IT is the easy and proper pastime of historians to explain revolutions after they have happened. They pick up and bring to pattern the dynamic fragments or the propelling forces that played into the big upheaval. In social evolution, as in practical politics, there are not many who are wise before the fact, while the number who can tell all about it after the social order has taken new form, or after the ballots have been counted, is quite impressive.
Now that a revolution, rather unique in human history, has taken place before our eyes and has brought all persons over forty under a new set of masters, it is only nat ural to offer some explanation of how we, the oldsters, came to be dethroned. What we have suffered at the hands of the new dynasty makes a pitiful tale, and some of the causes of our downfall can be perceived despite our advanced age of twoscore years or more. We have been humbled, our pride and power broken. Youth reigns unchallenged. Some of us scold in plaintive voice, others fawn and flatter, but all yield and pay tribute.
Had it been ‘barbarians coming down from the north,’ we might have preserved a little pride and hauteur as the custodians of culture, and we should have retained, at any rate, the comfort of kith and kin under a common adversity. But the conquerors were ushered into the world by us. We gave them welcome, food, clothing, shelter, education, love, and all of the advantages that money or credit could procure, with the result that Job was not more pained or puzzled than we, or King Lear more desolate.
It is in the sad course of things that the little tots who thought us gods and who trotted along holding divinity by the finger and plying omniscience with questions that would fracture the awful mystery of the universe — it is in the course of things that they should some day guess that we did not make the world; that, in the daring and glory of adolescence, they should doubt us at least enough to achieve clear selfhood. That has always been a bit awkward for parents and painful for children, but with honesty and humility it has usually passed into mutual understanding and comradeship, as if they stood again hand in hand looking out upon the ocean or to the stars. It is not the individual’s rebirth or the emergence of independent thought that accounts for our disaster, but a mob movement induced by us, the victims.
This post-mortem will do no good, at least not for us who provide it. But let the dissection begin; we are past feeling. Possibly the first big mistake that our generation of men made was to discard whiskers. We committed social suicide with the razor. Consider the flowing beard as the breastworks of authority. How often it concealed the weakness or mobility of the face, gave poise, steadiness, and distinction. A child could not have a beard, neither could a woman. Not even a suffragette could have a luxuriant one. Every utterance emerging from a beard had oracular worth, mystery, and an Olympian quality making for command. The naked face was the beginning of our dishonor. The ancients knew better, Dowie knew better, the late King Ben knew better, and the Bible, too, is against it. Why should a man make himself appear childish and effeminate and hope to maintain status? Can you blame the women and children for concluding that we are all alike, irrespective of sex or age?
But this was only the beginning of exposure, for, while it weakened the first line of defense by shearing down the men, there were still the women, who might have saved the day had not they too been betrayed by exposure. And who was it that challenged the older women to this unequal contest in pulchritude but the young and comely? When skirts started to recede from the earth, all of the older women were bound to lose social standing. They took up the gauge of battle with the young, not realizing how merciful the civilized convention of clothes is, and how much it has to do with preserving respect after a certain age. Obviously many women are too old or too different from the Greek anatomical models to qualify for the annual event at Atlantic City. But they did compete everywhere, and the public, looking them up and down and rating them by stockjudging methods rather than by distinctly human values, gave all of the blue ribbons to Youth.
In reading books and sober periodicals one learns that every explanation of present social trends or problems must include the World War as a major cause. That the post-war psychology added to adult humiliation seems reasonably clear. Whether justly or not, the young people, particularly in the colleges, were persuaded that all the statesmen dealing with the crisis of 1914 and the causes leading to it were stupid and depraved. It was not reluctantly that they came to believe that any sophomore could have done better than Earl Grey and that, irrespective of study and experience, Youth somehow had higher morals and better judgment than the men who steered our Western civilization into disaster. All adults came under indictment. The fact of having been born forty years ago was a patent disgrace. Besides this, and more important, was the current conviction of Youth that a great deal of lying had been done by their elders. In a word, out of that awful calamity came the conclusion that the present breed of adults were not fit to run things, and the beautiful hope that they who are to follow us will do much better. They who have not tried have no failures; we who have tried and failed, what can we say? Again we have been exposed.
Add to our cup of sorrow the collapse of hero worship, the fall of the adult nobility of the past, accomplished by modern biographers sniffing the trail of mental complexes of sex, superiority, inferiority, until they have the ‘great’ at bay and bring them down. The illustrious who had been our symbols for the control of Youth are no more; the idols have fallen; the taboos, ceremonies, pomp, and circumstance that supported the prestige of adults have been swept away. It was not enough to expose us; those from whom we inherited the right to rule must also be brought low.
From this assault of the psychological biographers we might have fled for sanctuary to the modern church, had it not already established the enemy within the gates; for it is historically true that Youth first came to consciousness as a cult within the kindly fold of the church. Be it said that the clergy who advocated and engineered the religious autonomy of Youth were actuated by idealism and love, and, like other uplifters, failed to foresee the main by-products of the Great Reform. Hence solemnly ordained ministers made the discovery that Youth must lead Youth in the things of the spirit. Could they not organize, talk, pray, testify, and sing according to their own genius? What mattered the small item of seven years of collegiate and seminary training, the seasoning of long service, or the sacrament of the cure of souls?
Youth performed with a vengeance; ran meetings in serio-comic style, held mammoth conventions, ‘peppy’ rallies with yells and contests, slang and nicknames, slogans and sidelong glances that betokened, perhaps, a horizontal interest in religious assembly quite equal to the old-time vertical one. They had their own extempore brand of meeting and began to leave the decorum of public worship to their elders. From that time the family pew was for father and mother only. The young people took up their own interpretation and uses of religion.
To be sure, a few shirt-sleeve evangelists went after them on their own terms, with now and again a boy preacher enriching the juvenility of the scene, or some beautiful female performer such as floods the Western coast with auroral splendor and the continent with spicy news; but for the most part Youth bade farewell to the old folk and adapted religion to their own fancy. At present teachers are considering a similar ‘reform’ in education. Then will follow, no doubt, physicians and surgeons, engineers and the hard-boiled scientists.
Gradually, and while all this was taking place, the delicate instrument of speech which serves subtly to define and preserve social order played us a mean trick. In our directness, haste, and love of equality, we had never been strict in protecting or adorning the termini of our remarks. These symbols of English aristocracy and French nicety had never been maintained on this soil without effort and early training. Manners from below seeped upward. We made it snappy: ‘Yes, sir’ gave place to ‘Yep’ or ‘Sure’; ‘Good morning’ became ‘H’lo,’ and all the little courtesies of language so rewarding to seniors everywhere and so productive of morale became Victorian. ‘Applesauce’ and ‘So’s yer old man’ were the victorious banners of militant Youth. We fled.
Furthermore, not only men of letters, who now begin with the woes and failures of married persons of middle life, but entertainers, fun makers, movie lords, columnists, cartoonists, and dramatists joined in the sport of baiting Age. They gave color, din, and romantic zest to the rout. Then came the big contingent of business based on salesmanship. ‘Pep’ was the cardinal virtue and pep was found in Youth. Vivid suggestion, not reflective judgment, sold the public to its utmost limit, including next year’s salary. Thrills beat logic all hollow. Exit the aged.
Even the State rebuffed us by revoking the parental right to educate children at home, to require of them remunerative work, to follow our own ideas of health; and, not being content to demote us, said plainly that we ourselves were incompetent and not to be trusted in selecting what we should eat or drink. Besides that, it put Youth on an equality with us as lawbreakers, adding the thrill of danger and naughtiness in youthful adventure. Prosperity also worked against us, for it telescoped the normal rate of acquiring comforts and luxuries and gave Youth everything without the prolonged effort and discipline of former times. Science, of which they learned more in high school than we did in college, banished nature lore, including the stork, and gave them automobiles, radios, and airplanes which they could handle better than we.
Socially they conspired to put through whatever programme they desired. Parents did not confer or organize; hence they fell one by one under the combined demand for later hours, more money, more cars, more country-club affairs, and, being at the same time ambitious for the social rating of their offspring, they succumbed to the knock-down argument of ‘So-and-so does it.’
For the reasons given, we, like the conquered everywhere, pay the bills and indulge the speculation as to whether our present rulers will in turn be overthrown. How will it fare with them when their children have taken to the air, when American football teams and fans by the thousand fly to Paris or Rome for week-end games, when jazz has been perfected in the exclusive use of the erotic tom-tom, when dancing has become completely stationary, and when full dress has become nothing more than a loin cloth? Then perhaps our present rulers will join us under the juniper tree and swell the dirge which runs, ‘Now when I was young . . . ’