Bear with me, this is only partially about Sarah Palin.
Not long ago, David Frum pointed to this bit of down hominess from Palin's new book: "But from what I’ve read, family life at the time of the founding was a lot like family life for Americans today: full of challenges, sure, but also full of simple pleasures." Frum pointed out that if you were a slave, maybe not so much. And yesterday, he passed along some discussion from historian Mark Byrnes, who notes, "Unless she means it in the most general sense possible (i.e., there were moms and dads and sons and daughters then, too!), this assertion is simply ridiculous." As Byrnes details, the differences in the average person's life were enormous. Most people made a living by farming. Most children got virtually no formal schooling. The typical white woman back then had an average of seven children, some of whom would probably die from maladies that today we take care of with a trip to the drug store.
For Palin, this kind of nostalgia is a part of the Founding Father fetishism that is de rigueur on the right these days. But many of us have a tendency to romanticize the past, in large part because all we know about the past is the heroes and stunning achievements. But life for the average person was, for the most part, more unpleasant the farther you go back. Would it have been fascinating to sit at Thomas Jefferson's right hand during the Constitutional Convention? You betcha! But being a colonial-era farmer, where your days were filled with endless drudgery and if you contracted an infection in your finger the town "doctor" would lop it off with a rusty blade, well that wouldn't be such a blast. It would be exciting to ride into battle with King Arthur, but not so hot to spend your life shoveling horse droppings in the stable and subsisting on a diet of boiled turnips and rancid goat meat.
The point is, modern life may be filled with ennui and exasperation, but the advance of science and civilization has made it a lot more pleasant than it used to be. So the next time you find yourself angry that your iPhone dropped a call, count yourself lucky that you weren't alive during the Revolution.
-- Paul Waldman
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