Ed Driscoll

Talk Sixties, Act Fifties: The Ice Storm

Late Wednesday night, I published Kathy Shaidle’s new article at the PJ Lifestyle blog; I didn’t get around to linking to it here until just now for reasons that are hopefully understandable. But the title alone, taken from a line by Charles Murray in his new book, Coming Apart, sums up the disparity between the lives led by liberal elites and the rest of society, which takes their cues from them, often with disastrous results.

If you’ve never seen it, the production design and costuming of Ang Lee’s 1997 film The Ice Storm really captures the atmosphere of the mid-1970s brilliantly, from the bankrupt sixties-inspired mores of its characters, all the way down to the nice touch of the Penn Central logo on the train that carries Tobey Maguire’s character back and forth from New Canaan to prep school in Manhattan. That railroad was another bankrupt institution of the late 1960s that would disappear only a couple of years after the period depicted in the movie.

In her article, Kathy asks:

[S]o many seminal 60s and 70s films tease a message of liberation, but pull the trap of the gallows in their final last moments.

Why? Without the supposedly evil Hays Code to hamper them, why did all these daring young moviemakers keep employing the old tropes of cosmic justice? Residual Catholic or Jewish guilt? Lack of imagination? Did they find that “playing tennis without a net” wasn’t much fun after all?

What is it about people and movie endings, anyway? Never mind Rocky Horror; what about gangsta wannabes who can recite all the dialogue from Goodfellas and Pacino’s Scarface, neither of which end terribly well.

It’s as if the seductive glamor of the first two acts inoculates viewers to the brutally punitive third.

At First Choice, David Mills responds:

This may be in part simply the exercise of a dramatic logic. A happy ever after ending in a liberationist movie just isn’t going to be very satisfactory.  The ending has more of a dramatic kick if the characters don’t end happily ever after. But presumably the endings also express the experience of people who’d known that kind of liberation and knew how it often ended.

I have talked with people who led such lives and who did not regret them, exactly, but who wistfully described the cost and who wished now that they had led a more domestic life, without all the baggage of a liberationist history. On the other hand, I’ve talked with people who’d lived that kind of life and seem happy as clams today. It’s hard to generalize. Maybe the directors will more often the first sort.

That dovetails well with a 1993 quote from James Q. Wilson, the conservative political scientist who helped draft the “broken windows theory” that saved New York in the 1990s who also passed away this week:

I am inclined to think that most people most of the time live lives of ordinary decency as they struggle to raise children, earn a living, and retain the respect of their friends. But we cannot dismiss the possibility that what many intellectuals have come to discredit some people will come to ignore. If morality is thought to be nothing but convention or artifice, then it will occur to those persons who are weakly attached to society and its rules that they are free to act as they wish provided they can get away with it. And if they would have broken the rules anyway, the relativism of our age makes it easier for them to justify their action by the claim that the rules are arbitrary enactments.

I wish to argue for an older view of human nature, one that assumes that people are naturally endowed with certain moral sentiments. We have a peculiar, fragile, but persistent disposition to make moral judgments, and we generally regard people who lack this disposition to be less than human. Despite our wars, crimes, envies, snobberies, fanaticisms, and persecutions, there is to be found a desire not only for praise but for praiseworthiness, for fair dealings as well as for good deals, for honor as well as for advantage. These desires become evident when we think disinterestedly about ourselves or others.

As Murray writes in Coming Apart, “Nonjudgmentalism is one of the more baffling features of the new-upper-class culture:”

The members of the new upper class are industrious to the point of obsession, but there are no derogatory labels for adults who are not industrious. The young women of the new upper class hardly ever have babies out of wedlock, but it is impermissible to use a derogatory label for nonmarital births. You will probably raise a few eyebrows even if you use a derogatory label for criminals. When you get down to it, it is not acceptable in the new upper class to use derogatory labels for anyone, with three exceptions: people with differing political views, fundamentalist Christians, and rural working-class whites.

If you are of a conspiratorial cast of mind, nonjudgmentalism looks suspiciously like the new upper class keeping the good stuff to itself. The new upper class knows the secret to maximizing the chances of leading a happy life, but it refuses to let anyone else in on the secret. Conspiratorial explanations are unnecessary, however. Nonjudgmentalism ceases to be baffling if you think of it as a symptom of Toynbee’s loss of self-confidence among the dominant minority. The new upper class doesn’t want to push its way of living onto the less fortunate, for who are they to say that their way of living is really better? It works for them, but who is to say that it will work for others? Who are they to say that their way of behaving is virtuous and others’ ways of behaving are not?

Toynbee entitled his discussion “schism in the soul” because the disintegration of a civilization is not a monolithic process. While part of the dominant minority begins to mimic the culture of the proletariat, remnants of it become utopians, or ascetics, or try to invoke old norms (as I am doing here). To recognize a disintegrating civilization, Toynbee says, look for a riven culture—riven as our culture is today. For every example of violence and moral obtuseness coming out of Hollywood, one can cite films, often faithful renderings of classic novels, expressing an exquisite moral sensibility. On television, the worst-of-times, best-of-times paradox can be encompassed within the same television series—wonderful moral insights in one plotline, moral obtuseness in another, sometimes occurring within the same episode. Some parents of the new upper class are responsible for producing and distributing the content that represents the worst of contemporary culture, while others are going to great lengths to protect their children from what they see as a violent and decadent culture. Sometimes those parents are one and the same people. The only common thread that I claim in all of this is an unwillingness on the part of any significant portion of the new upper class to preach what they practice.

Of course, it’s not as though the left aren’t exceedingly judgmental when sufficiently aroused (punitively so, you might say); they just can’t be bothered to do it when it counts. Or to put it another way, “Talk sixties, act fifties.”

Related: On Twitter, Tim Graham of the Media Research Center notes a curious moral inversion over the last twenty years or so. “Yes, liberals are sex libertines and food puritans. See Mary Eberstadt in Policy Review.