Saturday, January 15, 2005

When you study history, you are supposed to keep a nice, critical distance on your sources. You are supposed to recognize that they are products of their time, and you are not supposed to get offended or bothered by them. And honestly, I work on relatively inoffensive sources. I know someone who is writing a dissertation on lynching: she must get upset all the time. But I only occasionally encounter something that really gets to me.

And for some reason, the journal I read today bugged me. It's a high-brow Catholic magazine from the early 20th century, and it just struck me as a nasty, meanspirited little enterprise. The people at this magazine seemed to think that the number one problem facing early-20th-century America was that there was just too much niceness and fun going on. There was, for instance, far too much compassion, which they liked to call "sentimentality." Prisons were much too pleasant. People felt far too sorry for prostitutes, who were, after all, lured into prostitution because they were especially evil. Catholics felt bad about perfectly reasonable aspects of Catholic history, such as the decision to force Jews to live in ghettoes. (One should be kind to Jews, because although sinful, they are people, too. But one cannot allow them to corrupt Catholic morals by, say, wandering around freely as if they were decent people. In certain circumstances that could have a very bad effect, and surely the church knew better than us when those circumstances existed.) Students had the insolent and insubordinate idea that they ought to be able to choose some of the classes they took in college, and they complained much too much about Catholic college curricula not preparing them to do anything useful. It is for priests, not mere students, to decide what is useful. (And let's not even talk about Catholics who went to non-Catholic colleges. They were going straight to hell.)

The writers worried a lot about the so-called "boy problem," which was that working-class youths were engaging in fun activities that were not supervised by proper authorities. But they also worried about the morals of middle-class young people, who had money and leisure and who could therefore also engage in sinful, unsupervised fun. The solution was to have the middle-class young men and women help the priests run "clean," uplifting evening entertainment for poor kids, "clean" being a euphamism for "extraordinarily un-fun." In this publication, "clean" stands for such a load of misery that I'm tempted to boycott soap.

In the grand scheme of things, none of this is particularly horrifying. It just bummed me out. It's like spending all day watching the early-20th-century equivalent of Bill O'Reilly or something. It is possible that in a hundred years, some historian will have to watch O'Reilly for days on end. And I feel sorry for that person. It probably won't be any better for her mood than this has been for mine.

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