Was Life Better Before the Revolution?

One passage from George Orwell’s 1984 that has stuck with me for a long time is the scene where Winston Smith, suspecting that the accounts of British society prior to the totalitarian revolution may be false, decides to ask someone who was actually alive then about them. Wearing the “worker’s” overalls that mark him as a Party member, he slips into a pub which caters to the Proles, or common people. There, he encounters an old man who is unsuccessfully trying to order a pint of beer:

“And what in hell’s name is a pint?” said the barman, leaning forward with the tips of his fingers on the counter.

“Ark at ‘im! Calls ‘isself a barman and don’t know what a pint is! Why, a pint’s the ‘alf of a quart, and there’s four quarts to the gallon. ‘Ave to teach you the A, B, C next.”

“Never heard of ‘em,” said the barman shortly. “Liter and half liter — that’s all we serve. There’s the glasses on the shelf in front of you.”

Winston buys the man a drink and proceeds to question him about what life was like when he was younger. The man, though, responds unsatisfyingly that the beer was better, and cheaper. Winston then presses the point:

“The history books say that life before the Revolution was completely different from what it is now. There was the most terrible oppression, injustice, poverty worse than anything we can imagine. Here in London, the great mass of the people never had enough to eat from birth to death. Half of them hadn’t even boots on their feet. They worked twelve hours a day, they left school at nine, they slept ten in a room. And at the same time there were a very few people, only a few thousands — the capitalists, they were called — who were rich and powerful. They owned everything that there was to own. They lived in great gorgeous houses with thirty servants, they rode about in motor-cars and four-horse carriages, they drank champagne, they wore top hats-”

The old man brightened suddenly.

“Top ‘ats!” he said. “Funny you should mention ‘em. The same thing come into my ‘ead only yesterday, I dono why. I was jest thinking, I ain’t seen a top ‘at in years. Gorn right out, they ‘ave. The last time I wore one was at my sister-in-law’s funeral.”

Winston keeps trying, citing pieces of “history” that are increasingly ludicrous and unbelievable: the “capitalists” could do what they liked with you, “ship you off to Canada like cattle,” sleep with your daughters, flog you with a cat-o’-nine-tails. The old man, though, is unable to grasp the meaning of the questions, responding instead with his fragmentary memories of the vanished objects and words. His nostalgic tone implies that things were not so bad, but he fails to directly refute any of the Party’s claims. Finally, Winston asks him simply: was life, then, better in 1925, or in 1984? The man merely replies that the ailments of old age are troublesome, but that he is glad to be free of the worries of a young man, concerning, for instance, women.

Winston’s conclusion:

Within twenty years at the most, he reflected, the huge and simple question, “Was life better before the Revolution than it is now?” would have ceased once and for all to be answerable. But in effect it was unanswerable even now, since the few scattered survivors from the ancient world were incapable of comparing one age with another. They remembered a million useless things, a quarrel with a workmate, a hunt for a lost bicycle pump, the expression on a long-dead sister’s face, the swirls of dust on a windy morning seventy years ago: but all the relevant facts were outside the range of their vision. They were like the ant, which can see small objects but not large ones. And when memory failed and written records were falsified — when that happened, the claim of the Party to have improved the conditions of human life had got to be accepted, because there did not exist, and never again could exist, any standard against which it could be tested.

Even in a society with strong traditions, the bulk of memories held by a particular generation are lost when they pass away; after two generations, the loss is almost complete, or, as someone remarked on View From The Right today, “I know basically nothing about my great grandparents!” On the other hand, provided that a people satisfy the minimum requirements for maintaining their identity as a people – reproducing, inhabiting the same land, passing down their language and essential values to the next generation – then however much the culture may change, there is always the possibility of re-connecting with the past generations. It is in this way that the Chinese, only a few decades after smashing their ancient monuments and sending their intellectuals to labor camps to be purged of “feudal” thinking, can now set up Confucius Institutes (!) in places like the United States to promote their culture abroad. Unfortunately for the United States, the changing ethnic composition of our population is threatening us in ways that Communism never threatened the Chinese.

The United States is rapidly slipping into a state of collective amnesia about her past that truly rivals that of Orwell’s old man. Large numbers of people – white Americans – truly seem to believe that prior to 1965 black people could not venture out in public without running into white men who would push them into the gutter and snatch their wives away; or that women were prevented from learning to read and chained inside the home to be brutalized by their husbands.

All right, I exaggerate a little. But white America is certainly portrayed in a consistently negative light. I recently caught an episode of a TV drama, Mad Men, which illustrates perfectly the liberal view of the older America. Beneath the surface of bourgeois ideals, nice dress, and prosperity is a world of sexual predation, ruthless competition, self-satisfaction, abortions, alcohol abuse, Cold War paranoia. Even with the sound off, the shadows and shifty glances of the characters convey a society so ugly as to be hardly worth saving. And yet there are millions of Americans still living and active who belong to the very generation being portrayed. Why aren’t they criticizing this program?

I am afraid it is vain to hope that older people will come to the rescue by telling how things actually were. As long as the authoritative ideology rules, perpetuated by our “experts” and institutions, the memories of individuals will be, in Orwell’s words, no more than “rubbish heaps of details.” Even more, ideology shapes the way people understand their own memories. When we are told that something we remember as good or benign was actually evil, unless we are equipped with a mental defense of our perceptions, we will be inclined to believe what is being claimed.  This, I think, is what has probably happened with many older Americans. Many do have a strong feeling that things were better in the old days, but they are not able to articulate why this is so. Indeed, since it was their generation that initiated the breakdown of the old social order in the 1960s and 1970s, it is safe to assume that there were flaws in their ideas to begin with – just as Orwell’s old man bought in to some of the socialist rhetoric of his time. (Well, so did Orwell.) It may be too late for most of them to come to terms with this.

Still, the truth remains the truth, and it is waiting to be discovered, or perhaps, to be brought back to life. If you believe that something is not right with the direction of our society, and don’t accept the present common wisdom (read: the common un-wisdom) about how we got here and what needs to be done, you have a powerful weapon already. And, unlike Orwell’s imaginary regime, I believe the actual ruling powers are deeply immersed in stupidity and blindness. That’s not reassuring when you’re counting on them to protect you, but it may be an advantage when you’ve decided they need to go.

12 Responses to Was Life Better Before the Revolution?

  1. [...] by Heritage American’s “Was Life better before the Revolution”) Posted by Mild Colonial Boy, Esq. Filed in Fifties, Frankfurt School, Political Correctness, [...]

  2. Willaim Lind would say Yes – life was better before the Cultural revolution.

    And Scott Locklin of Taki Mag would certainly agree with you regarding the Agit-prop nature of “Mad Men”.

  3. stephenhopewell says:

    ____ – that is an interesting fact. I know a black person whose favorite movie is Gone With the Wind. I guess our trash culture doesn’t satisfy all black people, despite its attempts to elevate them.

    Colonial Boy, thank you for linking my piece, and for the article references. These are very good. I didn’t know someone had “done” Mad Men. Locklin does a very good job.

  4. stephenhopewell says:

    ___ : I’m sure you’re right! I didn’t word my comment very clearly, which was meant to have a sarcastic tone. I meant mainstream American trash culture (not black trash culture per se), which among other things tries to exaggerate the importance of black people in every possible way, whether by portraying disproportionate numbers of judges and doctors as black on TV, or by glamorizing ghetto culture. In any case, I’m sure, as your observation suggests, that black people would be happier if the white majority got its act together and created a decent culture, even if that meant less glamorizing of blackness.

  5. Hannon says:

    Stephen,

    I think your last comment is spot on. In our relentless appeasement of blacks we have made it increasingly difficult for them (and others) to respect whites and “white culture” in the classic, non-trashy sense. The fact that we now have to qualify white culture from white trash should tell us something. Now white culture must be defined and defended, a concept that must be very strange to most Americans even today. As Auster says, a strong dominant culture, usually a majority but sometimes a minority, is required for a peaceful _and_ diverse society. A multiplicity of peoples “sharing” power will not succeed in the long run.

    Related to this, it seems to me that there has been a decided uptick in the presence of blacks in MSM commercials and programming. I’d like to see an objective study of this, comparing recent years with the effect of the new president. Blacks on TV seem well out of proportion to their percentage of the population, and not just as blacks but as directed signals for a new harmony with whites, including mixed couples.

    As for Mad Men I have to say it took me a while to become deprogrammed from the lustre and dazzle of the show’s aesthetics. Don seems the “man’s man”, especially if you grew up in the 1960s, until you realize that he, like the whole show, is essentially amoral and pointless. It beautifully illustrates the liberal credo of autonomous self-individuation and has nothing to say about the ties that bind, either social or personal.

  6. Dr.D says:

    I can speak as one of those older Americans that you wonder about not speaking up on this matter. I was born in 1940, so I definitely qualify as coming from the time before the change.

    One of the principal reasons we don’t speak up is that we are weary of being shouted down by the young know-it-alls. I have been told to shut up (not that nicely) more times than I can count, and after a while, that gets pretty old. When people do not want to hear what you have to say, there is very little point in saying it.

    Secondly, we do continue to say it, quietly, in the way that we live. I see it right here in this discussion in that I cannot relate to much of what you folks are talking about, which I think must be a current TV show that I simply do not watch because I watch very little TV at all. I grew up without TV, and other than the news and weather, I rarely watch TV. I’m sure that seems strange to you, but that is the way we lived “way back then.” I will continue to live my life, right to the end, but the standards and mores that I learned in my early years, no matter what new ideas come along.

    I would suggest that if the younger generation is interested in what life used to be like, it is incumbent upon them to ask. We will be happy to tell you, to talk about things as they used to be, to remember things from long ago. There is no doubt at all in my mind that things were better then, even during the grim war years of WW II, because we were a people with a purpose. Today we have no purpose, and it shows.

  7. Hannon says:

    Dr D,

    Thank you for your thoughts on the gap in communication with younger generations. My impression of older generations (mine is probably the same as Stephen’s) is that very often they are reticent to talk about philosophy or other weighty subjects with those who are, say, 20-40 years their juniors. I have tried, even with family, and it is as if the life lived is just that– lived and done. Elders seem to be more “in the now” than younger folks because they are not held by the tensions of middle age or youth, like family raising, career development, mortgage payment, etc. I suppose this may well be a reflection of their general lifetime temperament. They may have had the same disposition since their own youth.

    You cannot blame people for having been brought up over historic decades of eroding moral strictures and a loss of a sense of national purpose and unity. It just works out that way. I have a sense of the Greatest Generation and some inkling of how their views of America and Americans must have diminished over these many decades. I wish my time had not been one, was not one, of a degrading or ideologically warped society, but there it is. Still it is an opportunity to rebuild anew and I firmly believe in cyclical change. No downhill, no uphill.

    I do agree with you that young people (under 30) seem to be nearly unreachable as to giving thought to some principled philosophy. Especially males. The punk “gangsta” mentality is pervasive, especially in larger cities, and is quite disparaging.

    Some generations are born on the up cycle of culture and economics, some on the down, and some are there to hold together turbulent periods of transition. Each generation lays the tracks for the next; eventually we find the switching station. BTW, the book “Generations” (Strauss & Howe c. 1992) is a fascinating look at a thesis of four repeating generation types in America.

  8. Dr.D says:

    Hannon, you have made a number of interesting comments, and I would like to try to react to a few of them.

    You said, “Elders seem to be more “in the now” than younger folks…” Many older people have bought into the “youth culture” idea, the idea that we must be forever young, and that to get older is simply forbidden. Hugh Heffner is the extreme example of this, a man that must be something over 80 by now still cavorting around with women barely out of their teens. It is the idea that if I deny that I am getting older, the I do not actually get any older, despite what the calendar says. It is most importantly a denial of mortality. This is crucial for those who have lost their faith because they have nothing at all but this life, and they must make the absolute most of it. This definitely happened to many of the older generation with the increasing secularization of America.

    You also said, “have a sense of the Greatest Generation and some inkling of how their views of America and Americans must have diminished over these many decades.” I always wonder a little bit about this designation, “the greatest generation.” Presumably this refers to the young men and women who bore the brunt of WW II which would be my parents generation. They sacrificed greatly for the US, many died, many suffered horribly in order that we might win that war. I think that this is where the designation “the greatest generation” comes from. But then I look at what did the survivors do with the nation as they took the reins of power, as they became the leaders of this nation. They were not the greatest leaders this nation has ever had; they were decidedly venal. They compromised our values and allowed things to happen that never should have happened. The dislocations of WW II had uprooted many people, and many never returned to their traditional homes. Families were disjointed in unparalleled ways, which many saw as a new freedom, but it was also a sense of license, a loosening of traditional moral restraints. Arising out of all of this, there was a sense of entitlement to “get mine,” to get ahead, without regard for community any longer. I think much of the damage we have today has to be placed at the feet of the greatest generation.

    National prosperity supported both the virtuous and the corrupt, and it allowed both to thrive through the ’50s. By the ’60s, we began to see the bad seeds sprouting, and the weeds began to grow. I was there, I saw it, but I thought that the weeds would pass away with time. I was wrong. The weeds took over the field, and here we are today with nothing much growing except for weeds.

  9. stephenhopewell says:

    Many excellent comments, to which I will try to reply in another post. Hannon, thank you for the good wishes and feedback. I share the sentiments you express. I also feel quite alienated from most under-30s, who simply can’t relate to my concerns at all. I feel closer to people Dr.D’s age that way.

    Dr.D, it occurred to me that you might take the post as unfairly singling out your generation. I was thinking mainly of liberal, older people; not the few I know personally who are certifiably conservative/Christian. But I was also thinking of the whole society, with the exception of the still very small numbers who have become conscious of the situation.

    Your comments about the Greatest Generation are striking and helpful, because they show that someone (you) was noticing some serious corruption in the society even in the ’50s. This is an important testimony. I’m not recommending Norman Mailer, but he conveys a kind of sleaziness in American society at the time that was afflicting the political and business classes and certainly seems to have been a harbinger of worse things to come.

  10. Dr.D says:

    Stephen, I don’t take this as directed particularly at my generation. I think that there has been an across the board failure of Americans, beginning with the “Greatest Generation” and continuing right on down to the latest generation, a failure to understand who we are, what we have, and what we must do to defend it. We have become willing to sell our birthright for a mess of pottage to use a biblical image, and we are in a hurry to do it.

    You are right about Mailer conveying a sleaziness in the society of which he was a part, but he was celebrating it, not condemning it. The 1950s were both a very good time, and the beginning of the trouble. Times were so good in many respects that it covered up almost all the bad things, but it only papered them over, it did not really blot them out. And you can see where we are today as a result of not being prepared to really be rigorous back then.

    Let me cite a specific area as an example — capital punishment. When I was a kid, back in the late 1940s, it was understood that there were quite a few crimes for which the penalty was death. Certainly murder meant a death sentence, but all rapes, kidnapping, and quite few other things were capital crimes. Now today, we would not consider a death sentence for a kidnapping in which the hostage is returned alive. Most rapists only get a few years. We talk about prison as a rehabilitation rather than as a place of punishment. Are we on the right track?

    I submit we have lost our minds. The purpose of a criminal conviction is punishment, not rehabilitation. A criminal has committed a crime against all of society, he has made all of us less safe. He owes a debt to society that must be paid with jail time, or in some cases with his life. Punishment is the purpose of the incarceration, or the death sentence. If it is a death sentence, it should be reasonably swift — one appeal to be sure there were no errors in the legal process and then hang him (or shot him, or whatever).

    Do we ever execute an innocent man? I’m sure we do. Do you really think it is more humane to keep someone locked up for 20 years on appeals and then eventually execute them? Do you really think it is humane to give a life sentence without possibility of parole to protect the public? These are simply “outs” for the squeamish with out the courage of their convictions and the willingness to take responsibility for their own actions. Justice is a serious business, much to important to be left to the lawyers. It should be in the hands of honest men instead, if that were possible.

    The old way, when the law had teeth, was infinitely better, and society was better for it. This is just one example of how society used to be much better when people took their civic roles seriously and performed them, rather than shirking everything.

  11. Hannon says:

    Stephen- good to hear of you again and happy to see you have amplified your readership, or “postership”.

    Thank you for your thoughts, Dr D. I should clarify what I meant by “here and now” regarding elders. This has no connection to any New Age mentality at all. Rather it is an unaffected vision of what has passed and that it is OK, and the now and the future are for younger generations to worry about. Mostly I get this sense from one of my grandmothers who is almost 100 years old and very spry still. I think the subject of the mindset of the elderly is a very interesting one, and I suspect that whatever psychic distress or idiosyncrasies they may have are really lifelong issues unrelated to aging per se.

    You didn’t exactly say it, but are you hinting that the generation that “bore the brunt of WWII” became something else, something less, after their experience? I’ve heard similar things somewhere– that even though there was a great pride in Victory there was so much sorrow at the loss of life, and all the phenomenal destruction, Holocaust, etc., that many were instantly transformed into liberals as it were. They lost their nerve, and this manifested politically. There must be many books on this subject. It seems odd to me, but when I have talked to folks who lived through that period they virtually never carry on in a tone like one might expect on a blog like this, with philosophical gravitas. Maybe it is a “war thing” as I seem to recall similar experiences with Vietnam veterans. A few pleasant recollections, recounted frequently, nothing more.

    Re: capital punishment, I enjoyed reading your opinion and I’ve gone both ways. Basically I oppose it because I don’t think the state should have the power to kill in cold blood. Cops shooting criminals and wars are one thing, but the state has too much power as it is. You are right that it is a question whether a life sentence is more humane. But is it a just punishment?

    What is a more important issue in the penal code-prison system, in my opinion, is that sentencing has become a mockery. I would trade in the death penalty for generally more severe sentencing that *never wavered*. None of this “15 to 30″ nonsense, or getting out early for any reason. Overcrowding? Get the non-violent offenders onto honor farms or parole them. Once someone mentioned to me an appealing idea: for good behavior we don’t let you out early– *we don’t add more time on!* The whole thing is a circus and hardened criminals seem to enjoy the whole process. Corruption is rampant. But I agree with your points about what the intention of incarceration is. Another thing it is *not* is a deterrent. Any deterrent effect is incidental and really irrelevant to the program.

  12. stephenhopewell says:

    Hannon, I too have wavered, and if we had an orderly society like Japan’s we might be able to have only a small number of executions; but despite the danger of executing the innocent, egregious murderers do deserve death, and I have come to think it’s a kind of crime in itself for society to spend its resources feeding and guarding them.

    I have departed from the idea of opposing “state” power per se. It depends on whether the state is the expression of a moral society or whether not.

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