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Two stories in the media caught my eye this morning and left me wondering about humanity’s collective sanity, and in both cases the problem was a political and social myth rooted in a thoroughly irrational ideology. It’s pernicious, partisan and – notwithstanding the adherence of archbishops and evangelical Christians to this mirage – thoroughly unChristian and anti-humanist.

What has raised my ire, this Saturday morning (I hear you say)? It’s this desire to look backwards to some myth of a better past that has been expressed in the Trump victory and Archbishop Fisher’s diatribe on the evils of contemporary sexuality to the local Marriage Conference. Both events see a group of the thoroughly indoctrinated indulge in a view of the past that is absolutely at odds with the facts as we know them, pursuing some dream that will see them restored to a dignity and primacy they believe has been stolen from them, but was never more than the plaything of elites.

The first article was in the New Yorker. I can’t claim to be a regular reader but I do get the odd tidbit on the Book of Face, and a piece looking at responses to Trump’s victory in West Virginia. I hesitate to call it a victory, because it is quite clear that Trump has not amassed a popular majority and that his electoral college votes have depended on the poor turnout in the Democrat ‘special interest groups’; and the high turnout among what has been labelled ‘poor rural whites’ but is a far more complex group. Trump appears to have gained a majority in the older ages groups (giving the finger to Gen X, Gen Y and the  grandkids); among non-College educated males, who have borne the brunt of the economic transition; whites, who have lost their social and economic primacy in this new economy; and less-educated women who haven’t read Betty Friedan and see the traditional family, where they reigned, as threatened and who have never seen the workplace as a path to affirmation and power.

As an onlooker, I’m struck by the rear-vision implicit in Trump’s slogan, ‘Make America Great Again’. The implication is clear: the past was golden and need to be restored to the present. No wonder that refugees, Hispanic migrants, gays and the modern world of employment have been ignored, erased or rejected from Trump’s new America: they weren’t there in the sixties and seventies, or at least weren’t permitted to be acknowledged, so they should have no place in the present.

In the New Yorker article, a young Afro-american West-Virginian reflects with wonder on the ecstatic response of his white (vast majority) neighbours. Almost overnight, the civic politeness that restrained the incipient racism of the area dissipates. Racist graffiti has appeared. But for others interviewed in the article, the election seems to promise and end to the ‘softness’ of political correctness, a return to unrestricted coal-mining and full employment, and a re-engagement with Christian values in this most un-secular of secular societies.

This scenario is echoed elsewhere in the media, with a Pearson world history textbook under threat of banning because the students are expected to be brainwashed with learning about the Prophet and the Five Pillars. Repeal of Obamacare promises better health care; rejection of free trade promises a return of manufacturing to the rust belt; America’s security is enhanced by a withdrawal from engagement with the world; the deficit will be fixed by a company tax cut — paradox on paradox, non-sequitur upon downright lie, a vision of the past through Trump TV, the comb-over version of history.

All golden ages are myths, and dangerous ones. The Elizabethan Age is Golden notwithstanding that much of its cultural richness emerged from insecurity, paranoia and war. Spain’s Golden Age was founded in the blood of indigenous peoples and, lest the irony is lost, stolen silver. The French Revolution is less about Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité and more about a lazy susan of despotism and blood, culminating in Napoleon and the death of millions. For all its social and technological triumphs, Victoria ruled a Britain marked by the squalid lives of the working class and the suffering of oppressed peoples throughout the Empire. 

And the United States? It has rejoiced in possibly three golden ages, in my view: the amazing expansion of the Frontier in the late 19th Century; the Roaring Twenties; and the post-war society that ended with Johnson’s acknowledgement of the failure of the Great Society, a world that some Americans remember as an era of full employment, military might, careful social mores and a much simpler view of the world. Small-town American as a symbol of world hegemony: but it wasn’t real and the desire to return to it threatens the future.

It is in the myopia of the myth of a golden age that we find its greatest danger. The blue-collar worker pines for the factory and the mine and forgets that both were conducted with a callous disregard for his occupational health and safety. He remembers his place at the lathe or the coal-face and does not realise that operating equipment in those environments now requires post-high school qualifications and an understanding of basic programming, because it’s all been computerised. Less-educated women pine for family structures that cannot be maintained in the modern economy. Making America great cost a generation of lives, a river of gold, and three decades of waiting for the bomb to drop. And what of those hidden, erased or expunged from the record? Let us not forget the LGBTI community whom Reaganites would not even acknowledge in the depths of the AIDS crisis, the women whose potential contribution to America was largely ignored by the Mad Men of the Fifties and Sixties, the immigrants who came to realise that the Statue of Liberty told a lie; and Black America, who suffered povery, apartheid and death as America failed to live up to its rhetoric. Does anyone who really looks back with a clear view really want to go back to the Cold War FIfties, the Civil Rights conflicts of the Sixties, the Vietnam hangover of the Seventies? Only if you have a piece of Ron Reagan’s Alzheimer’s approach to civil society

The post-Cold War era has seen Imperial America asserting its right to determine the world order, and so it is not too long a bow to suggest that the Gulf Conflicts, the ill-advised adventure in Afghanistan, and the steadily worsening relationships with Russia are all symptoms of the Golden Age Myth, made all the more dangerous by the re-emergence of two other powers with their own equally mythical Golden Ages to motivate them: China and Russia. We are not immune to these false foundation stories either: witness the ANZAC myth, founded on the recasting of a defeat as a victory and proposing as supermen the untrained and poorly led militias who scrambled ashore on April 25, 1915, to fail and fall back after fruitless months of siege.

It all strikes a peculiar chord when I read Archbishop Fisher’s diatribe at the Renaissance of Marriage Conference in Sydney this week. To entitle a conference with the term ‘renaissance’ is to invoke another version of the golden age myth, a fact acknowledged by Fisher with no apparent sense of irony (but then Tony is not what you would call a nimble thinker). In short order we were given the Tony view of the history of sexuality – not from first hand experience, of course! We are, in his eyes, in a Dark Age of Marriage, with that most vital of institutions undermined by the ‘sex-of-demand’ Sixties, the ‘divorce on demand’ Seventies, the ‘children-on-demand’ Eighties, and the ‘wedding-on-demand’ Nineties. Now, says our favourite Prelate, we have gender and sexuality on demand. Hence, 

So buffeted have they been by the series of sexual tides and marital waves that post-moderns are more muddled about the very meaning of marriage than any culture in history, more ambivalent about the desirability of marriage than any society we know of, and less able to embrace and sustain marriages (and marriage-based families) over the long haul than ever before.

Now leaving aside the complete failure to engage with the very nature of a post-modern society, with its actual desire to bend rather than break social institutions in order to express the truth, what an irony it is to see Fisher decry the best evidence that marriage, far from being broken, is highly-regarded — by all sorts who are currently excluded from this vital social institution. It’s because Fisher does not want any marriage: he wants the myth of the Golden Age, his conservative parents 1950s marriage — and for those who do not look like his parents and believe like his parents, he wants them excluded.

The renaissance of Fisher’s marriage is the rear-vision view of a society that restricted divorce even when it created deep unhappiness; that forced professional women from the workplace on marriage, ignoring their legitimate right to participate in the economic and intellectual life of society. It tolerated domestic violence. It forced women into sexual slavery if that was the wish of the husband. It denied both partners access to sound information about reproduction and relationships; and woe betide the failed parent, because the children were adopted out or institutionalised. It was not a society that tolerated unions across religious or racial divides. The role of marriage, in the reality of the Fifties, was to ensure stability and social compliance — an entirely suitably symbol and vehicle for the sort of society that patriarchal bullies like Fisher would like to see recovered and perpetuated.

Let’s destroy Golden Age Myths before they destroy us, as they will surely destroy American over the next four years. The past contains much that is good and true; but it remains another country. Every institution, from the abstract to the constitutional, is only as good as its capacity to grow and accommodate itself to the needs of today and the potential of the future. As a historian, the past informs me, the present engages me; but, like Josiah Bartlet, I am thinking of tomorrow.

I’m not qualified to judge whether this was somehow an outstanding restaurant from a foodie’s perspective, but it was certainly a memorable night with food that was uniquely selected and brilliantly prepared and presented. This was very much Graeme and Sally’s treat, but we are a bit converted to the idea that there should be one big splash on a holiday. This was certainly it.

Dinner, by Heston Blumenthal is in the Mandarin at Knightsbridge and has two hats. I don’t expect to eat at a three hat, so this is a bit of a pinnacle. It is in Knightsbridge, so one of the things we did before heading in was to go car spotting. A family sedan in this part of London is a Merc with lots of numbers and letters; we were probably the only guests who arrived by Tube. This gave us the freedom to count Bentleys, Ferraris and an Aston Martin before walking up the steps.

You couldn’t fault the service – they played it up to the customer, snooty for the snobby, warm to us, helpful to the callow types out to damage their credit cards and impress the girlfriend. Very clever, I thought, and just the right level of attention. The decor? Stunning. The kitchen – eat your heart out, Fiona M, Ali P and Ingrid J – was amazing. The sheer number of young chefs at work on the entrees was out of this world. The wine list? A bank manager’s nightmare but the young somelier (a young lady from Hong Kong) found the right wine for everyone.

 

We got incredibly lucky and were offered a tour of the kitchen at the end of the evening, so we did a certain amount of oohing and ahhing at what we saw. And that was only the final prep kitchen!

The menu was simply engrossing, because it was a research project in this history of English cooking. All the dishes were sourced from cookbooks from the 14th Century to the 1850s, cooked in the rather specialised Heston way.  

We kept our menus as a souvenir: the least they could do at the price! We committed all sorts of crimes against good manners by taking pictures of the extraordinary food. I had the Crab Loaf and the Fillet (quite possible the sweetest and most tender meat I have ever taster), while Paula had the Meat Fruit and the Ribeye. No prizes for guessing the desserts we picked! The biggest shock was the tea menu – there was a serious pot of tea costing £25! But such flavours (not the tea, I had a pretty standard espresso).

   
    
 It was a wonderful evening and we felt very lucky to have been invited along!

  

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