In order to better understand the values and beliefs of Modern America, the culture of 20th century America, lets take a look back at its predecessor, Victorian America.
“To locate the inner dynamics of Modernism and to see how it came into being, it is necessary to return briefly to the culture against which the early Modernists rebelled. Victorianism, whose reign in America ran roughly from the 1830s to the early twentieth century, was closely associated with the rapidly expanding bourgeois class of that era. Its guiding ethos was centered upon the classic bourgeois values of thrift, diligence, and persistence, so important for success in a burgeoning capitalist economy, along with an immense optimism about the progress that industrialization seemed sure to bring. At the same time, Victorian culture, with its ideal vision of a stable, peaceful society free from sin and discord, proved immensely helpful in enabling the members of this new middle class to keep their balance in a world that was changing very fast, in way they did not always expect or understand.
At the core of this new culture stood a distinctive set of bedrock assumptions. These included a belief in a predictable universe presided over by a benevolent God and governed by immutable natural laws, a corresponding conviction that humankind was capable of arriving at a fixed and unified set of truths about all aspects of life, and an insistence on preserving absolute standards based on a radical dichotomy between that which was deemed “human” and that regarded as “animal.” It was this moral dichotomy above all that constituted the deepest guiding principle of the Victorian outlook. On the “human” or “civilized” side of the dividing line fell everything that served to lift man above the beasts – education, refinement, manners, the arts, religion, and such domesticated emotions as loyalty and family love. The “animal” or “savage” realm, by contrast, contained those instincts and passions that constantly threatened self-control, and which therefore had to be repressed at all cost. Foremost among those threats was of course sexuality, which proper Victorians conceived of as a hidden geyser of animality existing within everyone and capable of erupting with little or no warning at the slightest stimulus. All erotic temptations were accordingly supposed to be rooted out, sexual pleasure even within marriage was to be kept to a minimum, and, as Nancy F. Cott has shown, the standard of respectable conduct, especially for women, shifted decisively “from modesty to passionlessness.” A glorious future of material abundance and technological advance was possible, but only if the animal component in human nature was effectively suppressed.”
Cultural liberalism was still in the future in the 19th century. To be sure, liberalism existed but 19th century liberalism was about laissez-faire economics and the extension of individual rights. It was not about cultural liberation, hedonism or the pursuit of aesthetic lifestyles.
The Victorians had believed in a complex system of manners, natural hierarchies of civilized and savage races and ethnic groups which varied by their relative cultural attainments and the repression of sexuality which was the foundation of civilization. There were different spheres for men and women.
“Equally important was the way this moral dichotomy fostered a tendency to view the world in polar terms. “There is a value in possibilities,” Masao Miyoshi observes, “… but the Victorians also saw them in rigid pairs – all or nothing, white or black.” Sharp distinctions were made in every aspect of existence: Victorians characterized societies as either civilized or savage, drew a firm line between what they considered superior and inferior classes, and divided races unambiguously into black and white. They likewise insisted on placing the sexes in “separate spheres,” based on what Rosalind Rosenberg describes as the Victorian faith in sexual polarity, which deemed women as “by nature emotional and passive,” while men were “rational and assertive.” Such dichotomies, it was believed, were permanently rooted in biology and in the general laws of nature. The “right” way, the moral way, was to keep these various categories distinct and segregated.”
The Victorians “discriminated” by making sharp distinctions between all kinds of groups. They did not believe in what was ridiculed at the time as “social equality.”
“Put in slightly different terms, what Victorians aspired to was a radical standard of innocence. They were engaged in an attempt to wall themselves off as completely as possible from what they regarded as evil and corruption, and to create on the other side of the barrier a brave new world suffused, in Matthew Arnold’s words, with “harmonious perfection.” Nineteenth-century thinkers, writes Donald H. Meyer, “longed for a universe that was not just intelligible, reassuring, and morally challenging, but symphonic as well.” To be sure, actual behavior at times seemed to undercut this pursuit of innocence, but the point is that for the Victorian middle class innocence still remained a powerful and almost universal cultural ideal. Even when behavior diverged from it, as doubtless happened quite often, the ideal continued to be venerated. Nor was the Victorian ethos regarded as especially oppressive by the great majority of its nineteenth-century middle class adherents. Rather, in the context of their experience it was both comforting and distinctly uplifting – a set of values that offered moral certainty, spiritual balm, and the hope that civilization might at last rid itself of the barbaric baggage remaining from humankind’s dark, preindustrial past.”
Victorians valued self-control and self-denial. They also thought art should have an uplifting moral purpose that ennobled society. Moderns believe in the exact opposite of this.
The following excerpt comes from Stanley Coben’s book Rebellion Against Victorianism: The Impetus for Cultural Change in 1920s America:
“The home served as the vital institution of Victorian culture, incorporating functions performed by other agencies both earlier and later. Ideally, it provided men a haven from a ferociously competitive society. It gave women a well-established place in that society and assurance that they played a crucial role as wives and mothers. The physical house itself held a place in Victorian culture reminiscent of the church building in seventeenth-century Puritan New England.
In the home, children received training which enabled them to develop the ideal “character” that marked a successful Victorian. “Character” connoted some different traits and nuances for females than for males, but its attainment was crucial for middle-class respectability among both sexes …
The configuration of virtues which formed this cult of character went far toward defining an American Victorian, certainly in their hypothetical state. An analysis of hundreds of statements about character from a great variety of sources indicates that a male or female person of character was dependably self-controlled, punctual, orderly, hardworking, conscientious, sober, respectful of other Victorians’ property rights, ready to postpone immediate gratification for long-term goals, pious toward a usually friendly God, a believer in the truth of the Bible, oriented strongly toward home and family, honorable in relations with other Victorians, anxious for self-improvement in a fashion which might appear compulsive to modern observers, and patriotic.”
Religion was the center of life in Victorian America.
A good Victorian was religious and had built up his character by learning and practicing the moral virtues. In the 19th century, a good person was an honest person, a courageous person, a thrifty and hardworking person, a sober person who was patriotic and valued his community, and so forth. It was understood that different races, ethnic groups and the sexes had different capacities in living up to this ideal. Generally speaking, women were considered more moral than men who were not held to the same standard in sexual morality but impiety and debauchery still reflected on a man’s reputation.
In the 21st century, these are all things that pale in significance to not being a racist, sexist, nativist, xenophobe, homophobe, transphobe, Islamophobe and so on. A good person is not someone who embodies traditional moral values, but someone who is against the -isms and -phobias. As we have seen, this is because Moderns became obsessed with self-liberation and self-expression, psychology and the “transformation of consciousness” in the 20th century and under the influence of Freudianism and critical theory and came to value psychological adjustment from “repressions.”
The following excerpt comes from Henry F. May’s book The End of American Innocence, 1912-1917:
“The men who met in 1912 to honor Howells took for granted that they and most of their countrymen shared a view of life. Part of their confidence in this set of beliefs arose from the fact that it had survived a series of challenges; however insipid the American credo of 1912 seemed to the next decade, we must remember that it had lived through the nineteenth century. This century, and particular its second half, was by no means the smug Victorian calm created by the mythology of the 1920s. The old men of 1912 had come to consciousness in the midst of a devastating and revolutionary civil war. Their mental as well as the country’s physical landscape had been drastically changed by rapid industrialization. Ever since the announcement of the Darwinian hypothesis, the moral cosmos had been subject to a succession of earthquake shocks. Yet, with some difficulty, the main tenants of traditional American faith had managed to adapt and survive. It is not surprising that they seemed proof against anything.
The first and central article of faith in the national credo was, as it always had been, the reality, certainty, and eternity of moral values. Words like truth, justice, patriotism, unselfishness, and decency were used constantly, without embarrassment, and ordinarily without any suggestion that their meaning might be only of a time and place. This central commitment entailed several corollaries, often stated and still more often taken for granted. First, most Americans were still certain that moral judgments applied with equal sureness in literature, art, politics, and all other areas. Second, it seemed clear that such judgments could be and must be applied not only to the conduct of individuals but also to the doings of trusts and labor unions, cities and nations. Finally, and this was perhaps the most often stated corollary of all, the United States, as the leader in moral progress, had a special responsibility for moral judgment, even of herself.”
In 1912, the Victorian credo was moralism, progress and culture. By moralism, Americans believed in the consensus around traditional moral values, which was the cornerstone of the national faith. By progress, Americans believed that their society was becoming and ought to become more moral and that the world was on the upswing to ever greater scientific and technological progress and the growth of material abundance. Finally, Americans valued traditional Anglo-American literary culture.
In 2020, the Modern credo has eliminated traditional Anglo-American culture in favor of multiculturalism, but it still includes moralism and progress. The content of moralism has been completely stripped out and replaced with values like “opposing white supremacy” or “opposing racism” that have nothing do with traditional morality. Progress is also now defined as cultural liberation and egalitarianism or tearing down our traditional culture which is said to be an interlocking system of oppressions.
In our times, you are an “extremist” for being a non-self hating White male who rejects Modernism, cosmopolitanism and antiracism in favor of the old aesthetic, morality and national identity – America was a White, Anglo-Saxon (in culture), Protestant nation with liberal and republican values – which was the “mainstream” until the 1920s. If you don’t believe the Modernist ideal of a “transformation of consciousness” has anything whatsoever to do with morality, you are simply a bad person.