O Tempora, O Mores
Has there ever been a time that wasn’t the worst of all times?
Now the Old White Guard of the Republican party tells us that we are descending ever further into moral and social hell with things such as same-sex marriage, sex-education in schools, fluoridation and the scientific conspiracy against Christmas, to say nothing of the fact that Obama is in the White House, plotting to destroy everything our Founding Fathers originally intended when they hashed out their famous Compromise of 1787.
This has been going on for a while. In 1995, Sen. Bob Dole complained that Hollywood is turning out ”nightmares of depravity,” citing such movies as Natural Born Killers and True Romance.
Yeah, they were the final trumpet of the Apocalypse. Or were they?
It’s just like a conservative to complain about culture and the press ”pimping and pandering for all degrees of vicious taste, and gorging with coined lies the most voracious maw.”
But Dole didn’t say that. Charles Dickens did, in 1842.
If there is one constant in civilization, it is that civilization seems perennially near death, and what is more, is being done in by barbarians.
”Past, and to come, seems best; things present, worst,” wrote Shakespeare in Henry IV, Part 2.
One of the most compelling myths of society was first given definitive form nearly 3,000 years ago by the Greek writer Hesiod, who postulated that humankind had fallen from the perfection of its ”Golden Age” through the lesser, but still great, ”Silver Age,” and into an era of flawed heroes known as the ”Bronze Age.” Current humanity, he said, lives in an ”Iron Age” where the decline of human values is nearly complete.
In its elaborated form, it is a humanistic version of the Christian Fall of Man.
We always think the past was better: more civil, more intelligent, with higher morals and without the problems that plague us now. Of course, it is pure fantasy.
It is important to keep this in mind when thinking about the fogeys’ fusillades against Hollywood and American popular culture, which has always been one of the fountain-sources of increased tolerance and inclusivity.
Let’s not forget the hoopla that Elvis Presley caused when he first started gyrating before American teen-agers. The reaction of Rev. Carl Elgena of Des Moines, Iowa, was typical: ”The belief in unholy pleasures has sent the morals of our nation down to rock bottom, and the crowning addition to this day’s corruption is Elvis Presleyism.”
The good reverend averred that Presley ”is morally insane and by his actions, he’s leading other young people to the same end.”
Those other young people, of course, are now respectable grandparents, in their turn lamenting gagsta rap.
Rock and roll frequently took hits from the cultural Jeremiahs. They complained that when teen-agers did the twist, for instance, that they wiggled around ”like Hottentots” and never even made contact with their dance partners.
That was an amusing complaint, considering that in the 1800s, the waltz came under fire for the opposite reason.
When the waltz was turning into a craze in Europe, one critic complained of the ”erotic nature” of the dance and wrote, ”The dancers grasped the long dress of their partners so that it would not drag and be trodden upon, and lifted it high, holding them in this cloak which brought both bodies under one cover, as closely as possible against them and in this way, the whirling continued in the most indecent positions. … Now I understand very well why here and there in parts of Swabia and Switzerland the waltz has been prohibited.”
As early as 1797, Halle Salomo Jakob Wolf published a pamphlet titled Proof That Waltzing Is a Main Source of the Weakness of the Body and Mind of Our Generation.
And when the same spit-gargling critics picks on Hollywood, it also has a familiar ring.
In 1936, the Hearst chain of newspapers decried Mae West as a ”menace to the sacred institution of the family,” and added, ”is it not time for Congress to do something about Mae West?” Ads for West’s film Klondike Annie were refused in Hearst papers.
In the ’30s, a rage for moral uplift swept through Hollywood, and Will H. Hays was hired to enforce a studio ”production code” that would prevent immoral behavior from being shown in films. The missionary fervor was intense.
”The potentialities of motion pictures for moral influence and education are limitless,” Hays said. ”Therefore, its integrity should be protected as we protect the integrity of our children and our schools, and its quality developed as we develop the quality of our schools. … Above all is our duty to youth. We must have toward that sacred thing, the mind of a child, toward that clean and virgin thing, that unmarked slate, we must have toward that thing the same responsibility, the same care about the impression made upon it, that the best teacher or the best clergyman, the most inspired teacher of youth, would have.”
It should be noted that the Hays office didn’t prevent Cecil B. DeMille from filming biblical dancing girls and love affairs between Samsons and Delilahs.
Another great crusade to save America came in the early ’50s when Fredric Wertham published his book, Seduction of the Innocent, in which he took to task the comic-book industry for the miserable moral state of the youth of America.
For Wertham, comics caused sadism, masochism and masturbation. They were filled with homoeroticism, racism, fascism and sexism. And what is more, they caused dyslexia.
”To publish crime comics has nothing to do with civil liberties,” he wrote. ”It is a perversion of the idea of civil liberties.”
You find in many places the same sort of concern for the morals of art and its effect on the youth of a nation. It runs through Confucius. Plato would refuse artists a place in his perfect republic.
It is the charge brought by Miletus against Socrates as a ”corrupter of youth.”
It is the lament of Cicero, who wrote, ”O tempora, O mores” — ”O the times, the customs!”
As far back as the sixth century B.C., the Greek statesman Solon warned us, ”Poets tell many lies.”
And around 2000 B.C., one anonymous poet wrote:
”To whom can I speak today?
”Gentleness has perished
”And the violent man has come down on everyone.”
Society is always at its worst moment. And if conservatives wants to pretend that it is any different today, well, then, we remember some other words of Cicero:
”Old men are garrulous by nature.”
Hi there– where did you get your picture of cicero?