Recommended by Ricochet Members Created with Sketch. A Pandemic of Vitriol

 
sant-courage
James Sant: Courage, Anxiety and Despair – Watching the Battle (c. 1850)

Over the past weeks, my essays have focused on our new songbook (Hurrah and Hallelujah), the sessions we did for streaming performances from the Metropolitan Opera, and opera boot camp. I was happy to write those, and equally happy at the enthusiastic comments and emails you sent in response.

At the same time, I’ve written essays on quite different subjects. But I scrapped them all—not because they were poor topics or badly done, but because it is excruciatingly difficult to say anything right now without whipping up people’s passions in a manner far beyond a rational response to the expression of an observation or concern.

All you have to do is look at ordinarily neutral sites like nextdoor.com — designed for people to share useful information within a neighborhood like dates of bulky trash-pick, locations of road closings, and postings of lawn equipment for sale. Instead, the vitriol on our Nextdoor (and probably yours too) is astounding. Pity the poor guy who mentioned that a restaurant has reopened or the lady who expressed hope that the city’s swimming pools will be available for the kids. These folks have been viciously blasted as “not caring about other people’s lives” (I’m putting that mildly). The disconnect in such personal attacks would be laughable were they not indicative of the precarious dynamics affecting all of us.

Yes, we are living in dangerous times. Those words are no longer a cliché. The outward destruction and violence are but visible manifestations of a danger that goes deeper. That danger was seeded 50-plus years ago by the inferior academic, social, and moral education that has painted so many young people into a corner. It sprouted when it became normal to have a broken family or hear about a young gal proudly pregnant at 14. It has infiltrated so many avenues of our public, private, and spiritual lives that tens of thousands of words cannot begin to describe it.

I have spent most of my life as a historian—a music historian, to be specific. But, as this audience knows well, a music historian must engage in every aspect of culture in order to paint a meaningful picture of a composition’s rising, falling, and subsequent influence. Painting the broadest and deepest possible context of the past is what historians do, or should do. When they cease to do this, or work actively to erase the hard truths of the past, then history becomes weaponized.

My primary field of concentration has been “things Russian.” My first exposure to Russian culture came from a mesmerizing recording of Swan Lake given me as a child by one of my dad’s WWII Army buddies. What a long journey it was from that LP to sitting in the Lenin Library conducting doctoral research in the midst of Brezhnev’s Russia. And that was just Part One of the journey. Decades of researching and working in Russia would follow.

The destructive period of Russian history known as “the Bolshevik Revolution,” consequently, is not just an academic subject for me. Its dark tentacles still strangled the average Russian’s life when I first studied there in 1981. And it continued to do so until some sanity and honesty were restored in Russian society after the Fall of Communism. That was not an easy transition for anyone living there. It was unnerving for all and devastating for many raised in the Communist system. But finally, it became possible to say: “Ah yes, thus ends 70 years of destruction and laying waste in a truly evil attempt to erase and rewrite Russia’s history and try to make human beings into something that human nature will never tolerate (i.e. Communist automatons).”

History makes everything seem inevitable, both the glories and the disasters. Perhaps that is what I like most about history. Time clears the clouds. It ultimately (we have to wait) teaches us what really happened, as well as what should have happened.

Right now we are cloaked in, and choked by, dangerous clouds. Far too many people are strangled by historical ignorance and general ineptitude (just ask a random young person on the streets to multiply two numbers and see what happens). This ignorance and ineptitude are products of an educational system that, to say the least, did not have children’s best interest in its sights. Good and noble teachers have been helpless to save the system, and with few exceptions, it is broken beyond repair. The resulting ignorance has been sustained and watered by parents, relatives, and neighbors who, for a list of reasons, ceased being parents, relatives, and neighbors.

I’m already in murky waters, right? Already just stating the obvious (and believe me, this is obvious, particularly to the rest of the world watching us!) is enough to invoke invectives of an acerbity that would horrify our grandparents. Once, “sailor talk” was an ugly language limited to sailors’ mouths, spawned by rowdiness and drunkenness. Now we see it emblazoned on t-shirts and scrawled on the sides of monuments. How far in the downward spiral we’ve come.

I like to think I’m brave. Looking back, as historians do, I have done a few brave things in my life, although they did not seem so brave at the time. But I don’t feel brave now—not brave enough to enter into the fray on social media (although staying away from social media is more likely an act of wisdom). At the moment, I am being very quiet with family, because we, like many of you, have extended family members who are apologetic for the turmoil taking place around us.

When I sat down to write this article this morning, I intended to consider modern-day magazines, having long wanted to give a eulogy about the beautiful things magazines once offered their subscribers. Maybe I’ll write about magazines another week. Or maybe I don’t need to. For the decline in magazines is just another small manifestation of the void of substance, knowledge, and beauty that has brought us to where we are now.

May we quickly see restoration of moral rectitude and wisdom in people’s actions and restraint in their tongues. May those in the trenches who are throwing their passion, knowledge, and life-experience into the restoration of classical values in education be strengthened in their quest. And may those on the front line whose daily work makes them targets of bullets and bricks be spared. That is my prayer.

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  1. Susan Quinn Contributor

    I think so many of us think that we might be able to appeal to people through the sharing of ideals and values (which many were not raised in). Or speaking of history and how so many of us relate to the Founders or the Constitution. Or trying to reform the educational system so that it is more than a Progressive mouthpiece.

    I don’t think that is possible now or in the near future.

    I’m going to give some thought to how we can reach people at the most fundamental level, which is where they rest. I’m not sure what that means, but if I’m going to make an effort, we need to meet them where they are. Now.

    Thanks for such a thoughtful post, Carol.

    • #1
    • June 4, 2020, at 4:15 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  2. JoelB Member

    I enjoy history and I look forward to reading those essays when the time is right.

    • #2
    • June 4, 2020, at 5:07 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  3. Paul Stinchfield Member
    Paul Stinchfield Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):
    I think so many of us think that we might be able to appeal to people through the sharing of ideals and values

    Clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson says in a lecture that a significant factor in his popularity with young men is that he talks about responsibilities: facing the world, choosing a path, shouldering a burden and this is something that nobody has ever said to these kids. Everyone is constantly bombarded by talk about rights but never about responsibilities (although you cannot have one without the other.) Human beings find meaning and fulfillment in pursuing goals, carrying out responsibilities, while a life of only rights and privileges will ultimately be empty and meaningless.

    • #3
    • June 4, 2020, at 5:22 PM PDT
    • 6 likes
  4. David Foster Member
    David Foster Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Sebastian Haffner, who grew up in Germany between the wars, described a certain kind of people whose meaning in life comes entirely from their political activism. He is talking about a brief period when (under the influence of Gustav Stressemann, he says) the political and economic climate began to stabilize.

    The last ten years were forgotten like a bad dream. The Day of Judgment was remote again, and there was no demand for saviors or revolutionaries…There was an ample measure of freedom, peace, and order, everywhere the most well-meaning liberal-mindedness, good wages, good food and a little political boredom. everyone was cordially invited to concentrate on their personal lives, to arrange their affairs according to their own taste and to find their own paths to happiness.

    Most people were happy with the change…but not everybody:

    A generation of young Germans had become accustomed to having the entire content of their lives delivered gratis, so to speak, by the public sphere, all the raw material for their deeper emotions…Now that these deliveries suddenly ceased, people were left helpless, impoverished, robbed, and disappointed. They had never learned how to live from within themselves, how to make an ordinary private life great, beautiful and worth while, how to enjoy it and make it interesting. So they regarded the end of political tension and the return of private liberty not as a gift, but as a deprivation. They were bored, their minds strayed to silly thoughts, and they began to sulk.

    and

    To be precise (the occasion demands precision, because in my opinion it provides the key to the contemporary period of history): it was not the entire generation of young Germans. Not every single individual reacted in this fashion. There were some who learned during this period, belatedly and a little clumsily, as it were, how to live. they began to enjoy their own lives, weaned themselves from the cheap intoxication of the sports of war and revolution, and started to develop their own personalities. It was at this time that, invisibly and unnoticed, the Germans divided into those who later became Nazis and those who would remain non-Nazis.

    I think we have a lot of people in America today who have become accustomed to “having the entire content of their lives delivered gratis, so to speak, by the public sphere, all the raw material for their deeper emotions”…and this has a lot to do with our current turmoil.

    (a review of Haffner’s invaluable memoir is here)

    • #4
    • June 4, 2020, at 5:30 PM PDT
    • 8 likes
  5. David Foster Member
    David Foster Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Paul Stinchfield (View Comment):
    Paul Stinchfield Ricochet Charter Member

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):
    I think so many of us think that we might be able to appeal to people through the sharing of ideals and values

    Clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson says in a lecture that a significant factor in his popularity with young men is that he talks about responsibilities: facing the world, choosing a path, shouldering a burden and this is something that nobody has ever said to these kids. Everyone is constantly bombarded by talk about rights but never about responsibilities

    The French writer and aviator Antoine de St-Exupery put it this way:

    “If you would have them be brothers, have them build a tower. But if you would have them hate each other, throw them corn.”

    St-Ex also said that “A civilization is built on what is required of men, not on that which is provided for them”

    • #5
    • June 4, 2020, at 5:32 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
    • This comment has been edited.
  6. Paul Stinchfield Member
    Paul Stinchfield Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Paul Stinchfield (View Comment):
    Human beings find meaning and fulfillment in pursuing goals, carrying out responsibilities, while a life of only rights and privileges will ultimately be empty and meaningless.

    Numerous psychologists and sociologists have pointed out that when men are laid off and cannot get new jobs they often sink into depression and sometimes into self destructive behavior such as alcoholism and drug abuse: they have lost their purpose and have become useless in their own eyes.

    • #6
    • June 4, 2020, at 5:57 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  7. Paul Stinchfield Member
    Paul Stinchfield Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    David Foster (View Comment):

    The French writer and aviator Antoine de St-Exupery put it this way:

    “If you would have them be brothers, have them build a tower. But if you would have them hate each other, throw them corn.”

    David, I have lost track of how many times, at ChicagoBoyz and your own blog, you have led me to something of value.

    A fast internet search shows that the above quote is from The Wisdom of the Sands.

    • #7
    • June 4, 2020, at 6:08 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  8. David Foster Member
    David Foster Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Paul Stinchfield (View Comment):

    David Foster (View Comment):

    The French writer and aviator Antoine de St-Exupery put it this way:

    “If you would have them be brothers, have them build a tower. But if you would have them hate each other, throw them corn.”

    David, I have lost track of how many times, at ChicagoBoyz and your own blog, you have led me to something of value.

    A fast internet search shows that the above quote is from The Wisdom of the Sands.

    Thanks. Wisdom of the Sands is a very interesting book which is little-read, unfortunately. (Terrible title, sounds like a chintzy self-help book…St Ex’s own title for the book was Citadelle)

    • #8
    • June 4, 2020, at 6:30 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  9. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    A very impressive post, Prof. Carol. You give your readers a lot to think about, and we appreciate it. Thank you. 

    When the current set of endless emergencies fade, as they must, let’s get back to the main thrust of what you do so uniquely here for history buffs–which is to say, probably nearly all of Ricochet. 

    And a sidenote–yes, magazines are mostly dying and they will be missed. Like every other form of media they became infested by an absence of non-politics, but they have had a very particular sort of place in our lives, slotted right in between daily newspapers and books. At their best, they had the immediacy of the former and the insights of the latter. 

    • #9
    • June 4, 2020, at 10:48 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  10. Steven Seward Member

    Excellent article, Professor! But as an aside:

    I was really taken in by that painting you posted. I confess that I am not familiar with the artist, and I should be, seeing the quality of the work. It is a masterpiece of dynamic three-dimensional structure, combined with drama, masterful anatomy, and subtle tonal values.

    • #10
    • June 4, 2020, at 10:52 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  11. Paul Stinchfield Member
    Paul Stinchfield Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    David Foster (View Comment):
    Thanks. Wisdom of the Sands is a very interesting book which is little-read, unfortunately.

    And out of print.

    • #11
    • June 5, 2020, at 6:31 AM PDT
    • Like
  12. David Foster Member
    David Foster Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Linked at ChicagoBoyz

    • #12
    • June 6, 2020, at 1:57 PM PDT
    • Like