Sometimes memes do die

It is some comfort to remember that ideological fixations and dumb slogans can grip the world in their mania for a time and then finally die.  I’m neither particularly old nor particularly well-read, but even I know of a few.


It used to be that anyone who objected to something morally noxious (especially having to do with sex) had to fend off accusations that he was suffering from a “hang-up”.  Relics of this remain in polemics from the sixties and seventies, but thankfully the fear of this insult has passed, and I only find this stupid word now in old books.  Today we have phobias instead to serve the purpose of dismissing objections to liberalism as psychological maladies of dissidents.

Quality of life

I’ve written about this before, but I’ll repeat it because it’s such a marvel.  Back when I was a kid, this used to be the pro-choice argument, that women aborting their children were doing the altruistic thing because those children would have a low quality of life.  Today, fighting over abortion continues, but this argument has disappeared outside of euthanasia debates.

Historical consciousness

1960s-1980s intra-Catholic polemics was dominated by the accusation that scholasticism, and indeed every doctrinal form of Catholicism, suffers from a lack of historical consciousness.  This was, for a long time, modernism’s main line of assault.  They asserted it as established that communication between time periods is impossible, at least for those without special critical theory goggles.  Thus, ordinary folk who read the Bible, the Fathers, or past Magisterial proclamations and think they’re finding rather clear doctrinal and moral statements are being naive.  Read through the proper historical-critical scholarship, it turns out that the Christian tradition is actually fine with sodomy and goddess-worship.  This sort of thing is almost enough to turn me into a Protestant.  Today, modernists have moved on.  We’re now told to abandon doctrine because doing so is merciful, pastoral, and shows we’re not afraid of uncertainty.

Loss of spontaneity

Back in the nineteenth century when the romantic movement was riding high, up through the early twentieth century, there was much anxiety that Western man had become too reflective and intellectual, that he had lost the ability for spontaneous action, for authenticity, for union with nature.  We looked enviously at the simple vitality of third-world savages (at least as we imagined them).  Lots of brilliant philosophers and poets devoted their genius to saving Western man from this affliction during what was, in retrospect, a century of tremendous energy and action.  Then we stopped worrying about this.  What happened?  Was the problem fixed?  No, what happened was the ascendancy of Jewish prejudices over intellectual life.  The idea of enervated introspective Europeans has no place in the new mythology, according to which the world is made up of murderous white gentile barbarians, helpless colored gentile barbarians, and the prophetic liberal moral elite.  The third group is charged with saving the second group from the first.  It gets credited with whatever angst and doubt might exist in the world, although its members are in fact the most arrogant and least self-critical of all peoples.  (I should point out that Larry Auster drew attention to this three-fold distinction in the liberal imagination long ago.)

Can you think of some others?

7 Responses

  1. […] Source: Throne and Altar […]

  2. Here are some terms and phrases that occur to me. The first is “bourgeois.” This was a term of abuse and a cause of anxiety when I was coming of age in the 1970s. It had only a faint Marxist tang and really meant conventional among the white middle class. This was connected to the “hang-ups” that you mention, and the closely related concept of “uptight.” Uptight people had bourgeois hangups about things like getting stoned on marijuana cigarettes and casual sex among teenagers. Frank Burns in the television show MASH was the face of uptightness.

    Hang-ups and uptightness were part of the rank popular psychology of the era. Another artifact of that mania was the “complex.” People worried about developing a “complex,” and a complex was something one developed by worrying. A young man might be told not to worry about his masturbation habit because to do so might result in a complex. Frank Burns definitely had a complex; Hawkeye Pierce did not.

    No single phrase denoted the idea, but it was in those days generally believed that young people were “growing up absurd.” This did not, of course, mean that the young people were absurd, but that they were growing up in an absurd world governed by uptight bourgeois “control freaks” like Frank Burns. The marijuana cigarettes and casual sex were somehow connected to growing up absurd and trying to avoid developing a complex and becoming bourgeois.

    I still hear the phrase control freak, but it seems to mean only a “micro-manager.” Back then the control freak was also given the Freudian diagnosis of “anal retentive.” The “loss of spontaneity” that you mention was explained by this theory of anal retentiveness, which basically said that uptight people were afraid of “letting go” because they had a complex that connected letting go with soiling their underpants.

    “Living with the bomb” was another thing that drove young people to marijuana cigarettes and casual sex. I myself may have used the excuse of “living with the bomb” to justify some acts of juvenile delinquency. This gnawing fear of nuclear annihilation was not a complex, I hasten to add.

    In retrospect, it seems to me that the memes on your list and mine were all rhetorical weapons in the culture war, and that they haven’t so much died as been decommissioned. The war is over and Frank Burns lost. We live in the world of Hawkeye Pierce and all of these memes were instruments that served to assist in the birth of that world.

  3. “The first is ‘bourgeois.’ This was a term of abuse and a cause of anxiety when I was coming of age in the 1970s.”

    Growing up, I remember my mother would jokingly say “that’s so bourgeois” in the most sarcastic wealthy white liberal voice she could muster up when someone expressed conservative feelings about something.

    “In retrospect, it seems to me that the memes on your list and mine were all rhetorical weapons in the culture war, and that they haven’t so much died as been decommissioned.”

    That’s a good point. Pulling out these old phrases of the left is like showing up with a bolt-action rifle and Brodie helmet to a modern battlefield. They’ve just lost their edge. New and better weapons are needed to denigrate conservatives. As Bonald pointed out, accusing someone of having a phobia has essentially replaced having a “complex” or “hangup.” There’s also of course the cadre of other insults: Racists, sexist, bigot, etc.

  4. “Baby Killers” was Vietnam era meme that has curiously gone away.

  5. I remember in the early 90s there were multiple television series that featured the youthful protagonist bringing a homeless person back to his house. The homeless person was always articulate, sane and even handsome after a shower. He would tell his story and explain that anyone can become homeless ( with no reference to drugs or alcohol). For better or worse, I don’t see even this kind of clumsy, ham-fisted pseudo-concern for the poor, especially poor whites, in the mass culture.

  6. Unfortunately it seems JMSmith is right, we no longer see these because they succeeded.

  7. […] also notices that Sometimes memes do die. Unfortunately, a lot of the ones that do die get replaced with worse […]

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