Dangerous Ideas, Continued
My dangerous idea is that the world has actually become a better place over the past 25, 50, and 100 years.
Two of my favorite books are From Dawn to Decadence by Jaques Barzun and Paul Johnson's A History of the American People. Both present history on a grand scale, taking in decades at a time. The great accomplishment is to give the reader a sense of the ebb and flow of history, and how much of what today seems novel and urgent is neither.
At any point in the past 25, 50, or 100 years you could find plenty of reasons to argue that the world was going to Hell in a handbasket. And at any time, you would find people who would say, "well we are better off today than we were 50 years ago, but the past 10-20 years have really stunk." Mind you, if you asked the same person that question every year for 50 years, you would probably get the same answer every time. It's simply human nature.
The natural response to this is to say, "well, yes, we have been in peril many times, and we are better off today only because urgent and decisive action was taken at the time, which is why today we must...." My thesis is different. The way I see it, today's problems are like a small child that has somehow wandered into the elephant pen behind the circus. The government, of course, being the elephants. Needless to say, the best way to save the child does not involve getting the elephants to move.
What is the difference between today's problems, and yesterday's? Time, and detachment. It is much easier for us, nowadays, to look at the Great Depression in its full sweep and conclude rationally that the New Deal prolonged it. At the time, though, it seemed reasonable to scream at the elephants. Oh, and family farms are certainly in peril, not like they were 100 years ago. Assuming, of course, that you ignore the Free Silver movement, which 100 years ago was just beginning its final chapter.
Aside from wars, which have a nasty tendency of being forced upon us, I can scarcely think of a single issue over the past century in which expansive government action has actually left the country better off. At the very least, the sum of all such actions has been a brake on progress rather than an engine.
Dreher is not happy with the way we live today. Neither was Thorsten Veblen, whose Theory of the Leisure Class warned of our descent into a consumerist Hell over 100 years ago, when indoor plumbing and electric lighting were still luxuries. And yet two generations of such voluptuaries later, we produced millions of men ready to storm beaches on Normandy and Iwo Jima. And as spoiled as the 'boomers kids may have been, let's not forget that for every one who went North to Canada, many more went willingly to war. They just didn't get the same press coverage.
Likewise, it is a sure sign of crankery when someone looks upon a thing which looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, and tells us that he has discovered a platypus. To wit, Dreher is convinced that we are no longer sufficiently in touch with that good old-time religion (a theme at least as old as the Reformation). Where others see the enormous success of books with implicitly religious themes, or strong growth of new evangelical sects, Dreher sees Cafeteria Christianity and the Gospel of Prosperity.
When we look at the past through the lens of the present what we see is not the world as it was, but the world as we wished it to be. For if we seek to understand the past as it was, we find a time not exactly like the present, but a world riven by multitudes of fears, uncertainties, and terrors that seemed entirely unsolvable. And yet, here we are, living in times our ancestors would envy.
So there's my dangerous idea: Cheer up, everybody, it's not as bad as you think!