Relaxing in the mist of the holiday, I picked up the latest issue of one of my favorite journals, Academic Questions, the journal of the National Association of Scholars, which was formed about twenty years ago to fight emerging trends in the Humanities. I joined in the early 1990s and have looked forward to the arrival of the quarterly ever since. I am not altogether happy with the direction the organization has taken. It originally included scholars of all political persuasions, including one of our most distinguished Marxist historians, Eugene Genovese, but its tone and, I would imagine, its membership have become more and more conservative over the years, and the current issue, on popular culture, includes a number of articles by associates of right wing think tanks. Yet there are still leftish members like myself, and the journal remains valuable. This quarter's lead article by Lawrence M. Mead, "The Other Danger. . .. Scholasticism in Academic Research," develops a thought I have often had myself, that today's humanities departments increasingly resemble medieval universities and monasteries, endlessly rehashing theoretical controversies of no interest to anyone outside the academy, and specializing far too narrowly to develop any insights of general use. That I must admit had some personal resonance as the year drew to a close. My idea of a historian involves the broadest possible knowledge of at least several centuries of the past, which in turn allows one to put any given era in a broader context and draw some meaningful conclusions about its particular characteristics that intelligent lay people will find intersting. No one knows better than myself that that is not a marketable skill in today's American universities.
But I was even more struck by "A Counter-curriculum for the pop culture classroom" by Thomas Bertonneau, a professor of English currently visiting at the State University of New York at Oswego. The article is not an easy read, and Bertonneau is considerably more conservative than I am in certain respects, but it nonetheless touched on the critical question to which I alluded in my last post, namely, the whole question of self-restraint or regulation of various spheres of human life. (Until the end of the calendar year--in other words, for another five days--the whole journal, apparently, is available on line here.
As Bertonneau explains it, he frequently teaches the popular culture of the past as an antidote to the popular culture of the present. He is quite acute and rather scathing about the latter, which, he emphasizes, is above all a for-profit venture. Today's popular music and film appeal to the rawest senses. They are not participatory--it is almost impossible to sing much of today's popular music on one's own. They are "segmented" demographically, that is, designed to appeal to relatively narrow slices of the population, thus making it impossible for them to create real national discourse. And they are not designed to last. To make these points, Bertonneau explains, he balances them with discussions of two critical episodes from Genesis: Adam and Eve's expulsion from the Garden of Eden and Cain's murder of Abel. And it occurred to me that those two foundational tales have a great deal with the paradox with which I have been struggling, even though I interpret the first of them very differently from him.
Bertonneau ascribes Eve's (and then Adam's) decision to eat the fruit of the forbidden tree to "resentment," a term which he does not develop sufficiently in the article, but which seems to imply resentment of authority in general. As veteran readers know, my own reading of the tale combines the psychoanalyst Alice Miller with Strauss and Howe. Bertonneau does not mention exactly what the tree is, namely, the tree of good and evil, the judgment of which god, like so many parents, wants to reserve for himself. The lord of the Old Testament is, generationally speaking, a Hero, who has created this beautiful new world (in the same way that the GI generation created the Disneyland world that Frank Rich extolled this morning) and given it to his children on the sole condition that they adopt his view of good and evil. But this is exactly what Adam and Eve refuse to do--they have reached the age when they expect their own values to count, an inevitable stage, especially for Prophet generations born after a crisis. Alice Miller has added that the Lord virtually guaranteed that they would eat the fruit of the tree by forbidding it, since children are always most curious about the things that their parents fear the most. Bertonneau seems to prefer the sexual misreading of the episode that has been so popular over the ages, because he notes that having disobeyed one rule, they have to adopt another, the rule against nakedness. I see this as more of a coincidence: Adam and Eve have become aware of the sexual power of their bodies at the same moment that they have also decided to start making their own judgments. And I have always felt the myth would be truer to life ifthey themselves had decided to leave the Garden, their "parent's" miraculous achievement which to them has become commonplace if only because it is all that they have ever known.
In any event, however, the myth of the Garden has been used over several millennia to try to restrict sexual behavior, and that enterprise was probably most successful in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which, coincidentally or not, also represented the greatest age of rationalism that the world has ever known. Because sex is so powerful it is also frightening, and taboos have surrounded it at least since the time of the Old Testament, including taboos against incest, adultery, sex before marriage, and homosexuality. Male fear of feminine sexual power, I would certainly agree, has led to much more extensive taboos as well, including those confining women to the home and, even in the 21st century, compelling them to cover their bodies and their faces. About half a century ago those taboos began to come apart in western society, with tremendous consequences. Premarital sex has become normal, divorce now ends roughly half of all marriages, women function equally in the workplace, pornography is readily available, and just week homosexuals were formally accepted into the American military, virtually completing their march towards recognition as full citizens. The taboo against adultery has not fallen, however, and indeed in some respects it has become stronger, at least in the United States, where it is no longer tolerated among political leaders, a development I have always found to be lamentable. But even though the Republican Party's coalition has included opponents of all these trends, there is no real evidence that any of them are going to be reversed, and despite the weakening of family life they have helped to produce by de-coupling sex from marriage, I must still regard them, on the whole, as a good thing.
Coincidentally enough, last week I discussed One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, which remains for me the best single movie about the Awakening of the 1960s and 1970s, with my elective class at the War College. Why, I asked, was McMurphy in prison and then in the mental hospital? "Fighting and fucking," one student replied, echoing exactly what McMurphy himself told the head of the hospital. Those were two of the instincts, we all agreed, that had to be restrained at least to some extent in order for civilization to function. Another student brought up the instinct of greed, against which the taboos, it seems to me, have historically been weaker. And violence and greed, it seems to me, are the key issues in Bertonneau's second example from Genesis, the story of Cain and Abel. Cain kills Abel out of jealousy--jealousy that God, who is still playing the paternal role even to the second generation, preferred Abel's offerings to his own. Abel was greedy--greedy for recognition--and God told him to accept his disappointment and not to give in to the temptation of sin. But give in Cain did, and murdered Abel.
For the last 35 years no passion has so inflamed American politics as the jealousy of the wealthy towards the demands of the government, which has now given lower tax rates the status of holy writ. And today's Wall Street robber barons have not had to resort to violence, at least within the United States, to satisfy their greed--not, at least, the kind of violence that would land them in jail. Yet they have shown nearly as little concern for their fellow citizens as Abel, calculatedly destroying the economy which our parents had built up and laying waste to whole regions of the United States with successive recessions, each one leaving fewer jobs behind, after "recovery," than the last. It was the genius of the Missionary generation, led by FDR, to realize that modern society demanded restraints upon greed to establish a minimum of economic justice. My generation has abandoned those restraints at least as dramatically as it has those upon sexual behavior. The four Boomer justices who (along with Silent Anthony Kennedy) struck down a century's worth of campaign finance law have accelerated that process even further. Historically taxes have grown higher and the government larger during the great crises of American life--but George W. Bush managed to reverse even that trend while unleashing two new wars, and left the federal government unable to respond effectively to the latest economic crisis.
There is another tragic element of this double transformation of American life. I cannot shake the believe that it was because our parents and grandparents had done such a fine job of dealing with political and economic questions that our generation felt free to devote itself to the pursuit of sexual freedom, gender equity, and the rest. While I would not go so far as to describe those parts of life as luxuries, their enjoyment does depend upon the maintenance of a just legal order, the provision of essential circumstances, and a minimum of economic opportunity. Those were exactly the things that our parents had provided and therefore exactly the things that Boomers took for granted and assumed would always take care of themselves. The joy in the rediscovery of the emotions in the late 1960s and 1970s was all the greater because grown-ups still ruled politics and the economy (and ruled them courageously and effectively enough actually to remove a President from office for violating the law.) Our children and grandchildren, alas, may learn the hard way about the nature of societies that lack those essential protections.
True progress would consist of combining greater emotional and sexual freedom with civic spirit and a measure of economic justice. This is not impossible--a good deal of Europe enjoys that combination right now. Such a combination could also restore the faith in western civilization that has been crumbling in much of the world. It is a worthy project indeed--but one which, I am sorry to say, is unlikely to be carried out here in the United States by the generations alive today. The unborn will have great work to do.