These Are Our Overstated Years

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While finishing up Grant's memoirs, I dug into Rebecca, a somewhat underrated novel by Daphne du Maurier. So far, it's a somewhat familiar tale of young lady moving up the social ranks through marriage--although there's the hint of something horrible and more. What's struck me so far is the amount of order and ritual present in the world du Maurier presents. I'm not sure, but I think we're talking early 20th century, and it's quite clear that certain people of certain stations are only allowed to speak in a certain way and at certain times. It's all very intricate. 


I briefly mentioned this last week, but I think one of the reasons that so much literature focuses on women who attempt to defy their station is because you get this conflict between the agreed upon rules of elite society, and the ambitions of the individual. My natural, and I think correct, inclination is to revile this kind of order. You can't have a bio like mine and have a lot of use for pomp and ritual. I think, at my core, I am an individualist. I think without an aggressive notion of the individual, without some kind of reverence for all the quirks and facets of people, we become androids to ourselves, and that way, I think, lies all the excuses to great societal crimes. The logic of the Confederacy, as explained by a seceding Texas was as follows:

....in this free government all white men are and of right ought to be entitled to equal civil and political rights [emphasis in the original]; that the servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator, as recognized by all Christian nations; while the destruction of the existing relations between the two races, as advocated by our sectional enemies, would bring inevitable calamities upon both and desolation upon the fifteen slave-holding states....

This is genocide of the singular. People do not exist--only two races. Annihilation of the individual justifies annihilation of the collective. 

Still, it's worth understand what people get out of society with hard rules, and clearly defined rituals and order. I think the answer must be some kind of natural order, some sense of certainty. Life is random. You could walk out the house tomorrow morning, and be worm's food by the evening. In that randomness, I suspect people crave a rock to cling to, some sort of control. They want to live in a world where the cops are definitively the good guys, where marriage is a man and a woman, where heaven awaits us after being reduced to worm's food, where God created the world in seven orderly days, and where blacks are the assured peasantry. 

A lot of what I just described strikes me as bigotry, but more than that I think it's, "I fear having to think about this. I fear the randomness of it all. I fear the work of having to attend a wedding where my daughter marries another woman." Or some such. Thinking back on the Civil War, what you see is not so much a vicious hatred of blacks, but a deep fear of becoming black. If African-Americans weren't going to be the peasant class, then surely someone else would have to be--and that someone might well be your child.

We are quickly disregarding all of that, and are better for it. But I suspect, the side-effects are disconcerting. I'm often faced by my elders explaining that "They didn't sacrifice so that 50 Cent could make a fool of himself." My response is always, "Yes, you did." The Dream was always that all individuals could live out their lives as they saw fit. Now we are seeing those ambitions, which in previous years were caged.

So now we we revel in a pornography of the chaotic. Britney Spears is shaving her head again. The President is taking blow-jobs in the Oval Office. Minor celebrities grab for the cameras offering everything from copulation to evacuation. In our summer blockbusters, tornadoes and vampires conspire to destroy us. Oversharing and overstating is the aesthetic.

This is not so very new. But we see so much of it now, and what concerns us, I think, is for all that we now know, we're only a little wiser. I think a certain portion of our present politics is a longing for a past where such things were merely whispered about. But we can't go back Our lives are a ten-car pile-up. Our lives were always a ten-care pile-up. Now no one can look away.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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