Monday, March 05, 2012

The Early 1960's as a Victorian Era

David Brooks offers a mostly interesting book review on habits and being a "good person", but I question the manner in which he romanticizes 19th Century values. I've touched on this before in relation to his praise of the early 1960's as a pinnacle of American values, somehow divorced both from what came before and what came after.
In the 19th century, there was a hydraulic model of how to be a good person. There are all these torrents of passion flowing through you. Your job, as captain of your soul, is to erect dams to keep these passions in check. Your job is to just say no to sloth, lust, greed, drug use and the other sins.

Sermons could really help. They could help you identify sin. Preachers could exhort you to exercise the willpower you need to ward off temptation.

These days that model is out of fashion.
Having spent much of my childhood in a town that was once a temperance community, I heard jokes that dated back to that era:
The temperance minister, preaching to his flock, thundered, "There are more than a hundred taverns and bars in this community and I haven't been to one of them!"

A voice from the back of the crowd asked, "Which one is that?"
The notion that the Victorian era was one of great manners and controlled behavior is nice, but if Brooks remains concerned that the wealthy and the working masses don't share the same values and interests, let's just say that modern society has nothing on the Victorians. Brooks also confuses a strong sense of public appearance among the wealthier Victorians with some of the behavior that went on behind closed doors. Brooks is simply correct when he suggests that Victorians had more willpower, although he would be correct to say instead that the boundaries of propriety have shifted such that behaviors that the Victorians kept secret are part of our open culture. It's also fair to say that certain behaviors that were tolerated or accepted in the Victorian era would not be acceptable today, particularly in relation to domestic violence and sexual impropriety, and that those changes have benefited our society and most notably the women in our society. As they say, the good old days weren't always good.

As the Victorians understood (and the folks at Alcoholics Anonymous understand), if you want to change your life, don’t just look for a clever trigger. Commit to some larger global belief.
I think Brooks also misunderstands 12-step programs. While those programs are about changing habits over the long-term, they provide a very important structure over the short-term. And in that regard, they are more like the mundane examples of habit-changing that Brooks previously mentioned,
You can change your own personal habits. If you leave running shorts on the floor at night, that’ll be a cue to go run in the morning. Don’t try to ignore your afternoon snack craving. Every time you feel the cue for a snack, insert another routine. Take a walk.
If you crave your substance of choice, call your sponsor. If you crave your substance of choice, find a meeting. If you crave your substance of choice, reach out to other members of the program.... Unless by "larger global belief" Brooks means "sobriety", I don't see that AA is (or that the Victorians are) as special and unique as Brooks implies. (Yes, a certain percentage of 12-step members become the de facto leaders of the group or the larger 12-step community, but most 12-step members do not demonstrate that type of commitment. The third step belief in a higher power, "God as you understand him," is quite a departure from the religiosity Brooks associations with the eras he is most inclined to romanticize.)

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