Monday, June 16, 2008

Nostalgia debunked

I'm reading Stephanie Coontz's The Way We Weren't. First off, this is the first non-fiction book I've read since who knows when that's not about France, Jews, or both, and so is an appropriate choice for my not-quite-summer not-quite-vacation (my coteacher is on this week). As for the book itself, it's strongest point is that the 'golden age' social conservatives point to when discussing the family cannot be pinned down to any one period, because the age never existed. She also points out that just because there was no golden age does not mean some things haven't gotten objectively worse in recent years. (So many negatives in that sentence. Sorry!)

The counterargument that keeps popping up in my mind--and may well be answered somewhere in the second half of the work--is that all Coontz shows is that no modern period was one of idyllic family life. The Victorians and the 1950s suburbanites may not have met the standard to which social conservatives hold the American family. But what about the family of the 15th century? How were marital relations during the Spanish Inquisition? Given the place in reactionary thought of resistance to both Enlightenment values and 19th century liberalism, why would we assume that the conservative golden age of the family (which, I agree with Coontz, is always implied but never pinned down) is somewhere in the post-Voltaire epoch?

More on the book once I've, well, finished it. Till then, an unrelated thought: if you're a grad student living in New York, feeling sorry for yourself that you live in a city filled with fantastic-sounding restaurants, but only go on occasional nights out, to places that look fancy but are deemed "cheap" by mainstream publications, I highly recommend this website. All you do is enter the name of a favorite restaurant (or, strangely, school cafeteria) and you will learn things about what goes on behind the scenes that will make you want to have pasta at home every night till you graduate.

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