There is much talk these days of the arc of history and its inevitable trajectory toward something good, like peace or justice. I for one am inclined to disagree. After all, my best moment each week – when I’m most likely to nurse an injured baby bird I’ve found back to health — is immediately after the final blessing at church. Yet this is precisely when I, like everyone else trading paint in the parking lot, adopt Mad Max driving tactics to exit first. Patience may be a virtue, but so is knowing two cars can turn left on red in the intersection. This means you, Mrs. Glastonbury.
Looking back, C.S. Lewis called it chronological snobbery to think an idea was better just because it was prevailing modern thought. And G.K. Chesterton warned against taking down a fence before knowing the reason why it was built. I can’t match wits with those giants. I can’t even promise I won’t air-guitar if you use the phrase motley crew around me. I can however give some examples of where then-prevailing modern thought was anything but right.
The Subaru Brat. Exhibit A in my case against the inevitability of progress is this vehicle. It almost certainly was greenlighted when covering lawyers were away at an off-site. Passenger seats in the bed of the pickup truck? Imagine the coffee spit-take the project manager did when like a flaming arrow, those specs hit his desk. In hindsight, the model had the fingerprints of the CEO’s no-account son-in-law all over it. Had Barb Subaru not divorced him when she did, we’d probably have seen hammocks come standard in the ’84 model.
Ill-Advised Love Songs. It was different in the halcyon 1980s. Wearing seat-belts while riding in the back seat was like flossing your teeth: great if you did it, but no expectations. A concussion in football practice was just getting your bell rung. Smokers and non-smokers traveled together on airplanes in perfect harmony. And hard as it is to believe now, the line between courting and stalking wasn’t as unambiguous as it is today. This explains the success of hits like “What’ll You Do About Me.” (What in the world are you plannin’ to do/When a man comes over just to visit with you/And I’m on the porch with a 2’ by 2’/Tell me what’ll you do about me?)
The Male Perm. It seems pretty obvious now, but it was anything but then. Don’t try to look like John Oates if you can’t sing like John Oates. He didn’t melt hearts because of his hair. He melted hearts in spite of his hair. Make no mistake: Private Eyes most certainly were not watching him the day he booked that appointment with his hairdresser.
Madras pants. It’s no coincidence that the sun began to set on the British Empire right about when gentlemen began jauntily wearing madras pants in public. For some Americans the sartorial misfire continues to this day. If pants could talk, they’d say different things. Blue jeans might sidle up to you at a trendy gastropub and say I define cool. The Berlin Wall came down over me. What’s your story? Corduroys might say to the young science lab charges in their care Wash your hands before reaching into the fish tank. And for the last time, Jackson, quit tapping the glass! With madras pants it’s not so much verbal communication as a certain one-finger greeting to all who approach you.
The Macarena. Not much really need be said here. In fact, I struggle to think of a better example of the dangers of musical groupthink. Danger, indeed! Having studied ritual dance across many cultures I can tell you how close to global ruin we actually came. Had this dance started with the left arm raised rather than both arms extended out in front, a millennial flood immediately would have followed.
Bolo Ties Worn By Other Than Western United States Residents. Look, Chip, it’s great that you enjoyed your trip to Santa Fe, but can’t you just get a belt with some turquoise on it like everyone else? And coyote has three syllables, not two. Enough already, Val Kilmer. You’re back in Rye now.
Progress isn’t inevitable. The current of the river matters, but the arc of history is determined by the fortitude of the rowers in the boat. Progress at times requires free-thinking people to stand outside fashionable opinion and speak their minds. Like the UK Customs official who, my passport in hand, noted that my trip began in Arizona (where I don’t reside) and observed my bolo tie. Her question: do you have anything to declare, other than I try too hard?