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Sunday Night Journal — December 16, 2012

 The Waning of Adulthood

This is a subject that comes to mind for me sometimes when I've been watching old, which is to say roughly pre-1960, movies or TV shows, or even listening to the classic American popular songs of the pre-rock-and-roll 20th century. To develop fully a thesis on this topic would require a fair amount of research, which I'm certainly never going to do. So consider what follows as a set of unsupported impressions, hardly definitive but, I hope, worth considering.

I've always been annoyed by those giddy commenters on pop culture who treat what they see in the entertainment or advertising of the "era" between roughly 1930 and 1965 as if it were a real picture of real life in those times. (This use of the word "era" always strikes me as a problem in itself; in my mind an era is quite a long period of time, defined by serious events, such as an ice age or the Protestant Reformation, but these writers are capable of using terms like "the Lady GaGa era.") But yet those images from popular culture are not meaningless or accidental: they do tell us something about the times that produced them. They do not show us what actually was, as anyone old enough to remember the 1950s can attest. But they do show us what some people thought about what actually was, and the way they thought it should be. Frequently they embody what artists or advertisers thought would be appealing to the masses, and in that sense they say something about the masses.

It seems to me that there has been a diminishment and almost a repudiation of the idea of adulthood as it was once understood. The adults in a movie of the 1940s might be bad or good but there was no doubt that they were adults. A thirty-year-old was expected, indeed assumed, to be about as mature as he would ever be. The men, if middle-class, wore suits and ties and hats and worked at something the rest of the world considered serious and significant. If working-class, their dress was simpler but still in some sense dignified, and their position possessed of some dignity, even if it was lowly. The women dressed more modestly and with more dignity than is typical today, and, constricted as we might see their situation to be now, it was at least a fairly clearly defined one. Though the role of housewife may have been treated lightly by men, it also commanded a certain respect, not in the sense that accomplishments in the working world were respected, but respected in its sphere. 

I notice that I mentioned dignity three times in the preceding paragraph, and I think that's a key part of what I'm trying to articulate. In contrast to older expectations, men are now mere "guys" until they are well into their 40s, essentially trivial figures (unless they are action heroes), sex-and-sports-obsessed louts. And although feminist-enforced convention dictates the designation of females as "women," they are often portrayed as acquisitive narcissists, also sex-obsessed, whose feelings are the ultimate law of the universe, and for whom children are an accessory. 

I think the general level of literacy was higher prior to 1970 or so--literacy in the broad sense, what has been called "cultural literacy." It seems that literary and historical allusions were more broadly understood. Consider, for instance, the adult humor of Rocky and Bullwinkle. I doubt it could be produced today, and if it were it would not be accepted, because it is too steeped in the lore that was once absorbed from the surrounding culture and from ordinary education. Consider, for that matter, the phrase I just used: "adult humor". To prefix the word "adult" to any form of entertainment now suggests first that it will be lewd, crude, and possibly pornographic. 

The universal acceptance of crudeness that once had no place in the public sphere is surely one of the most telling symptoms of the decline, because it was once expected that adults controlled their use of what used to be called obscene language. The amount of it that shows up in movies, news, and entertainment has reached levels that once existed only among the very crude, or in certain male-only environments such as the military. In any case, whatever the private use of this language, almost everyone understood that it was not to be used in public, and indeed to use it in certain situations--in the presence of a lady, for instance--was a grave social offense, and often illegal. (Those prohibitions survive as relics in the rules for broadcast radio and television, and are under constant attack.)

Yet now there is a positive enthusiasm for it. Just a day or two ago, in the local paper, I saw a review of a movie about a man and a teddy bear, described in the headline and twice in the first few paragraphs (which was as far as I read) as "raunchy". Well, we know what that means: not only crude language but lots of sex and unpleasant-bodily-function humor. And there's a special delight in putting this language into situations where it collides most powerfully with a natural sense of propriety: in the mouths of children, for instance. Or, I gather from this movie review, a teddy bear, a thing firmly associated with childhood innocence.

I don't think that the whole of society is happy with these changes. Millions of people are not. But they are powerless against the sophisticates.

I certainly don't mean to say that conventional notions (especially in this context bourgeois notions) of propriety are to be identified with absolute right and wrong. But the two are connected, in that they involve a respect for right order. When propriety is consciously rejected--I was about to say in art, but I think this holds in life as well--it should be largely for the purpose of pointing out a divergence between propriety and right order. When propriety is rejected merely because it is propriety, then right order is also being attacked. And I think that's what we see in the entertainment industry now, and in much of society at large.

Adulthood is an essential part of right order. The term suggests maturity, dignity, and decorum. And respect, both given and received: respect for the order of society and for the cosmic order, respect shown to others and expected from them. But some of the most popular comedy on television now, cartoon shows like The Simpsons and Family Guy, include a bitter contempt for adults as an essential part of their appeal. The fathers of 1950s sitcoms, who were often portrayed as a bit out of touch but generally decent and to be taken seriously, are now often ugly selfish fools whom no one could possibly respect.

As so often in the modern rebellion, the baby has been thrown out with the bath water. If the respectable didn't deserve respect, or failed to respect the people below them in the social hierarchy, the response ought to have been to expose the disparity and press for adherence to standards, not to undermine the whole idea of respect, which has been replaced by an insistence upon approval--a very different thing, as self-esteem is a very different thing from self-respect. What has been enshrined in place of adulthood is a somewhat adolescent self-assertion, a desire to see oneself as above all independent and authentic. This, naturally and inevitably, becomes a convention in itself, but not a very attractive one.

One reason this keeps bothering me (I was thinking about it nine years ago when I wrote about The Twilight Zone) is that I feel its loss. I feel that there was some form of adulthood which I once expected to attain but which vanished before I could reach it, like the top floor of a half-destroyed building. I  may recognize and regret this development, but I'm still affected by it, and a participant in it. I have no more desire than anyone else to wear a tie, and if I didn't have to maintain a certain level of presentability at work--far below coat-and-tie levels, but still not without some standard--I would probably look like a beatnik most of the time. This is a faint and distant echo of the rebellion that helped to produce the whole cultural sea-change which I'm trying to describe.


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I miss adults. Whenever I see a man in a suit, especially someone who doesn't wear one all the time, I always think how nice he looks.

I've noticed that girls, although they may not be sufficiently covered, have begun to dress up a bit more, and more often. A few years ago it was almost impossible to find skirts and dresses in stores and now they are everywhere.


A faint sign of hope, I guess.

Top administrators here still wear coats and ties, but no one else. I have a sport coat in my office but it's only for days in summer when the ac is over-active or in winter when the heat is under-active. Like I said, I'm as bad as anybody else: hate wearing a coat and tie, feel completely out of place in them. Probably look that way, too.

I blame the ubiquity of the t-shirt.

I’m so old I remember when it was worn primarily as an undergarment.


Somebody called me dignified today. Could have knocked me down with a feather.

I know, Marianne. I can remember the first time a female friend of mine wore a white t-shirt. I was absolutely horrified.

Paul, you do have a sort of dignified look and I can't imagine that a feather would do the trick.



That's so over, as Betty guess-what-I'm-so-hot White might say.

I'm cringing and I didn't even watch it.

If I had any crumb of respect for Michael Moore, it vanished a few weeks ago when he released that video of old people in a nursing home spouting obscenities and making threats against Mitt Romney. Not even low humor, just low.

I don't know who thinks this stuff is funny but obviously somebody does.

By the way, in case it needs to be said: I don't mean any of this to sound like the idealization of the '50s that's the mirror image of left-wing demonization of them. It certainly hasn't been *all* downhill.

I could be wrong but I'm under the impression that the 1920's was the first time since the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ (and possibly many hundreds of years before that) that women's dress in the West was short. I think women's dress had always been down to the ankle or so prior to that.

I'm inclined to think that's a bad thing and doesn't make me particularly enamoured of the 50's fashions. But certainly, the clothes then were more dignified than the clothes now and that is something we've lost.

I try to dress in a way consistent with those earlier times, but with modern apparel.

I was going into a restaurant a year ago or thereabouts and some young folk were swearing loudly out the front in their conversation. I was wearing a long skirt (only denim, mind you) and a long sleeved blouse. The young fellow (about 16-17yo) said to the young lassie with him who was about the same age, "Jess! Quiet! there's a lady walking by." Well, you could have knocked *me* over with a feather and my first impulse was to look around to see who this "lady" was! I take that incident as a good sign, really.

Although the women were wearing shortish skirts (to the knee), I remember being absolutely struck by the dignity of the people who were in attendance at my parents' wedding. This is captured on 8mm film, which has now been transferred to computer. I was so struck by the hats and gloves that I thought it was a travesty we no longer wear such things. Funnily enough, there was a lack of dignity in the fact that almost all - men and women - were smoking. I had a good laugh at the un-PC-ness of it!!

When travelling by aeroplane in the 70's, we all wore our best clothes! Flying was "An Occasion."

So, we've lost a bit of dignity. But we've gained cheap laptops. :)

Incidentally, there is a high chance we may be moving to Texas early next year. :o

So I may need to pick the brains of you US residents in the near future.

I may have to start a new blog in that case, and resurrect my FB account...

Do I need to add that I am non-judgmental about the way most other women dress?

Unless they look like streetwalkers...

I certainly don't mean to say that conventional notions (especially in this context bourgeois notions) of propriety are to be identified with absolute right and wrong. But the two are connected, in that they involve a respect for right order. When propriety is consciously rejected--I was about to say in art, but I think this holds in life as well--it should be largely for the purpose of pointing out a divergence between propriety and right order. When propriety is rejected merely because it is propriety, then right order is also being attacked. And I think that's what we see in the entertainment industry now, and in much of society at large.

Excellent. Well said. Good distinctions.

Thank you.

"Quiet! There's a lady walking by!" is definitely a good thing. Actually there are still plenty of people in the US who behave that way. But they're generally not the ones you see on tv etc., the ones invested with glamor.

Would moving to the U.S. be a good thing from your point of view? (Texas still being part of the U.S. for now.:-)) I remember you saying a few years ago that it was a possibility. Now it's more a probability? That would certainly be a huge change--not sure I would wish it on you, although I'm sure it would be Tasmania's loss and our gain.

I'm not sure I wish it upon me either. At the moment, the balance is in favour of Tx - the offer is a really good one.

There are pros and cons, like all things, the biggest con being that I love Tasmania, my earthly home, and would miss my mum and brother and niece who all live here. Also, our friends.

Also, Tx is likely to be far too hot for my liking. But the pros are so significant that we are both leaning towards accepting the offer. Nick has to find out a couple more details about the job itself and I imagine we'll make a decision before the year ends.

It would be a big deal, for sure. I'm not too daunted by the prospect though.

Well, I'm daunted on behalf of you and your family. The more I think about it, the more "big deal" and "huge change" don't even begin to describe it.

Do you want to mention where in Texas it would be? As you may have heard, Texas is large.:-) Some parts would probably be unbearable to you--Houston for instance is south of here, and most people consider summers here unbearable (if not for a.c.)

Well, Houston, for instance, ("The Woodlands" more specifically) is where we would end up! :o

Apart from the obviously hideous climate (I assume I am going to be living permanently indoors in front of the A/C), what other things spring to your mind about the adjustments we would have to make?

Personally, I am dreading the prospect of driving on the wrong side of the road, while driving in the wrong side of the car and being confronted around town by American spellings in Neon!

But the laws for homeschooling in Tx are positively civilised. That's very comforting.

I'm beginning to think maybe I should be more daunted (I probably will be when/if we are about to leave) but God insists I trust in Him. Who'da thunk?

I've been researching all the most important things. The parish is St Anthony of Padua, but I have a horrible feeling that the Church buiding is hideous. :/

Then there's this:

The Woodlands has a population of about 50,000 (same as where we are now) but it has almost as many restaurants! Obviously, people like to eat out a lot there. :)

Our older kids are - right now - trying to impersonate what they think our toddler will sound like if we move. It's very amusing!

I suppose they make stetsons in toddler size?

Yes, I'm afraid you will learn The True Meaning Of Air Conditioning. I've heard a dirty joke, which I probably shouldn't repeat, which includes the words "hot and dirty," and the joke is that they refer to Houston.

on the plus side: Houston is sort of the center of Anglican Use Catholicism in the US, has a huge AU parish and community. I'll see if I can find you some links.

Oh yes, I'm sure you can get a toddler-size Stetson.


Well, that's the main thing. :)

Thanks, Maclin, I may *need* to check out the AU parish.

Our Lady of Walsingham

Unless you've lost your job and have no alternative, I would not forego Tasmania for Texas. Aside from the various practical problems which attend emigration (such as continuity of pension contributions &c), Texas has experienced rapid demographic growth, which means masses of tract-development according to post-war norms. Again, contemporary tract development in this country is not in the interests of actual people, but in the interests of automobiles bearing people-cargo. You should see Austin: limited access highways so tangled they confounded the GPS mechanism in our rental car. Houston is about four times as populous as Austin. Beware.

1. The country is more affluent than it was in 1955.

2. Mechanisms to contain and ameliorate certain domestic disasters (e.g. medical expenses) are more prevalent and regularized. In 1955, to be old commonly meant to be poor; now, no.

3. Gratuitous and public hostility to selected out-groups (e.g. blacks) has evaporated (while being if anything worse for certain others, e.g. evangelicals).

4. More speculatively, I think you can suggest parents in residence have a higher regard for the sensibilities of their children (for good or for ill), all else being equal. (Child rearing practices, like sex, are something no society ever gets quite right).


Beyond that, it's been all down hill.

But...cell phones! cheap laptops!

That's under the heading of 'more affluent': more goods and services for each through technological adaptation and more sophisticated division of labor. I think if you took an inventory of the environment, you would find that at least urban air and water is comparatively pure and healthy as well. That can go under the heading of 'more affluent', but realizing that sort of affluence requires going through the conduit of public agitation and public policy.

Ah, come on, guys. I think you’ve been listening too long to what everyone else in the world says about America!

Maybe it’s just because I’m homesick, but here are two things off the top of my head that I miss:

The general helpfulness of Americans. I will never forget trying to lift two huge suitcases off the revolving luggage thing at the Auckland airport (in New Zealand) and not one person asked if I needed help. Unless things have changed hugely in five years, this would never happen at an American airport.

And related, just the general American friendliness. May seem superficial, but it’s awfully nice to be able to strike up a conversation with a stranger in a supermarket, say, without getting strange looks.

Louise, when I lived in Massachusetts, I once worked with a woman from Texas, who was one of the most compassionate, honest, and hard-working people I’ve ever met. She didn’t stay in Massachusetts more than a couple of years, though, because she longed to go back home to Texas. There just seems to be something about the place that inspires Texans and also sets them apart. Not sure what it is, but I think it must be something good because she was such an exceptional person.

Texans are definitely different. I don't think I'd say they're any more or less compassionate, honest, and hard-working than, say, Alabamians :-). But they do seem to have a really strong independent streak, sometimes tipping over into truculence, at least in my limited acquaintance. If any part of the U.S. was ever going to seriously try to secede, it would probably be Texas. I have a distant relative with whom I'm Facebook friends who exemplifies this.

What you say about American friendliness is good to hear. I've heard people say things like that in the past but didn't know if it was still true.

Re now vs. then, Art, I've almost given up trying to arrive at any general verdict. I can always say that things are better or worse in some specific way, e.g. your example of air and water pollution, but when I try to consider the totality the pluses and minuses on each side tend to balance.

Marianne, I have nothing to say against Texans (or any other geographic subset of Americans). I am pointing out that urban geography in this country has distorted and disfigured daily life unless you live, recreate, and work in those parts of the urban settlement constructed prior to about 1949 (less the slums, of course). The population of Texas has expanded so rapidly (and urban planning is so haphazard in places - e.g. Houston) that these portions of the city are bound to be quite small. It is not just Texas. It is just about everywhere.

You get a correlate problem down South with the demise of adaptive architectural forms coincident with the advent of air conditioning. Mark Hinshaw wrote about this problem in True Urbanism. Everyone's shut up indoors with the a/c running due to the use of cookie cutter building plans designed for climates unlike that of Texas (to go with model land use codes not adapted to local conditions).

The urban America into which my father was born in 1928 may have been shabby lots of places, but never so f*****g ugly as it is today. Many agreeable people in those ugly cities. Please note, however, people do not make much of an effort with their neighbors anymore, nor do they keep up friendships by mail.

Maclin, is their a functional relationship between technological advance and productivity improvements (on the one hand) and social and cultural decay on the other? I am not quite seeing it. I cannot see it as a trade-off, though someone may come up with a set of social mechanisms.

We in the Occident have been on a trajectory of economic improvement since the late 17th c. at least. The change in the social ecosystem during the years running from 1963 to 1981 and the subsequent slow decay comprehend only a small portion of the era of economic growth.

When you say "functional" do you mean causal, or just corresponding? But either way, I didn't mean to be assuming that opposition in particular. It's a popular argument among conservatives that everything from William of Occam on down has tended to favor material improvement and damage culture, and I tend to think that way myself, but I'm really not so sure it holds up. I only meant, though, that, taking any individual aspects of life, one can always find a great many that have improved, and a great many that have declined, so that to me at any rate it's never entirely clear that there has been significant net gain or loss. Ultimately a Catholic has to ask "are more souls saved or lost?" and not only do we not know, I don't really see good reasons to think that either the year 1000 or the year 2000 ought to have seen more saved.

On the subject of ugly sprawled cities, the two cities I've lived in or near over the past 30 years are an interesting contrast. Huntsville, Alabama, was a small town of 10,000 or so until after WWII, when the space program caused it to explode in population. Now it's a city of 200,000 or so, but most of it is faceless sprawl. Mobile, on the other hand, which is about the same size, reached half that size before the automobile-fueled expansion really set in. And it's a much more human-feeling place. The contrast is really striking.

Thanks for the input everyone. I will say from the limited personal experience I've had of Americans, they have always seemed very friendly indeed and I count that as a significant plus.

"It's a popular argument among conservatives that everything from William of Occam on down has tended to favor material improvement and damage culture"

In the West one can, I think, mark this down to the slow loss of the Catholic consensus, starting with the nominalist revolution. As Fr. Reardon put it,

"Nominalism also produced modern materialism. Nothing so turned Western man’s thoughts back to the things of earth than this sudden persuasion of his being unable to grasp anything higher. The denial of man’s ability to perceive transcendent, intellectual realities above himself guaranteed that the Western mind would thenceforth turn ever more completely toward the only reality that remained, physical reality, the world of matter." (“Materialism and the Abdication of Intellect,” Epiphany, 1997)

Thus philosophical materialism and cultural materialism are related root and branch -- modern man's material advancement and spiritual decline are in a lot of ways intertwined.
A very important recent book, Brad Gregory's The Unintended Reformation, fleshes this out in a detailed, historically-rooted manner, although Gregory's culprit is more late scholasticism's understanding of God, than its epistemology (but the two are no doubt related.) IMO the book is a must-read for anyone interested in the history of ideas and culture in the West.

In the Christian East this all played out rather differently, albeit with a similar result in the end.

You'll keep us posted, right, Louise?

I'm more or less familiar with that view of the intellectual/theological history, Rob, though not in nearly as much detail as you. I think I first encountered it in Richard Weaver's Ideas Have Consequences (who I think was not even a Christian?). No, maybe it was actually in Phillip Hughes's history of the Church. It certainly does seem convincing. At any rate I don't think it can be disputed that the sense of spiritual reality all but disappeared among intellectuals over that time, and more or less unconsciously thinned out among the masses, even among Christians.

Regarding the culpability of the Reformation, well, on the face of it I certainly wouldn't argue with what the title seems to suggest. Hughes certainly pointed in that direction, although his history stopped with the Reformation. And no doubt many other Catholic (and Orthodox?) intellectuals have said similar things.

In one of Robinson Davies's novels a Catholic priest remarks that being a Protestant is next door to being an atheist. Amusing and not entirely fair, but also not entirely false.

Yes, it's a fairly common view, as you say. I first encountered it in Fr. Reardon's work -- he directed me to Weaver. What makes Gregory valuable is the way that he substantiates it in historical and philosophical detail.

Weaver was, I think, at least a nominal (ahem) Episcopalian, if an irregular attendee at services. Philosophically he leaned toward Platonism.

"turned Western man’s thoughts back to the things of earth"

But so many of students seem to sleepwalk through the world, not wanting any part of it and not aware of anything better.

That, I suppose, would be roughly classifiable as post-modern, if modern refers to the turn toward the material.

I think I got that impression of Weaver from the fact that he seemed, in Ideas, only to see or at least only to care about the philosophical structure of Christianity. Perhaps he was of the school that sees Christianity as Platonism for the masses? (don't know who said that)

20min25, Louise?

I don't think Weaver was that sort of Platonist; at least I don't recall any statements of that sort in his writings (not that I've read them all, mind you.)

I think Ideas is all I've read. But I was pretty impressed with it.

I look forward to watching the Jennifer Fulwiler thing, Paul. I read her blog sometimes, or used to--haven't for a while now. What I've read was really good.

Louise, I recently saw a reference to "the ontological superiority of being a Texan" (Stanley Hauerwas).

Yes, that's it, exactly.


You'll keep us posted, right, Louise?

Yep. Nick has a number of details yet to find out about the job offer. I hope we'll be able to make the decision soon.

20min25, Louise?

Yeah, that's pretty gross.

We do have a lot of nasties here in Oz, but the scorpions are smaller.

Interestingly, her voice is pitched at about the same level as mine and I make that same noise she does, rather than a suitably feminine squeal (which my voicebox simply cannot produce).

And her kitchen looks quite a lot like mine. Although these are not reasons to move to Tx. :)

hehehe - I bookmarked marked that song

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