One must be careful in remembering better days. Memory presents an improving mirror, smoothing rough edges of rougher times, giving a warm glow to things that were less roseate when they happened. Like a good editor, it revises things for the better. Thus one recalls, or half-imagines, the idyllic boyhood in Mississippi, the favorite grove where one played in the slanting afternoon sunlight that probably wasn’t as golden as one recalls, with childhood companion who perhaps weren’t as admirable as they now seem. One forgets, or half forgets, the drunken parents and the poverty and hookworm.
And so one must tread cautiously when pondering a past in which all things were better, cleaner, and purer. Yet?yet sometimes things were better, and sometimes things do decay. Sometimes a society does go from better to bad to worse. I wonder.
In 1964, I finished high school in King George County, Virginia. The anomie and hopelessness of the Sixties hadn’t arrived. KG was rural and relatively poor, poor enough that a couple of dressed deer in hunting season made a difference in the family diet. The country people worked for a living, doing real work that involved actual effort. They farmed, many of them, squeezing crops from the county’s poor land. Many crabbed in the Potomac, rising far before dawn to pull pots in the Potomac for a few bushels of crabs to sell to the restaurants at Popes Creek. Life wasn’t easy. And yet?.
And yet there were no drugs. At all. We in high school had never heard of them. Today, middle schools are awash in chemical surcease. Kids of fourteen get strung out on crystal meth, drop huge amounts of acid, swap Ecstasy for concert tickets. We think it normal.
In 1964, we didn’t lock anything — the house, the mailbox (it didn’t lock), the car wherever we parked it, the garage. Today we lock everything.
In 1964, kids dropped their bikes in the front yard, or left them unwatched on the bike rack at the pool. People didn’t steal bikes. We would have thought it absurd to keep a bike in the living room. Today, my bicycle stands at the end of the sofa. The diversity has stolen three bikes from me and a couple from my children. They cut cable locks as a matter of course, break into storerooms, snatch-and-bolt everywhere. This too we accept.
In 1964, pornography meant Playboy models in bikinis, Vargas girls, lingerie ads. Now it means pore-level gynecology in macrophotography. It means worse. Any ten-year-old with a computer, which means any ten-year-old, can find sex with dogs, bloody sadomasochism, animals being tortured for sport, and people defecating on each other.
In 1964, the SATs were at their peak. Teachers, being white, could be held to standards. Ours weren’t geniuses in King George, just reasonably intelligent people who understood that their function was to impart information. They did. Today kids graduate without being able to write a clear sentence, lack any grasp of the language, have to count on their fingers. Teachers, too many of them, are useless affirmative-action hires who can’t be criticized.
A few years back in a middle school in the suburbs of Washington, I saw a poster made by a child to celebrate the contributions of Italians to America. In huge letters it mentioned Enrico Fermi’s work in, so help me, “Nucler Physicts.” And it was on the wall,, uncorrected.
Behavior? In 1964 kids were smart-asses, especially the boys, who performed in class for the girls. Kids mouthed off, tested the limits. But there were limits. When Larry Roller, the steely-eyed principal, said No, it was No. There were no cops in school (the idea would have been thought barbaric, as it is). No cops were needed. Had any of us cursed a teacher, or threatened one, it would have been instant expulsion. Society would have supported the verdict. Today, in many schools teachers are afraid of the students.
In 1964, sex was rare in high school and, for most of us, nonexistent. The girls said “no.” Society backed them up. Pregnancies were few, illegitimacy rare — even, I think, among blacks. Now blacks are at 70% plus and whites around 35%. We become a nation of bastards. Today early teens, unwatched and uninstructed by parents more interested in their jobs, rut like barnyard animals.
Boys, then as now, were immature, exploitative, horny little monsters whose sex drives had the nuanced understatement of police sirens. The girls, then as now, were too young for too much intimacy, emotionally ready to be hurt by it, and in search of affection more than carnal delights. But, because the girls said “no,” and society backed them, they didn’t get hurt. The boys didn’t really expect otherwise, and dated girls because they liked them. Now girls are commodities, and cheap, like Seven-Eleven frankfurters. The boys know that if one doesn’t say yes, another will.
I spoke recently with a young woman of twenty. She was highly intelligent, an A student, beyond her rebellious years, neither trying to seem advanced nor to shock. She told me, a bit sadly but with acceptance, that she wanted children one day, but assumed she would have them without benefit of marriage. She wasn’t an angry feminist. She didn’t like feminists. She just viewed divorce as inevitable. She knew it was very painful, especially for kids — this in particular she knew well.
Bastardy has become a reasonable choice, not just a reflex among welfare brood-mares.
In the Fifties, violence on television meant the Lone Ranger shooting the gun out of Slade’s hand. In 1964 it meant Paladin bloodlessly shooting a somewhat more believable evil-doer. Today it means Hannibal Lecter eating the brains of a living man, disembowelings in loving close-up, and ghastly beatings.
In 1964, kids seldom stole from employers. Today, theft is accepted and close to universal. The ingrained prejudice against dishonesty has weakened.
On and on it goes. In the Fifties I lived a long walk away from my present address. There was no crime. In the last couple of years there have been two murders within three blocks of my door. Washington now is dangerous almost everywhere, especially at night, having had in one year more than 400 murders.
The churches are dying. Buses don’t give change, as they formerly did, because the diversity learned to rob them. Books advocating sex with children appear, and are solemnly reviewed. Schools promote homosexuality, expel boys for playing cowboy and Indians, discard grammar as elitist.
Thirty-five years. That is all it has taken. Half a lifetime. Things move fast now.