Recommended by Ricochet Members Created with Sketch. History and the Vector of Shame

 

Perhaps you have seen the meme that shows WWII soldiers and says something along the lines of “they stormed the beaches for us, we’re just being asked to stay on our couches.” As far as exhortations to stay home go, I suppose it is one of the less annoying and more anodyne ones, but it’s still full of a smug, pompous, and scornful shame directed at us today, extolling the virtues of our honored ancestors over and against the alleged sins of our current generation.

It absolutely reeks of the sort of derision that says “not only are you no better than them, but you’re actually likely a great deal worse since we have to nanny you into staying in your own home.” It is an appeal to heroic nostalgia for a sepia-toned and non-existent past, where somehow the people were “more real,” more manly (or womanly) than today. Putting aside my general annoyance with such nannyism, as a perpetual student of history, I also have to cry foul over the comparison and call it what it is: bilge.

The historian in me usually wants to whack people over the head when they put prior generations on pedestals for, as in this example, going through the Depression and WWII without complaining, or whatever else. For my mother’s father’s family, they were all poor farmers and the tough times of the 1930s were all they knew. While my grandfather would talk about re-stuffing the mattresses with corn husks every summer (or corncobs if he were in an impishly funny mood, when he would freely exaggerate hardships for the sake of a laugh), he never tried to paint those times as somehow ideal.

He certainly looked back on when the doc removed everyone’s tonsils in their front room one afternoon without any fondness (for there was also no anesthetic beyond a supply of popsicles), nor did he ever show any sort of “my generation had it worse, you little snots” attitude, but rather one of deep gratitude that things were so much better after the war.

The point being to all those stories was that they didn’t complain, not out of any nostalgic sense of toughness, or that they were somehow better or more virtuous, but because they didn’t know things could be better at that time. It seemed idyllic because it was all they knew, not because they were somehow tougher.

And the stories he told of his own generation after the war don’t point to any necessarily greater “toughness” or stoic virtue than anyone else — when dealing with the union he was forced to be in it was rather a different attitude in fact, as it was filled with crooks, cutthroats, thugs, and layabouts who would think nothing of putting the rank and file through a hard winter’s strike, then immediately raise the dues and soak up any hard-won wages. My grandmother was certainly not somehow more virtuous for surviving the hardships of the ’30s and then the War — she spent much of the rest of her life, having now tasted better, wanting yet more and more.

And it was much the same with my father’s family, though since my dad’s parents were a good decade older than my mother’s parents, they did remember how much better things had seemed in the ’20s, and how suddenly it all halted. My great-grandfather’s health failed him, and my grandfather had already quit school by 1923, at the age of 13, in order to work to support the household, and that opened a lifelong rift with his brothers who (in his eyes) never did their fair share, and never toughed anything out if they could avoid it, not then and not later.

While I understand the sentiment behind it, I think Tom Brokaw’s Greatest Generation books were a massive disservice both to history and to those people, and a horrendous cherry-picking paean to a generation that Brokaw himself treated poorly when still a reporter, and so felt he had to make amends to while there was still time. The books selectively highlighted the good bits, and good anecdotes, and so covered over the sins of many within that cohort, sins that my grandparents knew all too well. In so doing, now those ghosts are made to loom large over us, staring out from re-used snapshots in memes, in heroic poses captured in the moments of crisis to overlay selected shots of the worst of us, from Trigglypuff to the silly stock-art we know to be staged for making easy captions. Well, cameras were expensive then, and film was by and large saved for only the “best,” while today such photos are cheap and lend themselves to cheap spectacle and vanity. Neither then nor now were mundane things fit for widespread dissemination.

And now we are facing a crisis of our own and such comparisons tempt us to shame, their best against our worst, as though somehow our own efforts are unworthy, and our own attitudes put our ancestral toughness to shame, when in fact our forebears were very much then as we are now, muddling through and wondering whether their ancestors had somehow been tougher, since they conquered the frontier and tamed the “injuns,” or else had braved leaving the old world behind for the new.

We tell ourselves that they somehow were brave and hearty stoics through it all, but the truth of it is that they muddled through, lurching from crisis to crisis while trying to adapt, groping blindly towards an uncertain and frightening future, and we are doing no differently. We revere our grandparents and great-grandparents for their frugality and hard work, forgetting that many of them were on the take (some ancestors of mine were avid bootleggers) or mooching off their harder-working relatives. We’re shaming ourselves for our own sins by denying that our forebears had any of their own.

And anyone who actually studies the 1930s and ’40s quickly realizes what a frightful political mess they were too. We forget now that Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC, with their shouting heads and naked partisanship, had their own analogues at the time. We say that FDR was a demagogue, but we forget he had plenty of competition on the radio and in print. If we think there was somehow some national unity and consensus during the Depression, we are fooling ourselves — national politics then were horribly acrimonious and disunited, with the Democrats routinely accusing the Republicans of treason for opposing FDR, and the Republicans looking to score on FDR’s failings for nakedly partisan gains. We lionize the past at our own peril, especially if we do so merely to shame our own present.

We have no roadmap for whatever lies ahead. Neither did they, nor would they if somehow they were brought back today. We’re muddling through, same as them, and clueless as to how this all plays out, same as them too. We are all wondering too, whether we will be one of the WuFlu’s victims, and worried that those dear to us might get it instead. That’s ok, and so long as we do not let our fears paralyze us entirely, these fears do not unman us by their presence. Take comfort in this: two generations hence, our descendants won’t tell our stories any more correctly than we tell those of our forebears, and in their own crises they’ll look at ours and wonder how in hell we got through it all so stoically.

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  1. Paul Stinchfield Member
    Paul Stinchfield Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    The only version of that which I have seen was a landing craft at Normandy Beach with the caption “college aged kids leaving their safe space,” which was an entirely justified slap in the face to SJW’s.

    • #1
    • March 31, 2020, at 5:55 PM PDT
    • 7 likes
  2. Western Chauvinist Member
    Western Chauvinist Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Hmm… I take your point, and I agree in every crisis there are people capable of great heroism and great depravity. But, the kids recording themselves licking toilet seats and whinging about their spring break being ruined while spreading WuFlu to seniors in Florida? Yeah, I want them shamed.

    • #2
    • March 31, 2020, at 5:59 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  3. Randy Weivoda Moderator
    Randy Weivoda Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Western Chauvinist (View Comment):

    Hmm… I take your point, and I agree in every crisis there are people capable of great heroism and great depravity. But, the kids recording themselves licking toilet seats and whinging about their spring break being ruined while spreading WuFlu to seniors in Florida? Yeah, I want them shamed.

    There’s no problem with shaming individuals for their stupid behavior. But I think it is human nature to view people within a generation as if they are largely the same, and that’s a mistake. Every generation has its fools, its geniuses, its cowards, its heroes, the selfish and selfless.

    • #3
    • March 31, 2020, at 6:31 PM PDT
    • 9 likes
  4. She Reagan
    She Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    SkipSul: Take comfort in this: two generations hence, our descendants won’t tell our stories any more correctly than we tell those of our forebears, and in their own crises they’ll look at ours and wonder how in hell we got through it all so stoically.

    Well, I hope that’s true. Although I’m afraid that, absent a total meltdown of the Internet and big data, it won’t be. It’s possible for the events of 80-100-150-200 years ago to be assessed and evaluated through the lens of history, and through a highly selective set (relatively speaking) of data which diminishes in size the further we go back in time.

    That will never be true again, and 100 years from now, all the sordid, sorry, heroic, and pathetic details of life in the second decade of the twenty-first century will be available and at the fingertips of anyone who bothers to call them up. And I think that will change the way we look at history forever.

    SkipSul: The point being to all those stories was that they didn’t complain, not out of any nostalgic sense of toughness, or that they were somehow better or more virtuous, but because they didn’t know things could be better at that time. It seemed idyllic because it was all they knew, not because they were somehow tougher.

    I don’t think that was true in my family. Their lives may not have been idyllic before the wars (First, Second or Boer–in all of which I had relatives who fought and whom I knew and remember), but their lives were for the most part fairly decent, and didn’t involve bombs, bullets, gas trenchfoot, or imminent annihilation. And they did complain. Because they wanted things to go back to the way they were, “before” all those things entered their lives. They did know life had been better. And they wanted their “better” back. But somehow, they did muddle through. And kept buggering on (to quote Churchill).

    SkipSul: We’re shaming ourselves for our own sins by denying that our forebears had any of their own.

    I think that’s a bit of a stretch. Mostly, I think we’re just trying to figure out what it was that kept our parents and grandparents going, and which got them through such terribly difficult times. Was there something they had that we don’t? I think there probably was. But it belongs to a world, and a life, that doesn’t exist anymore. And I don’t think we’ve figured out what to replace it with, at least yet.

     

    • #4
    • March 31, 2020, at 7:37 PM PDT
    • 8 likes
  5. SkipSul Coolidge
    SkipSul Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    She (View Comment):
    I don’t think that was true in my family. Their lives may not have been idyllic before the wars (First, Second or Boer–in all of which I had relatives who fought and whom I knew and remember), but their lives were for the most part fairly decent, and didn’t involve bombs, bullets, gas trenchfoot, or imminent annihilation. And they did complain. Because they wanted things to go back to the way they were, “before” all those things entered their lives. They did know life had been better. And they wanted their “better” back. But somehow, they did muddle through. And kept buggering on (to quote Churchill).

    For my Irish and Swedish forebears (especially for the Irish) anything was better than it had been, facing starvation and repression back home, or else the draft by either the Tsar (they were Swedes-Finns). Even the Depression was better by contrast with that. For the rest, farmers all, the passing of time brought their hardships, but also technological improvements. And the War provided opportunities for upward mobility, training and more besides. Most of them never returned to the family farms after the war, that would have been a step backwards.

    • #5
    • March 31, 2020, at 8:01 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  6. SkipSul Coolidge
    SkipSul Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    She (View Comment):
    I think that’s a bit of a stretch. Mostly, I think we’re just trying to figure out what it was that kept our parents and grandparents going, and which got them through such terribly difficult times. Was there something they had that we don’t? I think there probably was. But it belongs to a world, and a life, that doesn’t exist anymore. And I don’t think we’ve figured out what to replace it with, at least yet.

    In fairness, we’ve never really been put to anything like the same tests.

    • #6
    • March 31, 2020, at 8:05 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  7. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    This is a very wise post, and in a way, tough and risky to write, because a shallow, superficial read could miss the profound depth of SkipSul’s obvious respect for what our fathers and grandfathers accomplished. It takes nothing from the justified Nineties wave of “Greatest Generation”/”Saving Private Ryan” revision to say that every generation, ours included, rises to its challenges. It wasn’t all that long ago–seventeen years–about a quarter of my life–that men my age were in awe of the toughness and patriotism of the generation that grew up in the shadow of 9/11. Constant downgrading of the present is eternal. 

     

    • #7
    • March 31, 2020, at 8:07 PM PDT
    • 13 likes
  8. iWe Reagan
    iWe Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Wow. I salute the contrarian nature of this post.

    • #8
    • March 31, 2020, at 8:26 PM PDT
    • 6 likes
  9. Western Chauvinist Member
    Western Chauvinist Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Here’s the thing, though. As conservatives, we tend to take a dim view of human nature overall and find the exceptions notable because. . . well, they’re exceptions. But, the culture in which people are formed does change with the times and I’m of the opinion that, on average, we are a softer, less virtuous people. Prosperity and secularization makes for ingratitude in a way that wasn’t possible in more austere times. Our mediating institutions have been in decline for some decades now — family is badly damaged by no-fault divorce and widespread illegitimacy (are we allowed to use that word?); faith is in disrepute as either “anti-science” or corrupt (Church sex scandal — really the homosexual predation scandal, but I know we’re not allowed to say that); schools teach Howard Zinn’s proctologist’s view of America instead of unifying students in civic pride. . .

    Sure, there were people of bad character back in the day (my paternal grandfather was a real bastard and badly mistreated my father who was born in 1919). I think we can be real about that, but acknowledge that the deck is increasingly stacked against forming men of good character what with the loss of any moral/cultural lodestar or cultural consensus on “the good life.” Christianity used to give us a Yardstick by which to measure. That’s mostly gone.

    We still have heroes (I know some working in the ICU right now), but the Left has smashed our cultural moral compass and I don’t think it’s going to be repaired any time soon. Maybe this crisis will bring on a revival. We can hope.

    • #9
    • March 31, 2020, at 8:32 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  10. SkipSul Coolidge
    SkipSul Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Western Chauvinist (View Comment):
    But, the culture in which people are formed does change with the times and I’m of the opinion that, on average, we are a softer, less virtuous people.

    Isn’t that the common complaint of all generations, though, of their successors (that they are soft), or themselves by comparison with their honored parents?

    • #10
    • March 31, 2020, at 8:44 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  11. Clavius Thatcher

    This post presents a great perspective that I heartily endorse.

    This is our challenge, our hill to climb. And, like our ancestors, we will climb it, falling along the way.

    We remember the best of the past so it can give us fortitude to do our best.

    • #11
    • March 31, 2020, at 9:33 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  12. She Reagan
    She Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    SkipSul (View Comment):

    Western Chauvinist (View Comment):
    But, the culture in which people are formed does change with the times and I’m of the opinion that, on average, we are a softer, less virtuous people.

    Isn’t that the common complaint of all generations, though, of their successors (that they are soft), or themselves by comparison with their honored parents?

    Yes it is. And I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. Remembering the sacrifices of those before us, and questioning whether we are, or would be, up to the challenge if faced with such situations ourselves, and strengthening and developing our abilities in those directions, is a useful and character-building exercise.

    Where it goes wrong (as usual) is if we start to deride and mock each other, when we stop trying to better ourselves, and when we believe that we’re of the generation that has reached the pinnacle of human perfection and that it will all be plain sailing with no bumps in the road (sorry, mixed metaphor) from hereon out.

    Life is messy. I think that’s an awareness that grows on one with time, and a lesson which the young are sometimes slow to learn. But they’ll get there.

    • #12
    • April 1, 2020, at 5:19 AM PDT
    • 7 likes
  13. Titus Techera Contributor

    SkipSul (View Comment):

    Western Chauvinist (View Comment):
    But, the culture in which people are formed does change with the times and I’m of the opinion that, on average, we are a softer, less virtuous people.

    Isn’t that the common complaint of all generations, though, of their successors (that they are soft), or themselves by comparison with their honored parents?

    Skip, I don’t think American fathers who saw their sons fight the Revolution or the Civil War or World War II thought those boys soft. You’re of course a historian as you say, so you maybe have evidence to the contrary or at least an educated guess? I don’t see how American sons whose fathers did these thing could avoid the knowledge, too sure to lie about with sophisms, that their fathers had been stronger men.

    I’m not sure how we could avoid the knowledge that we are far softer than American men have ever been.

    • #13
    • April 1, 2020, at 5:53 AM PDT
    • Like
  14. iWe Reagan
    iWe Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Titus Techera (View Comment):
    …we are far softer than American men have ever been.

    Who is “we”?

    I agree with the generalization – but not the inclusion of me and mine. 

    • #14
    • April 1, 2020, at 6:03 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  15. Western Chauvinist Member
    Western Chauvinist Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    iWe (View Comment):

    Titus Techera (View Comment):
    …we are far softer than American men have ever been.

    Who is “we”?

    I agree with the generalization – but not the inclusion of me and mine.

    Agreed, that’s why I said, “on average” in my comment. The average has shifted toward softer, less virtuous. Heck, men’s voices are higher (on average) if you listen to the younger generation. When’s the last time you came across a young guy with a nice bass voice? Girls speak fry and guys speak fem*.

    Leftism has no need of stinkin’ history or gratitude for those who sacrificed to get us where we are because leftists are the most enlightened, advanced of all humankind, ever. Just ask them.

    *I looked it up. It’s a disorder called “puberphonia” and is is psychogeneic — that is, not because these young men lack the anatomy for a deep voice, but because of something in their mental state. I’d guess it’s a defensive posture against a culture that hates men.

    • #15
    • April 1, 2020, at 6:38 AM PDT
    • 6 likes
  16. Western Chauvinist Member
    Western Chauvinist Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    And, btw, ignorance and ingratitude for the past are much bigger problems than shaming of the present generation. I’d say the current generation is pretty shameless — on average.

    • #16
    • April 1, 2020, at 6:44 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  17. SkipSul Coolidge
    SkipSul Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Titus Techera (View Comment):
    Skip, I don’t think American fathers who saw their sons fight the Revolution or the Civil War or World War II thought those boys soft.

    Until they were put to the test by WWII, by what lights could that generation have actually proved itself? We forget how much crises change us, and are often guilty either of historicism or fatalism when we look back to times and peoples before their tests and try to discern clear bright lines of inevitable causation and purpose to what they later became. Moreover, we make a different error when we somehow assume that each generation made itself into what it is, denying the role played by that generation’s parents – we heap the sins or strengths of character and upbringing on the children while the parents are never considered.

    Without the trials of the war (a war, we should remember, that was directed by, and made inevitable by, the actions of their forebears), what the “Greatest Generation” (see objection above) would have become is beyond our reach, but we can hazard a guess by what their children (the Boomers) did become, for the Boomers were by and large denied any rights to claim such monumental struggles, and were held to little account by their parents. Man of the Boomers were shoved through the grinder of Vietnam, where tens of thousands died, then, through no fault of their own but through political machinations by their elders, their accomplishments were chucked away. Many of the rest thought they were fulfilling the work of their parents’ victory in WWII by protesting the war back here, and by and large that came to naught as well, with no peace revolution every forthcoming. Put simply, the Baby Boomer generation is derided in its entirety as soft, narcissistic, and vain, but their own parents were the ones who raised them, then held them to impossible and conflicting standards (“We lived through the Depression and WWII, what did you ever do?”). Even now, the churlish “OK Boomer” nonsense dismisses them en bloc, and casts at naught their many many accomplishments.

    Looking at the WWII generation – they were made to grow up quickly, drafted into a war not of their own making, directed by officers and politicians of their parents’ and grandparents’ generations, who also had the duty of training and organizing them, and then seeing them through to victory. If that generation was somehow “harder” than we are, it was not by its own choice or work that it was made so.

    And if today’s youth really are somehow “softer”, who failed to bring them up any differently? I think this current pandemic will burn away a lot the nonsense in time, as crises always do, and people will step forward or shirk away, as they always have done.

    • #17
    • April 1, 2020, at 7:22 AM PDT
    • 5 likes
  18. Western Chauvinist Member
    Western Chauvinist Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    SkipSul (View Comment):

    Western Chauvinist (View Comment):
    But, the culture in which people are formed does change with the times and I’m of the opinion that, on average, we are a softer, less virtuous people.

    Isn’t that the common complaint of all generations, though, of their successors (that they are soft), or themselves by comparison with their honored parents?

    Yes, but we have to account for the possibility that it’s true — not because human nature has changed, but because the culture has. 

    What is virtue? The answer given by a (now formerly) Christian culture would have been “self sacrifice for the good of others.” The current culture reinforces the idea that virtuous people must reduce their carbon footprint, recycle paper, glass, and plastic, and use the (im)proper pronouns for people with mentally defective concepts of what sex they are. Manly men are “toxic” and must moderate or eliminate their competitive impulses. Women who choose to behave in formerly virtuous feminine ways (bearing children, creating and maintaining a home, caring for and forming a family — husband and children) are lesser humans because they’re not behaving more like men used to. Yes, it’s incoherent and foolish, but that’s leftism for you.

    It isn’t necessary to sanitize the past to acknowledge this. We’re a culture in decline. We don’t deal with the reality of human nature. We’re accustomed to and have a sense of entitlement for the incredibly good times we live in. We’re increasingly ignorant of history because we’re conceited about who we are and feel no need to know where we came from.

    I’d say self-regard is a much bigger problem than shame. #BringBackShame!!

    • #18
    • April 1, 2020, at 7:30 AM PDT
    • 5 likes
  19. Western Chauvinist Member
    Western Chauvinist Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member