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Number 1,020, May 12, 2019

What? Me Worry?

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The Turner D. Century Gang
or, Why I am Not A Conservative

by Eric Oppen

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Attribute to L. Neil Smith’s The Libertarian Enterprise

I have many friends who think that I’m a conservative. I will allow that I tend not to like change. All my adult life, I’ve had to (so to speak) dance on a high-wire, which has made me suspicious of any alteration in my circumstances. However, even though I am comfortable among conservatives, and do admit that I see eye-to-eye with them on many issues, I am not one myself.

Many conservatives strike me as the spiritual, if not physical, heirs and descendants of the people who never really reconciled themselves to the huge social and cultural changes that came in in the wake of the First World War. That was one of the big selling-points of the twentieth-century Ku Klux Klan, even more than bigotry against racial or religious minorities. Many people then weren’t happy with things like skirts getting shorter, manners being looser, and greater freedom of action than what they had grown up with. The Klan promised to put things “back to normal,” and for a few years, until scandals and poor leadership wrecked the organization, many small-town, middle-class Americans flocked to it.

As I’ve said, I can understand wanting to turn the clock back. There are things about life here and now that I’d love to erase. Unfortunately, life doesn’t work that way, and some bells cannot be un-rung.

Many conservatives remind me of one of the lamest super-villains in comics history…the hapless Turner D. Century. For those not familiar, he’s a minor member of Spider-Woman’s Rogues Gallery, and was (at last reports) killed off.

Turner D. Century was a young man raised in seclusion by a mentor who hated how things had “gone downhill” since his young days. As a grown man, Turner tried to make his mentor’s dreams of a return to the “good old days” come true, wearing a circa-1900 outfit, wielding a trick umbrella, and riding a flying bicycle-built-for-two with a dummy dressed in old-fashioned women’s clothes on the back seat. His evil schemes included one where he would use a sonic weapon to destroy the nervous system of anybody under age sixty-five. He would attack anything he perceived as “immoral,” and since his value system was pre-World War One, there were a lot of things in San Francisco that he’d destroy or at least try to. He’s been called one of the lamest villains in comics history, and not without reason. I mean, honestly—a dummy dressed up as a girl? Even the Joker has a girlfriend!

Paranthetically, I think that the concept of this character could do with revival. With a writer who respected the character more, Turner D. Century could become a very interesting and topical “steampunk” themed villain, using gadgets out of Wells and Verne’s writings in his nefarious schemes. But, I see that I have digressed.

These nostalgic conservatives resemble Turner (and Miniver Cheevy) in that they long and long for a past that they remember (or perceive) as far better than the present. Many of them would love to go back to the period between about 1945 and 1965, before the huge changes that started rocking our society. Others want to go back farther, probably to sometime before 1914. They watch TV shows and movies set in those time-frames, and sigh hopelessly to have lived then.

I do think that it would be very funny to drop some of these people into the times they idealize, and let them experience them, unfiltered by rosy memories. Let them remember how much fun it wasn’t dealing with cars that were the devil to start in the wintertime, with tires that burst at the slightest provocation, no safety glass or safety belts, and feeble heaters. (Maybe make them drive old VW Bugs?) Let them experience life with no Internet, only three channels on TV and nothing good on any of them, no air conditioning in the summer, and diseases we’ve long since controlled waiting around every corner—and see how they like it!

And for those who pine for the times before 1914, I’d love to see their reactions at having to live back then for real. Inter-city travel, if you could afford it, was all by train and took far longer than we’re used to. If the train was not available, the roads were mostly not too reliable. In wet weather, the “bottom would fall out” of many rural roads, making them all but impassable. I’ve spoken to many old people who remembered how much fun that wasn’t.

Staying in town wasn’t much of an improvement. There were hordes of flies everywhere, battening on the dung left behind by the horses that were still a major part of life until the 1910s or then-abouts. Since many houses did not yet have indoor toilets, outhouses could be found in many backyards, each with its own contingent of flies. Screens were not much good, and the flies did a lot to spread the diseases that cut many lives short.

Speaking of diseases, the same ones that plagued our postwar ancestors were around, as well as others. Medicine was primitive, even allowing for the fact that many “physicians” had dodgy qualifications, or no qualifications that we would recognize. The patent medicines that could be purchased in any drugstore often included large amounts of alcohol (some Temperance stalwarts died of alcoholism brought on by too much Pe-Ru-Na, Hochstetter’s Bitters, Lydia Pinkham’s, or other such nostrums) and were also often fortified with opiates, causing inadvertent addiction. But for many people, that was what there was when sickness struck.

And, of course, there are the joys of old-fashioned dentistry. From what I’ve heard and read, an old-style dentist could probably give the secret policemen of later times pointers in the infliction of pain. People dreaded visits to the dentist, with very good reasons. The dentists of those times often had to pull teeth that we could save easily, and dentures, particularly for those of modest means, were clumsy and uncomfortable.

Those with poor vision generally had to depend on glasses that were not much better than the reading glasses we can buy at drugstores. In small towns, you had to wait till a traveling peddler came along with glasses for sale, and try one pair after another till you found one that more-or-less worked.

And, particularly outside the cities, life could be dreadfully dull. Even having a strange wagon go by could provoke hours of discussion around the cracker barrel at the local store. One reason for the proliferation of lodges and secret societies was that they at least offered a little color, ritual and excitement to break up the monotony.

The people who look back with nostalgia at this time are apparently unaware that about everything that they disapprove of now was going on back then, full-force. While more girls went to the altar as virgins then, this was more because of a lack of reliable contraception than anything else. And extra-marital sex was far from unknown. In the wake of the Villisca axe murders in 1912 in southwestern Iowa, it was revealed that many of the young married women in town had been sleeping with a local rich man’s son and heir, apparently as much out of boredom and a need for some variety as for any other reason. And I doubt that Villisca was the Peyton Place of its day.

Speaking of crime…if you were the victim of a crime in those days, the police were going to be even less help than they are now. Investigation techniques were primitive, to put it very politely. I read accounts of famous old crimes, like the (unsolved to this day) Hall-Mills case, or the Lindbergh kidnap-murder, and shudder at the elementary mistakes that the police investigating the crimes made. All too often, their bungling allowed vital evidence to be destroyed, allowing the perpetrators a much better chance to escape.

On the whole, although I do think that some things about the “old days” were nice, and I regret their disappearance, I am happy to be living now. I like having the Internet, I like modern entertainment technology, and I love modern medicine. Phooey on the “Good Old Days!”


[ As an old friend used to say “The Good Old Days Haven’t Happened Yet“ — Editor ]

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