There seems to be in human civilization a great seesaw like movement between forward movement and a great forgetting, a shedding of the fetters of civilization.
Normally this takes extraordinary measures by the country’s rulers. China’s history is infuriating to read, because they advanced so far so fast and then got caught in this cycle of civilizational forgetting, of running away from everything they’d known and been. Honestly the last one, the Cultural Revolution, was less successful than the others because the rest of the world remembered for them.
But when studying a civilization, you shouldn’t have to say “The Emperor who burned all the books?” and be answered, “Which one?”
Those emperors usually also set a death penalty on story tellers and grandmas who told stories were persecuted.
But the mania isn’t only Chinese. The French Revolution not only tried to install all new things, but it was part of its mandate to forget the past. Forget, ignore, forge forward and remember nothing.
In Portugal, I had the haziest idea of the past, from around the Napoleonic invasions to the time I was born. It simply wasn’t taught, and instead we were sold a carefully constructed narrative of a forward movement culminating in the — current till the end of elementary school — national socialist government that promised cradle to grave care, and also to protect us from all pernicious foreign influence, disruptive ideas and just about everything they deemed bad for us. It wasn’t until I was in the States as a young married woman that I could study that period in depth and find that in many ways it consisted of several waves of erasing the past and replacing it with an idealized one, always pointing to whatever the current regime was as the culmination of all hopes. It was also the only way to make sense of some of the stories grandma told, which seemed to refer to a different country altogether.
Note that no books were burned — I think the last ones to attempt that were Hitler and his ilk.
You see, I suspect — no way to prove it — that when books were scarce and few knew how to read each new king that arose, each new policy was hailed as a brand new beginning and the best ever, and people living through it were willing to be convinced it was the best ever. In Europe of the time, most books wouldn’t need to be burned as they were — as I said — few and far between and those who could read them — mostly in the church — were either cloistered and separated from the people or the sons of noble families who did their best to support the power for the sake of their relatives.
And there hinges all these attempts at forgetting: you see, if people remember the past, if they can compare the present to the past, then the new ruler is judged more harshly and real signs of progress — or at least not of regress — are demanded. The attempts the ruler makes of taking power and doubling down on it, and doing the same stupid thing under another name are repelled.
It is only when people have forgotten the past that they are all too willing to remember they live in the best time ever, that they are better off than their parents, that society is “advancing towards a perfect future.” That arrow that our counterparts are so fond of.
This means instead of advised and often careful changes, or even the carefully thought out and past-grounded framework the founders lay down for the USA, we have people who want to erase the past, to change the names of the days of the week, to change the units of measurement, to merrily go tramping down the path of insanity like the blinded fool stepping into the abyss.
(But days of the week and measurements aren’t that big a deal, say you. True. It’s just an example from the French Revolution. And it might seem trivial to you, but to a largely illiterate society not only did the changing of the names erase the memory of Roman times — which might or might not be intentional; the memory being hazy — but it also erased the way the year had always been lived. Medieval peasants — subarbanshee in the comments can slap me if I’m wrong, but I’m going not only on what I’ve read but on how the traditional/fairly illiterate parts of society behaved when I was growing up — lived their lives by rote, anchored into the feasts of the church. Stuff like “plant thy wheat by such and such feast.” The feasts of the church were anchored in turn to things like “second Tuesday in May” and there were rhymes and ways of remembering, should the church forget or not be around to remind you. Removing the days and the length of the weeks left the peasants floating in a context-free time, in which they had, in self-defense to rely on their betters, the self-proclaimed revolutionary leaders, to do the simplest things in life. They also lost contact with the past. Their older relatives, afraid saying the wrong word would get them beheaded as royalists, had to avoid talking of the past.)
So, how do you do that to a society, how you give it a forgetting drought, when society is permeated through with books and filled with other records of the past?
I think the idea might have come about from seeing Japan (or even Germany) remake itself after World War II. The idea was magnificently employed by the USSR’s propaganda arm, but also encouraged by the facet of our society that thought that communism was inevitable, knew that it wasn’t ideal, but thought it would be better if they eased people into it by degrees without their realizing where it was going. It also, to be fair, promised them great power, which is usually the reason for the great forgetting.
The instrument employed was a culture change, in which not only did everything old and the opinion of any one (older than 30, if I remember) not matter, but also it was “uncool” to think of those times and ALSO the apparatus of remembering: mass culture, entertainment, movies, books, everything else was deployed not to pretend the past didn’t exist but to give a different view of it. The fifties (to take an example) were not paradise. They were the culmination of a rather authoritarian time. On the other hand, they were not nearly (save for certain, mostly upper class people)as authoritarian and restrictive as we have been told. The Victorian era, perhaps suffers most greatly from this remaking (because in many ways in terms of individual liberty, it afforded more freedom than any of the twentieth century.) Read any biography of the time, and you emerge realizing they had more freedom. Yes, life was brutal and short, particularly for the poorer classes, but not as poor as it had been for their parents, and besides that was a function of technology, not government. You also find that these people were a lot less… racist, sexist or homophobic than they’ve been portrayed. Sure there was a pose, but in their dealings with individuals they were often more remarkably enlightened and humane than our contemporaries.
This great forgetting was essential. The sixties and seventies were sold as liberation. To an extent, as I said, this was somewhat needed, particularly in the workplace. The men who had fought WWII under military regime came back and established the work place under the same sort of discipline. Fit in or get out.
While this worked greatly, it would have stifled innovation, which is why the sixties was viewed as liberation. It allowed unconventional thinkers in, and while a lot of what they created was “an habitat for lizards, because lizards are full of wisdom maaaaaaaaaaaaaaan”, the entire computer revolution and the admittedly non-showy progress in biochemics is the result of people who wouldn’t have/couldn’t have fit into corporate culture.
But for that we paid a great price, because most people who aren’t put together a little funny — hi guys! — are eager to fit in and generally need a structure.
The only structure our society really offers to those conformist minds is the “counterculture” which has long since become THE culture, even though its only purpose is the continual destruction of what remained of Western Civilization.
And because most people really want other people over there to stop doing the things that annoy them, this counterculture has set about merrily not only recreating but — devoid of reason for what they do, and thus devoid of barriers — making those restrictions even worse than those in the imagined past. Sure, they are now forbidding men and women from consorting in public not for some religious reason but because Patriarchy causes micro aggressions and women are so special they must be protected from males’ previlege. Sure they’re demanding modest clothes because someone’s beauty might oppress the other’s ugliness. And I’ll warn gay people that they’re coming for you too and soon. Consider it a shot over the prow that some feminists think gay males are discriminating against them by refusing to have sex with them. Oh, and temperance is not the way because of religion, but because alcohol is bad for your health and it is totally our business because we want to pay for your health care. Which leads to, under Obamacare, a woman who has a glass of wine with dinner every day being considered an alcoholic. And don’t even think of smoking, hater. Your fifth hand smoke on the walls will affect my unborn child. (Even if there is NO evidence for this, real or imagined.) (And pot smokers, they’re coming for you next. If you don’t believe it, you didn’t see the tizzies our college administrators and other people with impeccable “progressive” credentials threw at legalization.)
The problem with this is not the every day restrictions. Sure, they’re a bit crazy, and if it weren’t for people being sure that history comes with an arrow, thus both restricting parents’ willingness to talk and childrens’ willingness to listen, we’d already have realized we’re losing all individual autonomy in the guise of “respect” and “not exerting privilege” and “health” and “science.”
But worse than that is that this all encompassing movement, unmoored from the past and rooted only on that great stupid fable of Marxism, which never applied to anything in the real world and which is now being used for everything from economics to literary analysis, to, possibly, a theory of nursery rhymes, has caved in to mankind’s greatest longing for conformity and belonging. The “Progressives” accept only one way of thinking (well, two if you believe in the image they project onto their enemies.) If you don’t fit either of those, they want to destroy you and they succeed often in shunting you out of public and professional life. (Not to mention politics, where, via the media, they’ve seized a complete hold.)
But as the stories of the Emperors-who-burned-books show, these great forgettings always come to a bad end, as the future becomes much worse than the past.
There is now, in the minds of those who want to belong, a command to forget everything/discount everything more than twenty years old. Every generation, ill-taught and believing they’re the first true “free” one forges forward as wild children, trampling vestiges of freedom and civilization underfoot and believing they’re doing something QUITE new as they find themselves and everyone they can in bigger, stronger, heavier chains.
I don’t need to give examples. Those are recent and you remember them.
The problem is that devoid of memory, the gods of the copybook headings are forgotten. Things that have been attempted, and failed, and destroyed civilizations are being tried again and again. One need only look at Venezuela to see that.
In a forum I’m in someone said it’s time for the adults to come home. This is true, but in many cases that would require necromancy. Most of the people who remember a western civilization that wasn’t ashamed of itself and that thought the past was only 20 years old, and beyond that was some great unimaginable oppression, is long gone.
I hate to quote Obama, and of course he said it only to enforce the idea that the new, new generation was doing something new-new and everything would be wornderful in the future. (Free beer tomorrow!)
However, it is time for the adults, and there are no adults. We who grew up raised by the “neglected children of World War II” about whom Heinlein was quite concerned, must now in our middle years become the adults we’ve been waiting for. We must examine the past — the real one, not the media construction — discard what’s worth forgetting, listen to what’s worth keeping. We must be serious because those older than us weren’t. We must replace the capital both human, social and wealth, discarded in the great forgetting.
The adults have come home. And they’re us. The hat might be big, the high heels falling off our tiny feet, but we must take the Gods of the Copybook Headings for our teaching text and march on, recreating what’s been lost and slapping down the idea that destroying freedom and giving bitter people power is the way to freedom. We must above all enshrine both self-ownership (yeah, I know, but if you view G-d as your master, that’s on you. What I view is on me. We do not have the right to impose it on others.) and self RESPONSIBILITY (sure you’re not going to follow these ancient dictates, fine, so long as you don’t harm your neighbors and don’t try to enslave them to your new dictats.)
It’s late and there’s trouble and war coming. Do you hear the doorbell? It’s the adults coming home. Now take your finger from the button and cross your arms.
There are some children who need structure and discipline, who need teaching and grounding. And some of them are older than us.
Adjust that too-big hat. Learn to walk in much-too-big shoes. We might not be the ones we’ve been waiting for, but we’re the only ones we have.
Go in and do the best you can.