The rise of American emotionalism

In the context of discussing an embarrassing video in which a hysterical fan blames the playoff loss of the Green Bay Packers on the fact that she wore sparkly nail polish, Ed Driscoll quotes a passage from David Frum’s  How We Got Here: The ‘70s: The Decade That Brought You Modern Life — For Better Or Worse:

What an amazing turn of events. Only a generation before, the United States had been the homeland of efficiency and practicality, a country so uncongenial to dreamers, artists, and poets that they fled for Europe as soon as they could scrape together the boat-fare. And yet, if we cast our mind back only a little further, the turn of events might not seem so amazing after all. The “Oprah-ization” of public life is usually talked of as it were a brand-new thing. It is in reality the return of something antique. A hundred years ago, middle-class life in Britain and America was bathed in the gush of emotions. Reread the poetry of Swinburne or the orations of Daniel Webster, glance at the paintings of Frederick Leighton or old photographs of the obsequies of General Grant if you doubt it. The wry, laconic anti-emotionalism of a Jimmy Stewart or a Prince Philip is a last relic of the early-twentieth-century reaction against the overwrought romanticism of the Victorians. Bob Dole brought to his political speeches the same sensibility that Ernest Hemingway brought to his novels. Hemingway’s generation had learned in the fire and slaughter of the First World War to mistrust the man who put his hand on his heart while wiping a tear from his eye. Frederick Lewis Allen recalled the terse manners of his contemporaries: “During the whole three years and eight months that the United States fought [the Second World War], there was no antiwar faction, no organized pacifist element, no objection to huge appropriations, no noticeable opposition to the draft. Yet there was also a minimum of crusading spirit…. They”—the men and women of the 1940s—“didn’t want to be victims of ‘hysteria.’ They felt uncomfortable about flag-waving. They preferred to be matter-of-fact about the job ahead…. These people were unstintedly loyal, and went to battle—or saw their brothers and sons go—without reservation; yet they remained emotionally on guard…. disillusioned and deadpan. …”

We think now of the dislike of emotional fuss and show as generically old-fashioned. It is probably truer to say that the laconic style we associate with the GI generation came into fashion in the 1920s and went out in the 1970s, to be replaced by a style reminiscent of the moist, voluptuous sentimentality of a hundred years ago, with the teary television interview replacing black crepe. This was the style of the two party conventions in 1996. It is the style of the most-talked-about mass movement of the 1990s, the evangelical Promise Keepers, who brought stadiums full of middle-aged husbands and fathers together to weep and hug. It is the style of contemporary American evangelicalism. And it is the style of the most successful politicians of the age—the Bill Clintons and the Tony Blairs—as they explain how this or that policy will “save the life of a child.” The gurus of the 1970s taught, and we today still seem to believe, that to delve honestly into one’s feelings requires one to shut down the analytical lobes of the mind. “People often talk about wanting to be spontaneous, to live out of their feelings,” reported the authors of How to Be Your Own Best Friend. “They have locked themselves into intellectual boxes, where they hardly know what they feel any more. They become desperate to experience plain, simple emotion. They think if they could throw away their minds, they would be free.”

via PJ Lifestyle » How Sparkly Nail Polish Doomed the Green Bay Packers.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Pete

    Wow! So I don’t need to apologize any more for being unemotional ? (Don’t let the thumbnail mislead.). So it’s okay to identify with the emotional orientation of the Greatest Generation even though I’m their offspring? Wow!

  • Pete

    Wow! So I don’t need to apologize any more for being unemotional ? (Don’t let the thumbnail mislead.). So it’s okay to identify with the emotional orientation of the Greatest Generation even though I’m their offspring? Wow!

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    IOW, as one wag in the National Post put it “The Excited States of America”. :)

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    IOW, as one wag in the National Post put it “The Excited States of America”. :)

  • Tom Hering

    I remember growing up in the last two decades of America’s anti-emotional culture. The atmosphere was oppressive.

    Sure, there are plenty of examples to be found, today, of people who are overly emotional. And irrational. But how much has our culture really changed? Take grief, for example. We still look askance at overt displays of it, and most of us believe (without ever really thinking about it) that it’s healthier to get over it as quickly as possible.

  • Tom Hering

    I remember growing up in the last two decades of America’s anti-emotional culture. The atmosphere was oppressive.

    Sure, there are plenty of examples to be found, today, of people who are overly emotional. And irrational. But how much has our culture really changed? Take grief, for example. We still look askance at overt displays of it, and most of us believe (without ever really thinking about it) that it’s healthier to get over it as quickly as possible.

  • http://www.caryschwarz.com saddler

    Signs of these postmodern times: a type of irrationalism that tends to throw the baby out with the bath water. But the pendulum never wants to stay in one place…it is constantly moving if only imperceptibly. Thus it is always a good idea to cultivate an emotional connection with systematic theology.

  • http://www.caryschwarz.com saddler

    Signs of these postmodern times: a type of irrationalism that tends to throw the baby out with the bath water. But the pendulum never wants to stay in one place…it is constantly moving if only imperceptibly. Thus it is always a good idea to cultivate an emotional connection with systematic theology.

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    Real men don’t cry, and that is all there is to it Tom. Stiff upper lip now.
    I’m one that still cringes when too much emotion is being displayed, and I am the sole judge of that.

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    Real men don’t cry, and that is all there is to it Tom. Stiff upper lip now.
    I’m one that still cringes when too much emotion is being displayed, and I am the sole judge of that.

  • kerner

    Pete:

    If the “greatest generation” were so committed to their apparent unemotional orientation, why did they raise families that rejected that orientation (and everything else that generation supposedly stood for) so completely? I have long suspected that our parents weren’t who they appeared to be.

    Tom H:

    Really? Fifty years ago, if a high school student died in a traffic accident, was there a stampede of “grief counsellors” into the late teenager’s school to supposedly manage (but perhaps, in facxt, encourage) a great outpouring of emotion from the entire student body? Or, would the surviving friends and family be constructing and maintaining shrines to the deceased at the cite of the crash?

  • kerner

    Pete:

    If the “greatest generation” were so committed to their apparent unemotional orientation, why did they raise families that rejected that orientation (and everything else that generation supposedly stood for) so completely? I have long suspected that our parents weren’t who they appeared to be.

    Tom H:

    Really? Fifty years ago, if a high school student died in a traffic accident, was there a stampede of “grief counsellors” into the late teenager’s school to supposedly manage (but perhaps, in facxt, encourage) a great outpouring of emotion from the entire student body? Or, would the surviving friends and family be constructing and maintaining shrines to the deceased at the cite of the crash?

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    I should say improper emotion. It is ok to be mad or angry for instance. But not sad. You can be happy if you actually have something to be happy about, but don’t let the smile last more than an hour. If you wake up with one on your face, well then I don’t want to hear about what you were doing or with who. Have the decency not to kiss and tell, the smile should be gone by the time you get your car keys and coffee. If everytime I see you, you are happy, well then your happiness to see me will be returned with loathing. Come on man there’s a real world out there. I should say, this only goes for men. Women are allowed to be happy all the time, especially when they see me, it makes me feel happy to see their smile. Unless of course I see they also smile at someone whom I loath, especially if I loathe them for being happy.
    Anger if you have reason to be angry. Melancholy, but only in small doses, find something to do, if that doesn’t work drink a beer. Happiness, in small doses too. There is never any excuse to let them see you cry, and by them I mean the rest of the world your wife included. shame on you. Now get back to work.

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    I should say improper emotion. It is ok to be mad or angry for instance. But not sad. You can be happy if you actually have something to be happy about, but don’t let the smile last more than an hour. If you wake up with one on your face, well then I don’t want to hear about what you were doing or with who. Have the decency not to kiss and tell, the smile should be gone by the time you get your car keys and coffee. If everytime I see you, you are happy, well then your happiness to see me will be returned with loathing. Come on man there’s a real world out there. I should say, this only goes for men. Women are allowed to be happy all the time, especially when they see me, it makes me feel happy to see their smile. Unless of course I see they also smile at someone whom I loath, especially if I loathe them for being happy.
    Anger if you have reason to be angry. Melancholy, but only in small doses, find something to do, if that doesn’t work drink a beer. Happiness, in small doses too. There is never any excuse to let them see you cry, and by them I mean the rest of the world your wife included. shame on you. Now get back to work.

  • Tom Hering

    Bror, you’ve got me laughing, but good! I need to know: is that okay?

  • Tom Hering

    Bror, you’ve got me laughing, but good! I need to know: is that okay?

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    Depends, are you done laughing yet? get back to work.

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    Depends, are you done laughing yet? get back to work.

  • DonS

    Always take David Frum with a grain of salt. Or two. The article makes a reasonable observation, but there’s not insight informing it.

    This generation is among the first to go through life almost completely detached from any sense of objective right and wrong, or an objective Hope in its ultimate destiny, beyond the temporal realm. If the temporal is all you have, you are going to put your hope in temporal things. Temporal things play to the emotions, and their lack of ultimate depth means they will let you down. No wonder we have an explosion in substance abuse and diagnoses of manic-depression!

  • DonS

    Always take David Frum with a grain of salt. Or two. The article makes a reasonable observation, but there’s not insight informing it.

    This generation is among the first to go through life almost completely detached from any sense of objective right and wrong, or an objective Hope in its ultimate destiny, beyond the temporal realm. If the temporal is all you have, you are going to put your hope in temporal things. Temporal things play to the emotions, and their lack of ultimate depth means they will let you down. No wonder we have an explosion in substance abuse and diagnoses of manic-depression!

  • Bill Bass

    DonS, your comments always remind me of that Dana Carvey character “The Church Lady.”

  • Bill Bass

    DonS, your comments always remind me of that Dana Carvey character “The Church Lady.”

  • DonS

    Bill @ 11: Care to elaborate? I am an old-time SNL fan, who always enjoyed the Church Lady skits, but I’m not really getting your reference.

  • DonS

    Bill @ 11: Care to elaborate? I am an old-time SNL fan, who always enjoyed the Church Lady skits, but I’m not really getting your reference.

  • Bob

    Well…

    Isn’t that special?
    :) :)

  • Bob

    Well…

    Isn’t that special?
    :) :)


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