Social Nostalgia and Myths of Decline, Part II: Turtles All the Way Down

December 12, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston
(Continued from the previous post.)

II. A Myth of Decline for Everyone

Obviously, loneliness cannot have been increasing at epidemic levels every year since 1950. Nor could the sense of community have been similarly decreasing. If they had, we would be at 100% loneliness and 0% community. Yet each generation looks to the past as having been a time of greater community and less isolation. What makes this idea so irresistible?

My hunch is that the persistent appeal of this idea of a communitarian past has the same roots as another popular myth of decline — the authoritarian past. According to this myth, parental authority has all but disappeared, and kids today are far less obedient than their counterparts of a generation ago. But of course, a generation ago, adults were saying the same thing about their kids, as were the adults of the generation before that about theirs, and so on. Turtles all the way down.

Nearly twelve years ago, I suggested (here) that these myths resemble the 19th century idea in evolution that “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” but in reverse. They project the experience of the individual onto the entire society.  In that post, I imagined the man who says, “The things kids say and do today — I could never have gotten away with that with my old man.”

He pictures his own father as much more powerful than he, the speaker, is now. But that’s only because he is remembering his father from the perspective of a child. When he was a child, his father really was much more powerful than he was — so much bigger and stronger, it seemed the father could do whatever he wanted. But when that child grows up and thinks about himself today, he is not looking up from the viewpoint of his own small children. Instead, he sees himself from his own place in the larger world. He knows that he is certainly not the biggest or strongest person around, he knows that his actions are limited by all sorts of constraints that are largely invisible to children. He sees that he cannot control all aspects of his children’s lives.

This perception generalizes to the idea that adults a generation ago were more powerful vis-à-vis children than are adults today.

The same logic underlies the idea of the decline of community. The world of the child is warm, nurturing, and personal; dependence on others is taken for granted. Compared with the world of grown-ups, life is simple. (Of course the child does not make that comparison; grown-ups do.) Adults, by contrast, move among a complicated diversity of separate settings where feelings count for less, where dependence is less tolerated, and where interactions are based on people trying to accomplish their own goals. Childhood is Gemeinschaft, or as that word is usually translated, community.  Then, as we grow up, the Gemeinschaft share of our lives dwindles, leaving us with a nostalgia for those simpler times. Mentally transposing that personal experience to the society at large takes us from “my childhood” to “the good old days,” you know, the time when people knew one another and cared about one another, when life was simpler, and nobody was lonely — just like when we were kids. But of course, when they were kids, their parents were similarly mourning the loss of the good old days, as were their parents. Turtles all the way down. 

There’s an interesting difference between these two myths of decline. The myth of the authoritarian past appeals mostly to those who find authoritarianism appealing. But the decline-of-community finds adherents across the political and cultural spectrum.  It’s not just liberal sociologists who patrol the loneliness-community axis. The Brookses at the New York Times who write about it (Arthur and David) are politically conservative but culturally liberal. But go way over to the right, and you’ll hear Hannity, O’Brien, Glenn Beck, and others mourning the loss of a more Gemeinschaft-like world. From left to right, these observers disagree about just what has caused the crisis (smartphones and social media are the latest villains), but they are united in their assumptions, despite the shakiness of the evidence.


David J Littleboy said...

The idea that these commentators (and the audience in which the claims resonate) are remembering their childhoods is brilliant.

But there's another big aspect to this rant, and that is that religious belief and participation are on the decline and that they think that's a bad thing. As such, these commentators are extremely socially conservative. So I strongly disagree with your idea that the two Brookses are "socially liberal". David Brooks is, of course, particularly bad about making sociological claims based on incorrect data and dead wrong "facts". Since the NYT refuses to correct his erroneous claims, he's gotten to the point where he's wrong about everything and lives in a bubble.

Jay Livingston said...

Thanks for the generous comment. Here's what I meant when I said that the Brooks Brothers are culturally liberal. They like religion not because it brings people closer to God because it brings them closer to one another and to the community as a whole. They are not proselytizing for any particular sect or set of beliefs. They’d be just as happy if there were non-faith institutions that had comparable effects.

I would guess that they also oppose the NRA and want better gun laws, are not too keen on the death penalty, do not fear immigration and immigrants, favor some kind of national health insurance, did not oppose gay rights back when most cultural conservatives were “defending marriage,” prefer a sex ed policy that works rather than abstinence-only versions, and do not want to outlaw abortion. I would guess that they also find Trump, as a person and a president, thoroughly appalling. They would not be comfortable among the true cultural conservatives wearing their MAGA hats at a Trump rally.