David Brooks on romance:
Once upon a time -- in what we might think of as the "Happy Days" era -- courtship was governed by a set of guardrails. Potential partners generally met within the context of larger social institutions: neighborhoods, schools, workplaces and families. There were certain accepted social scripts. The purpose of these scripts -- dating, going steady, delaying sex -- was to guide young people on the path from short-term desire to long-term commitment.
Over the past few decades, these social scripts became obsolete. They didn't fit the post-feminist era. So the search was on for more enlightened courtship rules. You would expect a dynamic society to come up with appropriate scripts. But technology has made this extremely difficult. Etiquette is all about obstacles and restraint. But technology, especially cellphone and texting technology, dissolves obstacles. Suitors now contact each other in an instantaneous, frictionless sphere separated from larger social institutions and commitments.People are thus thrown back on themselves. They are free agents in a competitive arena marked by ambiguous relationships. Social life comes to resemble economics, with people enmeshed in blizzards of supply and demand signals amidst a universe of potential partners.
I deeply suspect that social life, in the realm of romance, always resembled economics, if not always a free market. I don't mean to be glib, or assert that there have been no changes in how people date. I haven't been on the market in over a decade, and very few of my friends are out there, so I really wouldn't know. But, and there is no kind way to say this, I don't actually believe David Brooks knows either.
Do people mostly meet through texting today? Are schools, friends and work largely irrelevant? Is it true that there are no social scripts for young people? Or is Brooks merely unfamiliar with them? Did people not meet at jazz clubs back in the 50s, at the Drifters show, or at the beach? And taking Brooks' point, has the actual essence of dating changed that much? Are young people better or worse of for it?
I read Brooks's column and thought of the 80 and 90 year old slaves interviewed by the WPA. There is a lot in those oral histories that is, as they say, old and true. But there's a lot that's old and false. A constant refrain is the notion that the "moving pictures" were ruining young people, and the next generation wasn't worth anything. To be clear, that would be the same generation that gave us Martin Luther King, and effectively finished the Civil War.
This is a theme residing in the conservative soul--a professed, thinly-reasoned skepticism of the fucked-up now, contrasted against a blind, unquestioning acceptance of the hypermoral past. This is a human idea--most people, like those slaves, believe some point in the past was better. And indeed, in some case the past was demonstrably better. But the writer who would argue such has to prove it. He can't just accept his innate hunch. He has to bumrush and beat down his theories of the world, And should they emerge unbroken, that writer might have something to tell us. It's got to be more than justifying your prejudice. It's got to be more than those meddling kids.
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