Jacques Barzun: The Deplorable Consequences of a Proud Achievement (20th Century emancipation and equality have destroyed law, morality, and true freedom)


Ever since the end of the First World War the slogan has been “emancipation.”  The war itself “emancipated” millions of men and women by throwing them into the trenches or the factories, dislocating lives and conventions together.  Russian Communism then brought the Utopian hope of ultimate liberation.  Freedom became an absolute good that must be extended to everybody about everything.  Just as important, it must reign within the self.  The word inhibition turned pejorative and accusatory.   . . . . 

Deliberate emancipation began in matters of sex.  Divorce was made easier and lot its stigma; “companionate marriage” (another American innovation) prepared the way for overt premarital sex; the teaching and technology of contraception gained momentum; and abortion was legalized.  This so-called sexual revolution emancipated women even more fully than men, and a radical change in the idea and status of women, twice fought for in earlier times, now succeeded: they had the vote; they must also be free to lead the lives they wished.  And logically and justly, all other downgraded, segregated, and neglected groups must be given the same access to a full life, A LIFE FULL OF RIGHTS!

The upshot has been to regard all barriers as outmoded and unjust.  The ever-present impulse is to push against restriction and, in so doing, to feel intolerably hemmed in.  Thus, in practice, every “liberation” increases the sense of “oppression.”  Nor is the paradox merely in the mind: THE LAWS ENACTED TO SECURE THE RIGHTS OF EVERY PERSON AND GROUP, BY CREATING PROTECTIVE BOUNDARIES, CREATE NEW BARRIERS.  THE SYSTEM AS A WHOLE GROWS INTRICATE AND UNCERTAIN: THERE IS NO TELLING WHAT ONE MAY OR MAY NOT DO, FOR STATUTES TAKE EFFECT THROUGH BUREAUCRATS WHO VARY, since they usually follow not rules—God forbid! but GUIDELINES.

Besides, failing in one’s duty is rarely charged with moral horror.  Being “law-abiding” (in this Brave New World) means filing a paper not time, not parking near a (fire-extinguishing water) hydrant, and getting a zoning variance before moving a fence on one’s own property.  A world continually tighter in these (arbitrary and capricious, regulatory) ways intensifies the search for loopholes, tempts the unscrupulous to invent them, hardens the cynic, and keeps alive the urge to break loose.  Such pulses of thought and feeling are bound to take away the ease and pleasure of ethical conduct.  Habitual morality is baffled by the sto-and-go, and other people’s disregard of injunctions causes no surprise; it seems rather to show firmness of mind.

This antinomian tendency began before the advent of the (accursed) welfare state; for as suggested, changes in mores precede the deeper transformation.  The starkest contrast between modernism and Victorian ethos is in the realm of “manners”, which have been well-named “little morals” [although they used to be the subject of sacred and religious texts such as Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, not to mention a subtext in many of the Gospels].  “Respectability” had relied on forms and on formality per se.  So the informal, the casual broke out and began to rule.  The stiff propriety of all ranks disappeared with stiff collar and cuffs, the corset, and the tall hat.  The new manners could be summed up in a material image: no starch.

But the soft collar and girdle and their even looser descendants liberate more than bodily tissues; they let loose emotions.  By removing the signs of class they also democratize; they offer open admission universally on the simplest [and most undemanding, and hence easiest, and least valuable] terms, the culmination being [ironically enough] the return to the mediaeval usage of first names at first meeting.  The barrier(s) of kinship, the privilege of intimacy come to seem [and be characterized as] “elitist.”

The scope of the casual has indeed become remarkable.  It has made room for the reduction of dress to a sort of primal dishabille on all occasions except burial.  The barest, cheapest, and least asorted garments announce that the wearer makes no claim to special attention, that he or she is free fo the conventional vanity that used dress to palliate humankind’s physical defects.  In its place sits the complacent belief that these never offend.  . . . . 

How much formality, what set of manners, promotes self-discipline without strain is a question for social philosophers and educators. The truth is that like any other art, self-discipline is rarely self-taught.  Parents and teachers usually start the training, but an age of emancipation, rightly seeing discipline as a constraint, likens it to other oppressions and . . . loosens it.  

Moreover, the scoffing at formality partakes of a broader, more intellectual attitude, which has come to be held in high honor: irreverence.  Celebrities are praised in print for this talent, which functions like an absolute.  The possessor ridicules all things on principle, showing thereby that he is not guilty of any unfair discrimination.

Adopted with very mild editorial emendation in parentheticals and emphasis from pages 97-99 of, “The Culture We Deserve” published by Wesleyan University Press, 1989.  I highly recommend all of this excellent book, coming nearly 50 years after Barzun’s 19th century summation: Darwin, Marx, and Wagner originally published in 1941.

One response to “Jacques Barzun: The Deplorable Consequences of a Proud Achievement (20th Century emancipation and equality have destroyed law, morality, and true freedom)

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