care that you wear that year’s fashions and look like everyone else.
My first experience in the states reveled in oddities. The high school students who dressed (clearly) in their grandparents’ clothes. The kids who were pursuing a different course of study. The young people very serious about an artistic vocation and pursuing it without waiting the blessing of their elders.
All these were special to me, as were joke sayings on the teacher’s walls, or the fact everyone was so approachable.
To me it was like coming home. When my mom visited years later, she thought it was the end of the world and “anarchy.”
What I’m trying to say is this: the people – particularly on the right – who think the fifties were the last time this country was healthy should consider the regime then in many ways resembled that which I was born under: it was more conformist, more stultifying than what we have now. Not stultifying enough, though, to keep tech from progressing and when tech changes, society eventually changes. Not immediately, but like the snow flakes accumulating till there’s an avalanche. And when the avalanche hits, that’s when people think it’s the end of the world.
While the end of the world is more likely to come to a “stable” and “top down” regime.
It’s not that diversity is our strength so much – certainly not diversity of skin color which means nothing. It’s that our toleration for the odd allows us to import Odds from all over the world. And Odds, in the way of outliers everywhere, are often the most productive (and the least productive – sometimes the same person – people in the universe.)
Decadence might yet come to America, but it won’t be in the form of wild clothes, or people of different opinions (or sexual preferences, or…) not being afraid to be themselves. That’s rather a sign that we’re not decadent. (Those who have different opinions being persecuted is not so much a sign of people’s oddities or sexual preferences hanging out, it’s a sign of way too many Marxists around. Honestly, it’s high time someone made a spray called Marx Be Gone.)
It’s countries who are dying who do stupid things like pass restrictive laws on private behavior, to seem strong. Russia is doing this because it is dying and a society under stress can’t afford anyone who acts odd, at all. I’m not saying the wounded bear is negligible or that it won’t take a good chunk of civilization down with it. I’m saying that’s not a healthy civilization: birth rate, age at death, and the ever-present flight of women – all speak the dying bear.
We don’t need that. That would be throwing the baby out with the bath water. Next thing you know, as in Iran, we’d be policing haircuts, clothes, and making sure women are REALLY covered up. No, thanks. I’ll pass.
What I first fell in love with, in America, was the fact people could laugh – even at themselves – and that even odd ducks were accepted.
I’m an odd duck who can pass. (Not odd that way. But odd in this SF/F way we have.) But not having to pass frees energies for writing and other world.
And writing, btw, it would be really hard in Portugal, because who do I think I am? Here I think I’m me, and write me, and people buy it. And it’s good.
Which brings me to: don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. I don’t want to go back to the fifties and you know neither do you. The fifties the lamenters would like to go back to, never existed, anyway. They’re an artifact of looking back. In the fifties, with the kids all having automobiles and the break up of the extended family and the move to the suburbs – you know the world was falling apart and we were decadent.
We always are. And yet, we always remain standing while other countries fall. Because we reinvent ourselves, and, at the last minute, grab the baby of technological innovation and tolerance for the odd (and the Odd) and throw out the bathwater of division, forced conformity and dictation from above in all its forms.
Let’s do it again.