Dissenters, not victors

In Lower Pacific Heights, San Francisco and enjoying the fresh December air from my friends’ studio apartment. From Don Eberly’s The Essential Civil Society Reader:

While it is often said that history is written by the winners, the truth is that the cultural images that come down to us as history are written, in large part, by the dissenters—by those whose strong feelings against life in a particular generation motivate them to become the novelists, playwrights, and social critics of the next, drawing inspiration from the injustices and hypocrisies of the time in which they grew up. We have learned much of what we know about family life in America in the 1950s from women who chafed under its restrictions, either as young, college-educated housewives who found it unfulfilling or as teenage girls secretly appalled by the prom-and-cheerleader social milieu. Much of the image of American Catholic life in those years comes from the work of former Catholics who considered the church they grew up in not only authoritarian but destructive of their free choices and creative instincts. The social critics of the past two decades have forced on our attention the inconsistencies and absurdities of life a generation ago: the pious skirt-chasing husbands, the martini-sneaking ministers, the sadistic gym teachers.

I am not arguing with the accuracy of any of those individual memories. But our collective indignation makes little room for the millions of people who took the rules seriously and tried to live up to them, within the profound limits of human weakness. They are still around, the true believers of the 1950s, in small towns and suburbs and big-city neighborhoods all over the country, reading the papers, watching television, and wondering in old age what has happened to America in the last thirty years. If you visit middle-class American suburbs today, and talk to the elderly women who have lived out their adult lives in these places, they do not tell you how constricted and demeaning their lives in the 1950s were. They tell you those were the best years they can remember. And if you visit a working-class Catholic parish in a big city, and ask the older parishioners what they think of the church in the days before Vatican II, they don’t tell you that it was tyrannical or that it destroyed their individuality. They tell you they wish they could have it back. For them, the erosion of both community and authority in the last generation is not a matter of intellectual debate. It is something they can feel in their bones, and the feeling makes them shiver.

Incredible swaths of history might suffer from a “forest for the trees” lack of perspective; of a fixation on the ways in which a great period of human life failed its social, cultural, religious, ethnic minorities or dissenters. While important to record, those sorts of failings should only rarely dominate our memory of a particular generation.

Eberly provides a great tool here for thinking through what’s maybe a natural, perpetual sort of action/reaction in each generation that explains the stereotype of the old always criticizing the young. What they might be criticizing in youth is the different character of the time they life in, having become so populated by a sense of reality that frankly doesn’t accurately describe their own lived-memory of the past but that the young are too happy to accept.

This is also an interesting passage because it underscoreas that the artististic/cultural/intellectual classes are as at-risk of being reactionary and simpleminded in their thinking as anyone, but with greater consequences to mislead the million who rely on them for great art, for great books, for great thinking and observation and perspective.

If history is often written by dissenters, then a simple thought experiment is to consider that whatever you’re hearing might be something like the opposite of the true portrait of a time.