Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Past is Another Country (Henry James Edition)

Make no mistake about it - your own country a century ago would be virtually unrecognisable to you. But not for the technological reasons people typically think of. No, the real reason is that your fellow countrymen would have values that would be entirely alien to you. I think this is a good antidote to excessive conservative nostalgia about the distant past. You can be nostalgic about the founding fathers all you like, but if most modern young conservatives actually had to meet them, there's a good chance you'd find them appalling racists and sexists, while they'd find you disgustingly hedonist libertines.

I mentioned Mr James' work a few days ago. I was put into him by my friend OKH. A lot of James' writing focuses on social interactions between men and women, particularly in the context of the different attitudes of Europeans and Americans. American women tend to be portrayed as somewhat free and risqué in their tendency to defy traditional expectations of behaviour.

But here's what's flabbergasting - 'risqué' in this context means an unmarried woman of 20 or so walking around Italy with a man she isn't married to, unaccompanied by any family relations, and not being ashamed of it. 'Scandalous' is walking around with two men. Remember, these are supposedly the values of polite American ex-pat society in Europe around the end of the 19th century.

As OKH pointed out, this mindset is much, much closer to the modern Muslim world than it is to the modern America. Moreover, these values managed to serve society very well for centuries. And yet modern conservatives look at the Islamic world and find its treatment of women to be very repressive. Rightly so, in my opinion. But it takes on a whole new perspective when you realise that similar attitudes were harbored by the vast majority of your fellow countrymen just outside living memory.

In other words, it's unclear whether George Washington would feel he had more in common with a modern fundamentalist Muslim than a modern atheist liberal American, even though the latter would consider himself Washington's heir much more than the former. Politically, one imagine's he'd side with the modern American. But culturally? It's hard to say.


  1. I wonder if the critical difference – and the trope with which the wily nostalgic conservative would argue himself out of a corner – is the blatant and unapologetic treatment of women under Islam as chattels. Even at the nadir of women’s rights in Western societies, they were regarded as fully human, if only second-class human. The institutions and traditions that support the view of women being merely the property of men, on the other hand, are still alive and kicking in the Muslim world: requirement of a dowry, the “bride price,” completely lopsided grounds on which divorce can be effected or a spouse repudiated, and the option of a husband to insist that his wife (or wives) go about completely covered up in public.

  2. I knew it wasn't as bad as I thought! You're right though, there are definitely unambiguous differences between Victorian America and Modern Islam where Islamic attitudes towards women are particularly contemptible. This would likely be apparent to Americans of the time too.

    Still, I'm quite sure that if you plonked George Washington inside the average modern nightclub, he'd be certain that he was in a brothel of some sort. And he'd be blown away when you told him that no, this was just how the average young person in America today behaved.