Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Barbarians in Space

with 3 comments

The title to this post was suggested by my younger son.  And, you know, whatever.

But let met get first to Cathy’s comment, where she says that society in the past was just as brutal.

The first is to note that what I was commenting on was not brutality in real life but brutality in the culture–in what occurs publicly, particularly in art, literature and music.

And I think I’d have no trouble proving that the culture in, say, 1935 or 1953 was far less brutalized than it is now.  You could go to the movies day in and day out without seeing a single instance of graphic sex or violence.  You could pick up any respectably published book without hearing a single f-bomb, or much else in the way of profanity.  Song lyrics were about moons and spoons and Junes and not killing cops or raping your best friend’s ex-girlfriend.  Even the vast majority of porn (which would have been illegal) concerned a heterosexual couple having vanilla sex instead of rape fantasies requiring clothes pins.

But I’m willing to bet that we’d find less brutality in real life in that period, too, if we looked into it.

Cathy says that I should look at the way women and children were treated.

But I think women and children were treated fairly well. 

Granted, police did not respond to “domestic violence” the way we do now, but there is actually no evidence that there was more of it in spite of that.

When we’re faced with that lack of evidence, we’re told “well, a lot of it wasn’t reported.”

But that’s not evidence, it’s conjecture.  A lot of crime is always unreported.  The only evidence we have that the rate of nonreporting is significantly higher now than then is our conviction that “that’s what marriage is always like”–and that, in itself, is part and parcel of the brutalization of the culture.

You can see a similar think happening in the way we treat children.  Certainly parents in the 1950s used more corporal punishment than do parents now, but unless you’re of the opinion that any corporal punishment at all is “beating,” there’s no reason to suppose that most of it was violent or extreme. 

That is, there’s no reason except that we’ve changed our cultural view of the relationships between parents and children–as we have with our cultural view of the relationships between husbands and wives–from one of “probably loving and acceptible unless proven otherwise” to one of “probably abusive and horrible unless proven otherwise.”

And that, in itself, is evidence of the brutalization of this culture.

But I could go even farther than that, because there is affirmative evidence that the culture was far less brutalized in the 30s, 40s and 50s than it is now.

For one thing, the violent crime rate was much lower than it is now–and no, not just because crime was being vastly underreported.  As late as the mid-1950s, women habitually walked at night in Central Park without worrying about being mugged or raped, and a case of robbery or rape in the Park, when it did occur, was treated as an outrage.

And yes, I do know that in the Twenties–the War on Alcohol–the FBI used to shoot at people with machine guns.  By the Fifties and Sixties, however, they brought murderers into jail handcuffed to the front and without shackles.  See the Clutter case, in Kansas, that made the basis for In Cold Blood.

With minorities, the issue is a little more complicated. 

Lynching was certainly brutality, and its import was worse in that it was largely officially sanctioned, if mostly under the table.  And getting rid of it was definitely a move in the direction of de-brutalization.

But I’m not sure exactly how we can judge the relative brutality of that and the present state of our inner cities.

In the 30s and, yes, well into the 50s, Harlem was a poor area but also a safe area to live in.  People from other parts of New York went up to hear jazz and blues without worrying that the trip was going to get them killed.  There were no drive-by shootings and no drug busts that could result in an eighteen year old kid going to jail for forty years.

And, of course, there was the obvious–families were mostly intact, schools were mostly safe and contained no metal detectors or random locker searches, and children could play on the street or in the parks without their parents having to worry that they’d be drawn into a drug deal or dead in a shoot out or signed up for a violent gang.

I’d say that, on the subject of brutalization–not of rights or cultural attitudes about whether women were up to running corporations, but of brutalization–the experience of minorities is mostly a wash. 

It was possible to have a decent life in Harlem in the 1950s.  These days, the only way you can have a decent life in Harlem is if you live in Morningside Heights, where Columbia keeps its students and faculty.  And even then, you have to be on the alert every moment for violence happening around you.

Meanwhile, most of the black people have been pushed up to Washington Heights, where the living situation is brutal in the extreme.

I agree with Mike, that historical novels can be maddening when they drag in 21st century cultural judgments or (worse) include characters who seem to have time travelled from their graduation at Sidwell Friends.

But I understand how it happens.  And why.

I can watch Perry Mason episodes all day, to a large extent because I appreciate the attitudes on so many things–especially the one that said most people were good and decent and well meaning all the time, and there was something wrong with you, it was an indication of your own bad character, if you thought otherwise.

I know I don’t actually have any interest in going back to the Fifties.  I know that when I was living in the Fifties and early Sixties, I was a one-girl dynamo feminist before I’d ever heard of the word. 

But the cynicism and gutter mindedness of this present situation sometimes overwhelm me, and I find myself willing to do almost anything to get rid of it all.

So I’m careful not to even try to write historicals, and to read not historicals but books contemporary with the era I’m having my little nostalgia fit for, because I know that, sure as anything, I’d have the same problem.

I don’t want to go back.  I want to have some things we used to have that we don’t have now.

And I don’t know how that’s done.

Written by janeh

April 15th, 2012 at 9:26 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Barbarians in Space'

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  1. Well, if you just wanted behavior to change, that’s a sure thing–and probably soon enough for you to see it. But if you want the beliefs, opportunities and incentives to stay the same and get different results, that’s a little trickier. I suspect much of the last 30-40 years has been the behavior CATCHING UP with changes in those things.

    When you see things moving the other way, it’s generally one of two things: either the First Consul has taken power, issued the Code Napoleon and anounced that woman is greatest who bears the most children, or there’s a great Puritan movement in the Fenlands, and someone closes down the theaters and the bear pits. The streets are safer, but neither way–nor our present way–leads to the great libertarian paradise.


    15 Apr 12 at 4:44 pm

  2. Jane’s definition of “historical fiction” amuses me. I suppose one can consider Nero Wolfe or Lord Peter Whimsey or Sherlock Holmes as historical. But I prefer to reserve the term for novels such as the Hornblower series or Brother Cadfael or Mary Renault’s novels about Ancient Greece.

    As to the barbarity of modern society, when I was growing up, I was taught that rights implied duties. For example, the right to free speech implied a duty to be careful of what one said. We seem to have lost the connection. Every one now has rights but no one has duties.


    15 Apr 12 at 8:11 pm

  3. JD, Jane carefully distinguishes historicals from “books contemporary with the era” and Wolfe, Wimsey and Holmes were all contemporaries when written. Now, someone today writing a Holmes story set in 1895 would be writing a historical, which is the point. There is a gray area, though. PERSUASION has a very specific dating, a few years before Austen wrote it, and is not generally called a historical novel. John Dickson Carr wrote mysteries set near the year of his birth which are. It’s not clear what the cut-off is or ought to be.

    But I agree with the rights/duties problem. There’s an old H. Beam Piper (SPACE VIKING) in which our observer tells a local that the population is out for all they can get and the aristocracy “is ashamed of its privileges and shirks his duties.” Our observer seems to feel that once things had reached that point, the crash is inevitable.


    15 Apr 12 at 8:49 pm

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