Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Michael's bogus nostalgia

A common fallacy, most often expressed by the sloppy thinkers of the right, is that everything was better in the good old days. They choose not to remember inconveniences like child labor, rampant prostitution, epidemics and sewage-filled rivers. Instead they dwell on the glorious Values our ancestors were said to posses -- never once stopping to wonder why those glorious Values did so little to prevent the wars, poverty and plagues that made life in the good old days such a screaming misery

A new example of the fallacy appears this week on a blog written by movie-critic Michael Medved (known to his friends as "Toby's Idea Guy.")

In short, Mikey holds up ancient Rome as an example (by way of his son's ninth grade textbook) and professes that we might learn much from the toga-wearing vomitorium visitors. The relevant passage:
[From the textbook]The stern virtues prized by Roman family life were a source of strength in the early republic. In later years, when increasing power and wealth began to undermine family life, some people were unhappy about the passing of the old order. ‘Rome stands built upon the ancient ways of life,’ warned a poet of the 3rd century B.C. who felt the need for a return to the strong family values of the past.”

The passages I read in my son’s history textbook bear obvious relevance to our current situation where “increasing power and wealth” have also begun to “undermine family life.” The story also reminds us that we’re not the first generation in Western history to seek a return and revival of timeless values – and there’s reason to hope that we’ll find more success in restoring those virtues than our long-ago Roman counterparts.
First, if "power and wealth" are the problem, what exactly is the timeless value Michael wishes to see us restore? Poverty? Weakness? Dependency?

Second, who is better situated than a powerful rich man to spend time with his family, and to give his kids everything they need? The poor guy working a double shift at McDonald's isn't likely to attend many Little League games.

Third, have we forgotten the Roman state was pagan? They worshipped air and smoke, and murdered animals to satisfy the imagined whims of invented deities like Jupiter and Neptune. When Michael's Roman heroes were looking backwards, seeking to revive "timeless values" what they really wanted was greater fidelity to their cults. Those were the virtues they sought to restore, virtues entirely different from our own. This alone ought to remind men like Michael that not everything old is worthy of our respect and emulation.

No comments: