Something old

These odd reflections from Peggy Noonan seem to make the coming election a battle between Barack Obama and the Andy Griffith Show:

Mr. McCain is the Old America, of course; Mr. Obama the New.

* * *

Roughly, broadly:

In the Old America, love of country was natural. You breathed it in. You either loved it or knew you should.

In the New America, love of country is a decision. It's one you make after weighing the pros and cons. What you breathe in is skepticism and a heightened appreciation of the global view.

Old America: Tradition is a guide in human affairs. New America: Tradition is a challenge, a barrier, or a lovely antique.

The Old America had big families. You married and had children. Life happened to you. You didn't decide, it decided. Now it's all on you. Old America, when life didn't work out: "Luck of the draw!" New America when life doesn't work: "I made bad choices!" Old America: "I had faith, and trust." New America: "You had limited autonomy!"

Old America: "We've been here three generations." New America: "You're still here?"

Old America: We have to have a government, but that doesn't mean I have to love it. New America: We have to have a government and I am desperate to love it. Old America: Politics is a duty. New America: Politics is life.

The Old America: Religion is good. The New America: Religion is problematic. The Old: Smoke 'em if you got 'em. The New: I'll sue.

Mr. McCain is the old world of concepts like "personal honor," of a manliness that was a style of being, of an attachment to the fact of higher principles.

Mr. Obama is the new world, which is marked in part by doubt as to the excellence of the old. It prizes ambivalence as proof of thoughtfulness, as evidence of a textured seriousness.

Both Old and New America honor sacrifice, but in the Old America it was more essential, more needed for survival both personally (don't buy today, save for tomorrow) and in larger ways.

The Old and New define sacrifice differently. An Old America opinion: Abjuring a life as a corporate lawyer and choosing instead community organizing, a job that does not pay you in money but will, if you have political ambitions, provide a base and help you win office, is not precisely a sacrifice. Political office will pay you in power and fame, which will be followed in time by money (see Clinton, Bill). This has more to do with timing than sacrifice. In fact, it's less a sacrifice than a strategy.

A New America answer: He didn't become a rich lawyer like everyone else—and that was a sacrifice! Old America: Five years in a cage—that's a sacrifice!

In the Old America, high value was put on education, but character trumped it. That's how Lincoln got elected: Honest Abe had no formal schooling. In Mr. McCain's world, a Harvard Ph.D. is a very good thing, but it won't help you endure five years in Vietnam. It may be a comfort or an inspiration, but it won't see you through. Only character, and faith, can do that. And they are very Old America.

Old America: candidates for office wear ties. New America: Not if they're women. Old America: There's a place for formality, even the Beatles wore jackets!

Which does Noonan favor, the old or the new?

I weigh this in favor of the Old America. Hard not to, for I remember it, and its sterling virtues.

Queue Andy Griffith music.

(Thanks to Dagon for the suggestion.)

5 thoughts on “Something old”

  1. When, specifically did Old America become New America? Even the Beatles wore jackets? And 100 years earlier, Honest Abe, who had no formal schooling…how are these two eras just lumped together?

  2. I’m just glad Abe Lincoln was more interested in creating the New America than perpetuating the Old America.

  3. The (false) dichotomy between the old and new America is a purely mythical construct, of course, but it forms the basis of an extremely clever rhetorical strategy that allows Noonan to depict — without having to justify argumentatively — Obama’s work as a community organizer as a form of calculated self-interest.  By implication, McCain’s military service, as an expression of the attitude of “old America,” becomes the model of principled self-sacrifice (when in reality, of course, McCain’s decision to pursue a military career, like any practical decision, involved elements of self-interest).  The dichotomy also allows her to cast Obama’s “thoughtfulness” as a mark of moral weakness (“ambivalence”), again without having to argue the point explicitly.

  4. Back in 1996, when Bob Dole used the same rhetorical ploy to talk of a “bridge to a better time in (1950s) Russell, Kansas, some writer at the LA Times (WR Mead?) spent a good twenty paragraphs pointing out how dreadful (segregation, fear of nuclear war, women locked out of careers, etc.) that era really was.

    Good article.

  5. I remember that election well.  Dole wanted to build a bridge to the past that only existed on Andy Griffith.

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