“Judging past eras by the standards of the present” is how historian and author William Manchester defined generational chauvinism, a phrase he coined, in a letter to the editor of the New York Times on February 4, 1990. Manchester’s letter was written in defense of his friend and former colleague at the Baltimore Sun, H. L. Mencken, whose diary had just been released to collective howls of “racism,” and “antisemitism.”
Having finally gotten around to reading The Diary of H. L. Mencken, I can understand the concern of those who found certain passages in the diary disturbing. However, I am not interested in defending Mencken. Joseph Epstein already did so brilliantly in “Mencken on Trial,” an essay review of Mencken’s Diary in Commentary. I am more interested in Manchester’s phrase “generational chauvinism” that for whatever reason has not been further explicated in the nearly 30 years since he coined it, while the practice of generational chauvinism has rooted and spread like kudzu in a junk yard, to the detriment of intellectual freedom and vigor in America.
While the phrase “generational chauvinism” was coined in 1990, the concept has been around longer. Writing in Surprised by Joy in 1955, C. S. Lewis defined “chronological snobbery,” a concept he and Owen Barfield developed, as “The uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.”
Generational chauvinism is primarily practiced by progressives who have a genuine concern for righting past wrongs. The desire to right these wrongs should not be scoffed at. On the other hand, many conservatives practice a kind of reverse generational chauvinism or chronological snobbery which dismisses all things modern. Some go to the extreme of denying there are past wrongs that need to be righted. My concern at the moment, however, is the extremism of generational chauvinism.
Generational chauvinism is more than just judging past eras and individuals by the standards of the present, it is condemning them and consigning their entire legacy to a mass unmarked grave because at one point in their lives they violated current standards of morality. A river of puritanism runs through generational chauvinism. To borrow from Mencken, generational chauvinism, like Puritanism, is the “Haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy,” and they might be happy because they are reading Mencken’s Diary or some other delightful book by a writer who at some point in his or her life violated the core values of today’s generational chauvinists.
Another stream runs through generational chauvinism—perfectionism of the Wesleyan type. Puritanism at least shared with Mencken the idea that humans are flawed. The theologian John Wesley believed a person could overcome his or her sinful nature through a process called Entire Sanctification after which the person sinned no more. To the Puritans and their descendants, this was heresy, as it is to anyone who looks unblinkered at the human race. The doctrine of Entire Sanctification was embraced by well meaning people. Rather than leading to perfection of character, however, it led to its adherents denying evil in themselves, although generally not in others.
The puritanism and perfectionism embraced by generational chauvinists have resulted in smugness, arrogance and even worse, dehumanization. Generational chauvinism is dehumanizing in that it denies people, like Mencken, their full humanity by refusing to accept or even make allowance for character flaws. It dehumanizes entire groups, particularly minorities, by refusing to acknowledge they are flawed. Generational chauvinists are correct in wanting to destroy stereotypes of minorities. Stereotypes of minorities, or any group for that matter, are dehumanizing. However, many generational chauvinists have gone beyond destroying stereotypes to censoring anything that characterizes a minority individual or group in a negative way even if what is written or spoken is true. This dishonesty in turn leads to new stereotypes.
A recent eruption of generational chauvinism occurred on Saturday afternoon, June 23, 2018, when the executive board of the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC), a branch of the American Library Association (ALA), voted unanimously at the ALA’s annual convention to change the name of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award to the Children’s Literature Legacy Award. Certainly the ALSC has a right to rename one of its awards, and there might even be good reasons for changing the name of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award, first given to Wilder for her children’s books in 1954, but they are not the reasons given by the ALSC and the ALA, as stated in their press release: “Wilder’s books are a product of her life experiences and perspective as a settler in America’s 1800s. Her works reflect dated cultural attitudes toward Indigenous people and people of color that contradict modern acceptance, celebration, and understanding of diverse communities.”
In Wilder’s works, which I have read three times, characters do make racist remarks, express dated cultural attitudes and stereotype blacks and Native-Americans. Nevertheless, the ALSC and ALA have not shown that Wilder herself embraced racism or that the works themselves are racist. In fact, the ALA and ALSC embrace the fallacy often exhibited by inexperienced readers that the voice of the narrator and/or characters in a book are the voice of the author. There is nothing in the Little House series that indicates that the views of some of the characters or the narrator on race are the views of Laura Ingalls Wilder. The failure to discern between the attitudes of characters and/or a narrator and the attitudes of an author reveals the ALA’s simplistic approach to reading comprehension.
Unlike Wilder, the alleged racist phrases in The Diary of H. L. Mencken are his own words. However, they were his private thoughts, thoughts that were published against his wishes. They were never uttered. Furthermore, they were the thoughts of an honest man, a man who knew he was flawed, knew he was prejudiced (hence the name of a series of books he wrote) but who strove and succeeded for the most part in treating minorities fairly. Mencken was flawed, but he was also self aware and disciplined in keeping his prejudices from affecting his behavior.
The assault by generational chauvinists on writers of previous generations (and some contemporary writers) is an example of the logical fallacy of the ad hominem argument. The unspoken strategy of generational chauvinists is simple—peg someone a racist and then you don’t have to listen to him or her anymore. Thomas Jefferson was a racist who owned slaves, therefore he has nothing of value to say to me about liberty, democracy or anything else for that matter.
Painting Mencken as a racist means you don’t have to take seriously his cogent arguments for free speech, his critiques of democracy or his still relevant commentary on what the role of a journalist should be. Pegging Wilder a racist means you can dismiss the experiences, values and lives of hundreds of thousands of Great Plains settlers of various ethnic groups as worthless and you can create a new mythology of the American West as dishonest as the old one.
Great writing is not great writing to a generational chauvinist unless it avoids any whiff of racism or sexism, even if that racism or sexism is that of the narrator or characters rather than the author. To cite just one example, writing in his master’s thesis, Misogyny in Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree, of one of America’s few great 20th and 21st century novelists, Cormac McCarthy, John W. Tucker states, “The close examination of gender issues in the text of Suttree reveals profound misogyny in the work. I argue that this facet of the novel’s construction restrains it from attaining the high level of artistic achievement one finds in McCarthy’s other novels.”
This attitude, that to attain a high level of artistic achievement a work must have the imprimatur of today’s guardians of what passes for morality, an attitude which pervades academia, would no doubt have kept Tolstoy from writing Anna Karenina. And this may be the greatest danger of generational chauvinism, that it acts as a prior restraint on writers. Can writers produce anything of substance, vigor or beauty in this atmosphere of repression?
Someday the grim reaper will harvest the current crop of generational chauvinists. Another generation will arise. I can’t help but wonder what sins of our generation will set their teeth on edge? Will they have the wisdom to winnow the chaff from our works but still set aside and bake bread from the grain?
Daniel T. Weaver