January 27, 2021

The Myth of the Decline Narrative

Wrigley Building, Chicago July 2016

Sometimes I wonder what people are seeing. I also wonder why they are so ignorant of history.

Various groups rely upon a tried-and-true method to make their case and gain adherents and power. It’s called playing the “decline narrative” card.

The decline narrative follows a simple formula:

  • First, things used to be so much better. There was a “good old days” in which the world was better off.
  • Second, we’ve been on a downhill slide ever since those halcyon days.
  • Third, certain people/groups came along and introduced things contrary to what those good old days were about. The world has never been the same, things are getting worse and worse, and those people/groups are at fault.
  • Fourth, we are now at a moment of crisis. Unless we do something to “take back” what was ours and recapture the glory of days past from those who have stolen it from us, it will be the end of the world.

The decline narrative is essentially the “soterian gospel” of revivalism writ large. It’s Eden and exile, “the world” and Armageddon and the one true way out. It seems to be the way many Americans are programmed to think.

This decline seems particularly incongruous to me here in 2017, although it has been embraced by a large number of people and has, at times, yielded dramatic results. Just ask the current resident at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

In contrast to this decline narrative, I was planning to write a post showing how, over the course of my lifetime, there have been so many crazy, dangerous, and disturbing events and swings that we can not, in any way, honestly speak of a decline narrative. However, as I began to write, I realized I could not even get past my first year of life — 1956.

In many minds, “1956” sounds like it would fall smack within the boundaries of “the good old days.” And it was indeed, perhaps the pinnacle of the “classic 1950’s” in WASP culture, with soaring birth rates, economic good times, a focus on normalcy and family, and a religious boom. However, when I read about the events that took place in 1956, I realize, in many ways, that time was every bit as fraught with danger and dysfunction as our own time. Indeed, if I had to set forth a theory of progress/decline, I would have to say that we have made a great deal of real, substantial progress in our lives, our culture, and our world since 1956.

In 1956, the year I was born, there was continuous conflict in the Middle East. Egypt pledged to recapture Palestine. The UN censured Israel for attacking Syria, violating the Palestine Armistice. There were dangerous tensions over the Suez Canal throughout the year, first occupied by the British, then taken over by Egypt. Later in the year, during the so-called Suez Canal Crisis, Israel launched an invasion of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, and later, Great Britain and France sent troops once again in an attempt to take over. Egyptian airfields were bombed. The conflict ended when the U.N. sent in its first-ever peacekeepers. Gaza was occupied by the Israeli army. The Israeli flag was hoisted on Mt. Sinai.

In 1956 the first Islamic republic, Pakistan, was born. The French invaded Algeria. Ongoing anti-colonial movements from Britain and France caused persistent tensions throughout Africa. In South Africa the government ordered over 100,000 non-whites to leave their homes in Johannesburg in order to make room for whites. Later, Nelson Mandela and more than 150 others were arrested in South Africa for treason in opposing apartheid.

In South America, seven Army trucks loaded with dynamite exploded in middle of Cali, Columbia killing more than a thousand and destroying 2,000 buildings

The fight for civil rights by blacks in the U.S. was getting more contentious. Someone exploded a stick of dynamite on Martin Luther King’s front porch. The first black student admitted to University of Alabama was expelled In Montgomery, where there were tumultuous bus boycotts in 1956. The Supreme Court affirmed Brown vs. Board of Education. The Court also ended busing segregation. The United Methodist Church outlawed race segregation. Mobs in Texas prevented black high school students from enrolling, and in Tennessee the National Guard was called out to prevent similar conflicts. Various cities desegregated their schools. Singer Nat King Cole was attacked at a Birmingham concert. There were bus boycotts in Florida. W.A. Criswell, the leading preacher in the Southern Baptist Convention, addressed an evangelism conference and proclaimed that true ministers of the gospel must passionately resist government mandated desegregation because it is “a denial of all that we believe in.”

The Cold War between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. was escalating. While the U.S. was conducting nuclear and hydrogen bomb tests in the South Pacific, the Kremlin announced that they were developing a ballistic missile to deliver an H-bomb. The U.S. government seized and shut down a U.S. Communist newspaper, The Daily Worker. There was a failed coup in Cuba, but later in the year Fidel Castro left Mexico in his quest to liberate the country. The Soviets invaded Hungary and violently put down an uprising; 200,000 refugees fled.

As the French withdrew, the first American soldier died in Viet Nam. Cambodia elected a Communist president and the U.S.S.R. officially recognized Laos.

There were terrible transportation accidents, including a train crash in Los Angeles that killed 30, one in which two passenger jets collided over the Grand Canyon, killing 128, and the sinking of the ocean liner Andrea Doria.

Americans were blocked by a travel ban from going to China. Sixteen U.S. Naval airmen were shot down and killed by Chinese jet fighters over the East China Sea as they engaged in an espionage mission.

The U.S. economy was strong in 1956. Main concerns involved declining farm income and an alarming shortage of public schools and classrooms for the rapidly increasing population, which both the federal and state governments worked to address. That year saw the beginning of the largest public works program in U.S. history to that point: the construction of the interstate highway system. It was not all smooth sailing, for example in the summer 650,000 steel workers went on strike during a month-long work action.

President Eisenhower was re-elected as POTUS by a landslide. To many, he was the face of peace and prosperity. However, increasingly volatile issues such as civil rights were largely ignored in the presidential campaign.

The Melbourne Olympics took place despite boycotts and withdrawals by many nations, protesting the Soviet invasion of Hungary, the Suez crisis, and the inclusion of Taiwan in the Games.

In religion, Catholic-Protestant relations were strained by bitter altercations on issues such as parochial schools and public funding, and birth control.

On the cultural front in the U.S., Elvis Presley had a break-out year, with his first recording session for RCA, three appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show, during which he was filmed from the waist up because of moral concerns. On Sunday, December 2, 1956, The Rev. Carl Elgena told his Des Moines, Iowa, congregation that “Elvis Presley is morally insane” and “by his actions he’s leading other young people to the same end.” He warned the over 800 members in the pews of the Grand View Park Baptist Church that “the belief of unholy pleasure has sent the morals of our nation down to rock bottom and the crowning addition to this day’s corruption is Elvis Presleyism.” Other preachers condemned rock-n-roll music as “a musical fad which is leading its young devotees back to the jungle and animalism.” “Beatniks” such as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac were advocating freedom and hedonism, sexual freedom and homo/bisexuality. The Catholic Church banned its people from viewing films they considered immoral, such as And God Created Woman and Baby Doll.

In November 1956, Dr. Martin Luther King delivered a sermon called, “Paul’s Letter to American Christians.” Way back then, he questioned whether America was truly making progress or declining.

But America, as I look at you from afar, I wonder whether your moral and spiritual progress has been commensurate with your scientific progress. It seems to me that your moral progress lags behind your scientific progress. Your poet Thoreau used to talk about “improved means to an unimproved end.” How often this is true. You have allowed the material means by which you live to outdistance the spiritual ends for which you live. You have allowed your mentality to outrun your morality. You have allowed your civilization to outdistance your culture. Through your scientific genius you have made of the world a neighborhood, but through your moral and spiritual genius you have failed to make of it a brotherhood. So America, I would urge you to keep your moral advances abreast with your scientific advances.

Concerns about the vulnerability of the U.S. and the Soviet threat in 1956 were so acute that Congress adopted “In God We Trust” as the official motto for the nation. Representative Charles Edward Bennett of Florida cited the Cold War when he introduced the bill in the House, saying “In these days when imperialistic and materialistic communism seeks to attack and destroy freedom, we should continually look for ways to strengthen the foundations of our freedom.”

It was a dangerous, volatile world. Some things were better, some worse. Many folks were satisfied with life as it was, others were raising alarms.

The more things change…


  1. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    That “decline narrative formula” is also the axioms of a Grievance Culture, i.e. a culture whose only reason for existence is Revenge upon the Other:
    1) Once WE were Lords of all Creation and everything was perfect!
    2) Then THEY came and took it all away from us!

  2. Adam Tauno Williams says

    > It seems to be the way many Americans are programmed to think.

    THIS! Sadly, I believe many Americans are so wedded [or should it be *WELDED*?] to this narrative that no quantity of historical citations or current [factual] data can loose them from it. It is the lens through which everything is colored. So many exhausting conversations…

    This narrative carried a high price for me, a lot of missed opportunity. Not one of the despairing certainties propounded came to pass; the we of Then could never have imagined Today.

    It is ***SIN*** to visit this narrative upon the young; particularly at the same time having ‘high expectations’. Akin to demanding much with the promise of nothing in return – how can one be surprised when that deal is refused?

  3. *puts on Devils advocate hat*

    OK, wars, social conflict, etc, these always have been and always shall be with us. But let me bring up a couple of points that indicate that the current world civilization may be headed for the Historic Intensive Care Unit…

    1) Economics. The developed world is up to its eyeballs in debt, facing a demographically driven entitlement crunch paired with a less-well off working and middle class to sustain it.

    2) Environment. Yep… I’ll say it. Global warming is real, our massive use of fossil fuels is causing it, and we’re just now starting to understand what the effects will be. But water and agriculture patterns, coastal damage, etc. all are in play.

    3) Resources. We’re burning through oil, topsoil, groundwater, forests, at an alarming rate. And no, sorry folks, the supply of these things is not infinite.

    I see these three trends converging this century with the result that the world of 2117 will look a lot more like the world of 1017 than a technological utopia. So yes, sometimes a decline narrative fits the times.

    Let me add a caveat, though, by stressing that this is NOT a prediction of the Parousia. As one of the columnists I used to read was won’t to say, “It’s not the end of the world… it’s just the end of YOU.”

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > world of 2117 will look a lot more like the world of 1017 than a technological utopia.

      This is a common kind of cooperative arc to the decline narrative: the world as either a future burn out OR a utopia of some point. Perhaps it will continue to be a mixed-use muddled mess populated by winners & losers.

      • Yes, there will be both winners and losers – both much more local and low-tech compared to today.

        One difference between what I’m talking about and the “decline narrative” posted above is that it’s not predicated on nationalist or sexual morality. I see it as more a recognition of historical cycles and economic trends than a “we do good, God gives us stuff; we do bad, God bonks us on the head” model.

    • And it may well be that we will go through tremendous conflicts because of these things. But let’s not forget that in the years before 1956 we saw a worldwide economic depression and two world wars, genocides and fascist rule, and a host of environmental and health related problems related to the industrial revolution and lack of scientific knowledge. 1956 may have been a moment of peace and prosperity for many WASP Americans, but it was only a moment, and it was a moment that could be celebrated only in the context of all the devastation the world was waking up from and the new problems all that devastation had created.

    • Mad Max Fury Road was a documentary.

      A really amazing great one at that that got snubbed hard.

  4. And the 1956 Chicago Cubs finished dead last in the National league, 33 games out of first place.
    CM, how could you have missed that?

  5. To hone in on one sentence in your essay, CM, at the beginning of my junior year in high school, it was at my school and in my town where those “mobs in Texas” prevented black high school students from enrolling, so I know whereof you speak. Mainly they were frightened parents and curious onlookers wanting to see what a few loud mouthed hotheads might try to do. Mostly it was a display of testosterone. I could name the hotheads but I won’t. There was no rioting, no violence, no attempt at enrolling except unless you count a couple of fast-moving automobiles that drove past the far end of the school property honking their horns. They didn’t even slow down. Still, there was enough tension and fear of what might happen that Governor Shivers sent in one Texas Ranger to maintain order. A freshman girl who attended my church got her name in a Time magazine article for saying to a reporter, “If God wanted us to go be together He wouldn’t have made us different” or something similar I may not be remembering what she said exactly but I do remember thinking, “Then why are the fields around here in springtime filled with bluebonnets (blue-violet) and Indian paintbrush (red-orange)?” The “Texas mobs” in Mansfield were far overshadowed by the ruckus in Clinton, Tennessee, that year, but we were lumped together in the national news anyway.

    This has been one person’s recollection sixty years later. And to your point, I could probably write a similar essay about the year I was born, 1941. Somehow, though, things today do seem far worse. All you have to do is turn on the television, whether for news or entertainment. Are you really saying there has not been any significant degree of “decline” in our culture? I would have to respectfully disagree. For example, I do not recall beheadings and suicide bombers in the headlines or a 70% out-of-wedlock birth rate among the then-largest minority group in the U.S. In the mid-fifties.

    But perhaps you are right. Perhaps we do live in the best of all possible worlds. However, something else I remember I remember is reading that in the last days perilous times shall come.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > not been any significant degree of “decline” in our culture?

      How do you quantify decline vs. improvement?

      Sorry, but this is an example of Welding to me [see my comment above]. To assert this decline requires you first discard anything positive – then, of course, you have decline.

      You say “our culture” – – where in America are their beheadings? That is going as far as IMPORTING despair. Beheadings have been a thing in parts of the world for ages.

      • How do you quantify decline vs. improvement?

        Yep. The Roman Empire collapsed *after* it became “Christian”. 😉

        • …in the west. In the east, it lasted another 1000 years. Same conditions took them both down, though: over-extended but shrinking military, invasive hordes, citizens with money fleeing to the countryside, impotence of the bishops in the face of crumbling social order, devolvement of “law and order” into no law in the former and the Ottoman yoke in the latter.

          Christianity didn’t save either part of the RE from coming apart. We church folk should take note…


    • “If God wanted us to go be together He wouldn’t have made us different” or something similar I may not be remembering what she said exactly but I do remember thinking, “Then why are the fields around here in springtime filled with bluebonnets (blue-violet) and Indian paintbrush (red-orange)?”

      Holy crap. That thinking…that’s YEC and fundygelicalism and anti-intellectualism in a nutshell.

      Open your…minds for a second, please.

  6. As I recall, many who remembered the glory of Solomon’s Temple wept when the building of the Second Temple commenced. These people, who had been held in captivity, who had returned to their homeland, wept for the “good old days”. Upon their deliverance from bondage in Egypt, their ancestors, too, wept for the “good old days” when they had meat to eat and cucumbers and leeks, onions, and garlic.

    I don’t think this is strictly an American phenomenon but more of a human one. Our view may be exacerbated by the 24/7 news cycle but the words of Dickens are as true now as when he wrote them:

    “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

  7. Burro (Mule) says

    In the east the wind is blowing the boats across the sea
    And their sails will fill the morning and their cries ring out to me
    Oh, the more it changes, the more it stays the same
    And the hand just re-arranges the players in the game
    Al Stewart, Nostradamus. 1973

    I dunno. There are good times and bad times. I would rather have turned 18 in 1885 than in 1915. My mother always said throughout her long life that things were never as bad as they were in 1940, until this past year.

    But if there ain’t no decline, there sure ain’t no progress either. What some people define as progress others see as decay, even if they are ridiculed or cowed into sullen silence. The iron law of unintended consequences receives its tithe regardless of who does the collecting.

    Man, man, your time is sand, your ways are leaves upon the sea

  8. Adam Palmer says

    There’s an excellent book on this topic. “The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse” by Gregg Easterbrook. Was foundational for me when I read it, like, 10 years ago.

  9. Look up Hans Rosling, who I only discovered posthumously last week.
    His talks show that on a global level, the “good old days” is now..

  10. As long as I can brew a pot of coffee on short notice, these are the best of times.

  11. >> My mother always said throughout her long life that things were never as bad as they were in 1940, until this past year.

    I was a year old in 1940. I don’t remember it, but I concur with Mule’s mother. In all that time the biggest tipping point in my view happened on November 22, 1963 and I do remember that. A certain faction of the world system gained control that day and retained that control thru all the Punch and Judy shows up until today’s tipping point, which has not yet settled out. When Jack Kennedy was murdered, the world was divided up between those who believed the official story of the Warren Commission and those who didn’t. Most believers in the world today are Americans, and they regard the rest of the country and the world as conspiracy theorists. Most of the world regards most Americans as children in understanding, tho too often children playing with sharp knives.

    It is true that the standard of living as measured with material possessions and technology has risen remarkably in our lifetimes, and for many people, probably most, this is all that counts. It is also arguable that there has been a steady erosion of liberty and individual responsibility, and for many people, probably most, an appearance of security and comfort is well worth any loss of freedom and constitutional rights. This difference of opinion has divided America more bitterly today than perhaps at any time since the War Between the States, which cost us a million lives or so.

    Between my father, my upbringing, my education, and the constant barrage of commercial advertising and political propaganda, I have developed a strong reaction to being manipulated, you could call it an abhorrence. There has never been such a flood of manipulation in my lifetime as we are experiencing today. As far as I can tell, most people are completely oblivious to this, but at the same time I see more people waking up to a reality beyond their TV than ever before. This gives me great hope. Most people are going to continue in their comfort zone of orthodox religion and science and history for as long as they can, and that’s just human nature. But one of these days it might be announced on TV that the world is not exactly like we were taught, and as everyone knows, you can’t say something on TV if it isn’t true.

  12. I think much of it has to do with the way “news” comes into our lives.

    I was 2 in 1956 so I’m riffing a it here on my father’s comments plus some interpolation.

    In 1956 TV was in it’s infancy. And national news was at most 15 minutes a day. No DVRs, VCRs, etc… so you saw it or didn’t. On one channel. The rest of it came via your local paper. So many of the things CM mentioned might be a column or so in the middle of the paper. Or not at all if the local editor decided it didn’t really matter or there were not enough ads sold to justify printing the article. So most people just didn’t see or hear about it. Talk radio was the recipe hour on the big local AM station.

    Even into the 60s the 15 minutes of national news lasted a long time on TV. Then it moved to 30 minutes a day. Oh, yeah, some of that time was ads.

    My point is that most people led their lives (and most of us here grew up) in a world where our family and neighbor’s issues dominated, not all of these national and world events. So the nation and the world are remembered as “better” as much due to lack of knowledge as actual facts.

    Vietnam, portable camcorders, investigative journalism, etc… all changed that. Then we got cable.

    And many politicians are still pissed that the “news media” will not just believe their PR missives and want to dig deeper.

  13. Richard Hershberger says

    The main good thing the 1950s genuinely had going was economic mobility. It was a particular moment in history when things came together so that a young person could work hard and legitimately expect to do better than his parents, without having to hit the lucky Horatio Alger jackpot. Those days are past. The mistake people make is imagining that the 1950s economy was normal.

    There were other attractive features. The porch culture, for example. People spent their summer evenings either sitting on their front porches and inviting neighbors passing by to join them, or strolling through the neighborhood and visiting with neighbors. This meant that everyone knew everyone else, resulting in a sense of neighborhood community we only see today when digging out from a big snow storm. Porch culture was killed off by the advent of television and home air conditioning. Which is another way of saying that people were only doing it because they had nothing they would rather be doing, and it was unbearably hot inside. They ditched porch culture as soon as alternatives presented themselves. And so it is today. We regret to loss of community, but that doesn’t mean we are going to put down our devices and go sit outside.

    Related to this was “good old boy” networking. The thing about good old boy networks is that they are great, if you are on the inside. Your teenage kid drives to the next county and does something stupid? You speak to your friend, the local sheriff, asking for a favor. He is only too happy to help, knowing that you will remember this next election, and will tell your friends. So he calls his colleague, the sheriff in the next county, and asks him for a favor. That sheriff is also only too happy to help, since he will want a favor in return some day. So your kid’s problem magically goes away.

    The problem is if you are on the outside. Then the good old boy network isn’t so great. Some kid from the next county over vandalized your house on a lark. Nothing happens to him, because his dad is hooked into the network and you aren’t. Why not? The possibilities are endless. You being of the wrong race or ethnicity or religion are the obvious ones, but really being different in any way can put you on the outside. The works of Sinclair Lewis are a marvelous corrective for any incipient nostalgia for the good old days.

    • Burro (Mule) says

      Was it not Eugene O’Neill who rightly lamented the “unrelieved, grinding monotony of rural life, which shrinks and blackens the soul until no light escapes its surface”?

      • >> the “unrelieved, grinding monotony of rural life, which shrinks and blackens the soul until no light escapes its surface”

        Rightly lamented? This is going to astound all my friends and neighbors when they find out about this. And not just them, all of northern Michigan. Well it might sell some in Ludington and Traverse City, but I would suggest concentrating on the east side from Saginaw on down thru Flint and Detroit, maybe over to Jackson and up to Lansing. It snowed again last night. I guess when I go for my daily prayer walk in the back woods today my soul is going to stand out like a burnt raisin. I’m going to make a wild guess here that O’Neill was a city boy.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > We regret to loss of community, but that doesn’t mean we are
      > going to put down our devices and go sit outside.

      True in a general sense no doubt – but there is a quiet renaissance of Porch Culture occurring. There are even organizations to facilitate the revitalization of porch culture. There are enough people earnestly interested in such a thing to make it float. Some neighborhoods even organize porch based music festivals to highlight the power of the porch [upside: there isn’t much in regulatory terms any curmudgeonly bureaucrat can do about it – no need to even “officially” close a street if it just happens to be full of people, especially if you live in a Pedestrian-Right-of-Way state].

      Of course – pretty much nobody is going to report on such a thing other than an occasional “Human Interest” story.

      • I don’t know. Read this:

        To provide some context when I was growing up I got in trouble for not leaving the keys in the car. After I started driving I forgot and took the keys into the house and was told to STOP IT by my parents.

        My mother and mother in law both really preferred NOT seeing their neighbors except in staged settings. (I’m glad I and my wife got our inclinations from our fathers.

        Porches came about to deal with the heat in the summer. That’s why if you could afford it you had porches that wrapped around and the porch roof gave shade to all of those windows. The front porch was the vestige of this after AC became wide spread.

  14. The decline narrative is essentially the “soterian gospel” of revivalism writ large. It’s Eden and exile, “the world” and Armageddon and the one true way out. It seems to be the way many Americans are programmed to think.

    I would even go so far as to say it’s anti-christian and especially anti-Kingdom to the core. It puts the brakes on Jesus as hard as it can.

    We even see this attitude here in the comments on iMonk, especially on Saturdays. The doom and gloom naysayers make their comments under the guise of “everyone knows this”, and when you push back with facts and truth to counter that narrative, they mysteriously grow quiet or attack you directly.

    It’s depressing and troubling. And I honestly hope it’s a generational thing that’ll pass with time.

    • The Israeli flag was hoisted on Mt. Sinai.

      Further proof that branding matters.

      Later, Nelson Mandela and more than 150 others were arrested in South Africa for treason in opposing apartheid.

      I was told he was a terrorist and a very evil man for not letting them do whatever they wanted to them.

      The fight for civil rights by blacks in the U.S. was getting more contentious.

      Federal overreach, states’ rights, it’s MY business and the government shouldn’t be able to tell me what to do!

      That year saw the beginning of the largest public works program in U.S. history to that point: the construction of the interstate highway system.

      Socialism, the GOP of today will gladly tear down and destroy what those RINOS did.

      In religion, Catholic-Protestant relations were strained by bitter altercations on issues such as parochial schools and public funding, and birth control.

      We’ll turn that around in the 80s when Protestants realize that birth control is evil. Maybe the Catholics were right all along.

      Dr. Martin Luther King delivered a sermon

      Womanizer and instigator.

      It’s fun looking at history through the lens of the private Christian school education I received.

    • I would even go so far as to say it’s anti-christian and especially anti-Kingdom to the core. It puts the brakes on Jesus as hard as it can.

      Yup. I couldn’t agree more. It’s a false gospel. The Bible is a decline narrative, but one that makes us look right back at ourselves as the ones responsible for it, and the way back to Eden is via sacrifice and the cross. And the center of all things is not we ourselves but God.

      That is radically different from the decline narrative being sold by politicians and culture warriors today, in which our tribe is at the center and no one wants to hear about sacrifice and suffering unless it’s someone else that has to do it on the way to making everything great again. But the evangelicals — and plenty of others — have bought the narrative, hook, line and sinker. God help us.

  15. somehow part of the topic intersects with the theme of this link:

  16. Doesn’t “The Myth of the Decline Narrative” simply trace the arc of most people’s lives? A relatively irresponsible youth followed by adult cares and concerns and a sense as time hastens and options narrow that life is passing us by?

  17. Randy Thompson says

    I wonder how much the myth of decline is rooted in the aging process. The older you get, the more you sense that life has passed you by. If this matters to you, then there it is, the myth of decline. Life has passed you by, therefore life has gone to the dogs. But, if you don’t care that life has passed you by, you sit back and enjoy the show. Of course, only time will tell whether the “show” is a comedy or tragedy.

    I think there may be some truth to this, but, at best, it’s only a (small) part of the myth of decline. It would be interesting to see how people respond to the myth of decline by age. I somehow don’t think a 20 year old has much of a sense of decline. (But, wait 30 years. . . )

    Finally, remember G.K. Chesterton’s game, “Cheat the Prophet,” where people listen attentively to smart people prognosticating about the future, and then go off and do something completely different.

  18. Thanks for ruining my dream about the fifties! Geez a weez. Next you’ll tell me the sixties weren’t one long summer of love. Seriously though, that does serve to clear away some false mythology about pre sixties America.

    • The fifties were the last time most kids could disappear from home and supervision and protection other than to come home to eat and sleep, and not be in abnormal danger or end up brain-addled or kidnapped or abused. This was true liberty and it was priceless. People didn’t lock their doors and there were no home invasions. You didn’t have to have a pry bar to get into a bottle of aspirin. The fifties were the last time you could experience the awesome living breathing power of steam locomotives. The fifties gave us rock and roll, and if you were aware you could pick up on rhythm and blues. The majority of classic cars today came out of the fifties. It was still possible to get a halfway decent education without horribly intrusive programming. You could listen to the Shadow as well as Bob and Ray on the radio. Television had not yet become a substitute for thinking. Beatniks had not yet become hippies.

      Some caveats: Richard is right about this being a majority culture that was not shared by all. There was a huge pressure for conformity that didn’t give way until the sixties shattered it. It would not have been good if the fifties culture had continued beyond its allotted time, but I am most grateful to have grown up in it. I look at every generation since then and wouldn’t trade for anything. The decline has been real, but there has been a parallel growth of awareness and consciousness that is just as real and is vital to get us where we have a good chance of going today. The main benefit of the sixties was to instill the meme “Question Authority” into enough people that we were able to escape the suffocating conformity that was part of the fifties. Yes, we had Ozzie and Harriet, but we also had Little Richard.

      • In many places, such as small Midwest towns where I lived, that freedom you speak of for children extended through the 1960’s and into the 70’s.

      • Sorry just getting back to this so late. I would agree with Mike that that freedom extended past the fifties. I was born in ’60 and my mom sent us out of the house in the morning and didn’t want to see us inside until lunch and then again until dinner. We were usually not far enough away that a full scream would not reach us but we were certainly not being supervised. Locking doors was still hit or miss. There is a lot I don’t miss about my youth but there were some more innocent practices in those days. The Shadow knows…..

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        I am just old enough to remember the tail end of the Nifty Fifties, the First 1960s. (i.e. before Sauron got the Ring and we threw away the stars to screw in the mud at Woodstock).

        There were some positive things to that era that we’ve since lost (and no, I don’t mean record church attendance). What I remember was a sense of decorum and (more important) a can-do optimism resulting from pulling out of the Great Depression and winning World War 2. NOT the Grinning Nihilism marinating in oh-so-delicious Angst you get today. If the Fifties were confronted by Climate Change/Global Warming, the reaction would be “how do we solve this problem?” (Granted, some of the solutions would be dumb ones — this was the age of Project Plowshare — but they’d be Attempts to Fix the Problem. THEY’D BE DOING SOMETHING. IT WOULDN’T BE THE PARENT-TEACHER CONFERENCE SCENE FROM INTERSTELLAR.)

        The much-hated conformity of that period was a natural result of recent history. The country had survived the Great Depression and World War 2 — fifteen years of Hell — and had come out of it stronger and at the peak of prosperity. Things were finally going good after fifteen years of Hell; time to kick back and enjoy — It’s Miller Time. And the conformity? Beware Thou of the Mutant? After going through Hell and reaching a good approximation of the Promised Land of Milk and Honey, you didn’t want to do anything that might wreck it. You didn’t want anybody to rock the boat and risk crashing everything back into what came before.

    • I think you meant Geez Louise….

  19. The decline narrative is not confined to societies under influence of the “soterian gospel” of revivalism. The ancient Greeks and Romans, among others, also subscribed to the idea that their Golden Age existed in the past. Much of their civic ritual had to do with remembering the glories of that past, and trying to restore it in the present. Seeing the past as the location of the ideal form of the nation, and stressing the importance of getting back to that ideal, is quite common among societies as the age. But even at Woodstock the desire was to “get ourselves back to the Garden.” This is an ingrained habit among all kinds of societies, and frequently as pernicious as the obverse narrative of limitless and inevitable progress.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      I vaguely remember an essay about Star Wars that classified SW as more akin to Fantasy than SF. The premise was thematic; that SF generally had a future-looking upward progress theme and Fantasy generally had a looking back to a past Golden Age.

      I’ve also heard it said that “Science Fiction is Jewish; Fantasy is Christian”. Again, thematically. Curious if there is any overlap between these two compare-and-contrast statements.

  20. My first of six children was born in 1956. It was a good time, as I remember, for young couples starting families, living in safe neighborhoods, plenty of employment security for all who wanted to work..In the small town South. For white people. Thanks for the memories.

Speak Your Mind