In my correspondence with my mother, I often hear complaints about how greedy people are nowadays, how rude, how ruthless in politicking, how violent or irresponsible.
I have to chuckle. I remember a class of seniors I once had for English saying that people nowadays aren’t as polite or well-mannered as they were hundreds of years ago. It’s such a beguiling thing, but is it true? Let’s examine some of the facts.
Yes, Henry VIII had his reasons for departing from the Church of Rome in the 16th century. But those reasons did NOT exclude the benefit to be derived from dissolving the Catholic monasteries and confiscating their property and assets for the Crown. Why were the Jews shuffled off from one location in Europe after another in the Middle Ages, slowly pushing them eastward? For their wealth, of course. This precedent was in place long before the Nazis confiscated their houses and looted their art collections in the Second World War, or the Arabs did the same with their homes and possessions in the 1950s (which led to the house of Suzy Eban’s family becoming the Saudi Arabian embassy in the 1970s). Hawkeye Pierce (of the TV show “M*A*S*H”) claimed that the three basic human emotions are “greed, fear, and greed.” Nothing new in that.
In the eighteenth century, the authors Alexander Pope and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu were fast friends and admirers of one another’s writing. Until one day they weren’t. Then began the public sniping, rude caricatures drawn about each other, and generally public animosity they harbored for the other. Pope was particularly bad to cross, since booksellers, publishers, and critics ended up portrayed in his long poem, The Dunciad, as competing in a race where they met the most appalling misfortunes, not least that of slipping on human waste and falling into it afterwards. And remember that Pope wasn’t the first to go after his enemies in his writing, sentencing them to the most appalling tortures; the greatest literary executioner of all time was Dante.
Thomas Jefferson hired James Callender, a Scottish-born pamphleteer and one of America’s first yellow journalists, to defame President John Adams. According to David McCullough (in his 2001 biography of John Adams), during the presidential campaign of 1800, when Adams and Jefferson were running against one another (the first and last time a President ran against a Vice President), “Callender … was now working as a Republican propagandist in Richmond, Virginia, with the encouragement and financial support of Jefferson, who, at the same time, was actively distributing a variety of campaign propaganda throughout the country, always careful to conceal his involvement. …That Adams was never known to be involved in such activity struck some as a sign of how naïve and behind the times he was.” Active campaigning was considered beneath a gentleman’s dignity in those days, but it seems that behind-the-scenes campaigning, mud-slinging, and character assassination were not, as long as the gentleman’s name was never “connected with the business” (Jefferson’s words).
Then, to put our current crop of Western politicians into some kind of global perspective, there are the antics of Ukrainian politicians who poison their enemies, Palestinian politicians who murder their fellow parliamentarians, and Iranian politicians who simply ignore election results, hire gangs of thugs to bludgeon and shoot those who demonstrate against them, and thumb their noses at the rest of the world as a daily ritual. Kind of makes American politicians look tame, don’t it?
There is too much violence in society today, we often hear. (To which I’ve also heard the response, “Well, how much is just enough?) In raw numbers, it can be shocking to see the number of murders that occur in a given year. But let’s look for a moment at the recorded homicide rates for the last several centuries in Europe (considered by many to be the cradle of über-civilization):
(per 100,000 People)
. England Neth/Belgium Scandinavia Ger/Switz Italy
13th and 14th c. 23.0 47.0 n.a. 37.0 56.0
15th c. n.a. 45.0 46.0 16.0 73.0
16th c. 7.0 25.0 21.0 11.0 47.0
17th c. 5.0 7.5 18.0 7.0 32.0
18th c. 1.5 5.5 1.9 7.5 10.5
19th c. 1.7 1.6 1.1 2.8 12.6
1900-1949 0.8 1.5 0.7 1.7 3.2
1950-1994 0.9 0.9 0.9 1.0 1.5
*not including wars
So you see, England’s murder rate, which at its worst was less than half that of the Dutch for the same time period, has dropped to almost nothing. Even Italians, with their fiery tempers, have dropped to only one-and-a-half murders for every 100,000 people. Considering the rise in the population of these countries, it’s worth noting that crowded conditions, economic downturns, and industrialization haven’t significantly slowed the tapering homicide rate. More recent statistics (found online here) show slightly higher figures for the new millennium, with the US showing a higher rate than most of the above countries. While Germany shows a homicide rate 0.9 per 100,000 souls, the Netherlands 1.0, Norway 1.2, and the United Kingdom 1.4, the US has 5.4 homicides per 100,000 people. (There have been plenty of explanations for this which I don’t want to get into right now, though I did find the explanation in Levitt and Dubner’s 2005 book Freakonomics compelling.) The US makes a sorry showing here, but hey—at least they’re still ahead of Russia (20.15), Jamaica (32.41), Colombia (33.9), and Venezuela (49.2).
Confused by the number of forks fanned out at the side of your plate when you sit down to a fancy dinner? Don’t know which glass to use for what kind of beverage? Think all this is the result of hundreds of years of high-class frippery? Not on your life. What did Henry VIII eat with? A knife. That’s it. Oh, and his fingers. Three hundred years later, they’d got as far as a two-pronged fork (or, if they were fancier, a three-pronged one). How did they eat their peas? From a knife, of course. In the 17th century, while forks were common in Italy, they were considered by the English to be an “unmanly Italian affectation.” The Catholic Church opposed fork usage as “excessive delicacy”: “God in his wisdom has provided man with natural forks — his fingers. Therefore it is an insult to Him to substitute artificial metallic forks for them when eating.” Fork use only became common in Britain in the 18th century. The curved fork design used today was developed in Germany in the 18th century, and the four-tine fork in the 19th century. (source)
So rather than claim that the greater delicacy in eating belonged to the ages, one should rather argue that modern cutlery is gone off the deep end of gentility. The greatest advance in cutlery to my children’s minds? The spork. It allows them to stab their chicken in their favorite kebab restaurant AND eat their beans and rice without it falling off the fork. Now THAT’s progress.
The takeaway message? The good ol’ days may not have been so good. Or they may have seemed that way when the nostalgic were too young to know what they were really like. Or the bar for what is considered “good” is set too high. All I know is, things are rarely as bad as they seem.