In Part 1 I deconstructed American history, briefly giving reasons why no decade could really be considered a time when America was “righteous.” Today, I want to know why the “recapturing our more righteous past” and “moral decline” memes persist. Why are they so powerful? Do we really think there was a time of real goodness and Christlikeness in our nation’s past?
I think I can answer that. When I was a child, when the Internet was just a tool for scientists and military techs, the world really was simpler. I was a white, upper-middle class, heterosexual, boy from the dominant religion (Protestant).
I had the great outdoors, my toys, my friends, a lot of books, and three TV channels (ABC, PBS, and a UHF station that later picked up the FOX programming, but mostly showed Star Trek, The Three Stooges, and black and white westerns). If the weather was perfect, we might get CBS or even NBC, but generally not long enough to watch an entire show. And on those five channels, the rules were strict. MASH was about as risqué as it got. I hardly even knew any swear words until elementary school.
I never thought of it as that idyllic – I was an only child with a high IQ and mediocre social skills. On the first day of first grade I asked the teacher why Great Britain was apologizing to the Falkland Islands when they’d started the whole thing. Not a question she was expecting, and not one that endeared me to my classmates.
I remember childhood as fighting bullies (almost constantly) and worrying about inflation, terrorism, and the waning Soviet Union. I knew far too early that Mommy and Daddy couldn’t stop the bad guys.
But I was the exception. Most of my friends and acquaintances weren’t only children. They had brothers and nearby cousins to socialize them early. Likewise, they didn’t notice world events, didn’t feel the Sword of Damocles that was the Cold War. They were sheltered.
My parents’ generation? While they were playing with their dolls in 1955, Emmett Till, a black child not much older than they were, was being lynched for talking to a white woman. But they were sheltered. They were children. Their world was innocent, and they didn’t know.
And today? Today the Internet brings massive amounts of information, both good and bad. I still remember a man telling me that his grandson had been looking at Internet porn, and how shocked he was at the content (he found out because his computer got a bad virus, and the computer repairman told him. I guess computers get STDs, too).
He said that boys of a certain age will want to know about the opposite sex, to find out what they don’t know, so to speak. But that in his day they might find a Playboy with some nudity, but not full video of graphic (and sometimes really rough, demeaning) sex acts. So in the past, even in adolescent transgressing, we were sheltered.
That shelter is gone. And the danger, especially from pornography, has multiplied tenfold. I won’t argue against that at all. Kids can easily find ways to get into much more damaging trouble that they could even twenty years ago.
Information overload has made it hard for us to believe in the things that are going well. Sure, here in America we have our lowest violent crime rate in 40 years and our lowest abortion rate in 20 years. But we hear about everything, every crime that’s flashy enough to be newsworthy is played and replayed endlessly. And it feeds our fear, creates a moral crisis. Something has to be done! But crime rates have been falling for 20 years, why don’t we keep doing what we’re doing, and watch them keep falling?
Another thing the flood of information has done has made it much harder to pretend that just because things are going well for you, that they’re going well for everyone. Now we know, thanks to the Internet and media, about all the suffering in Africa, in Asia, in the Middle East. We know about eleven year old girls facing execution for “blasphemy,” and nine year old brides. We know about brutal crackdowns on peaceful demonstrations in Syria and Iran. We know about “vanishings” and torture and terrible things even our own government has done.
We know, if we bother to look, that the factories preparing our food torture the animals mercilessly, confining pigs in cages they can’t even turn around in, and leaving them there all their lives, cramming chickens in, stacked on top of each other, fed a constant diet of antibiotics to keep them alive.
A half dozen huge corporations get over 80% of all farm subsidies, and they treat their livestock horribly. The proof is not for the faint of heart. This includes a video that is definitely not for the faint of heart.
And we know that children whose parents live on $2,500 a year (less than I make in a month – not our household income, just my paycheck) struggle to find fresh water, die of malaria or dengue fever because of mosquitoes that merely annoy us here, and, if they live, end up as child brides, prostitutes, or slaves working to gather the cocoa that feeds our sweet tooth.
Meanwhile, we live in unearned wealth, granted by the good fortune of being born in the industrialized world instead of the developing world.
So, yeah, the fallen-ness of our world hits us like a jackhammer now. We can’t sit, shielded by our white, wealthy, American privilege, immune to the pain of a suffering world. Well, we can, but we have to actively tune it out, harden our hearts like Pharaoh, and lash out in anger at anyone who breaks the illusion. It’s a defense mechanism, true, but it’s not one that our faith allows us. Matthew 25 tells the story. Are we Christ’s lambs, or the world’s goats?
On the other hand, it could just be that people are angry at cussing on TV and the gays.