An appreciation by Rabbai Mayer Schiller of
THE LOST CITY :
Discovering the Virtues of Community in the Chicago of the 1950s
by Alan Ehrenhalt Basic Books, 310 pages, $24
This book tells the haunting story of a happy and enchanted land, safe and secure, full of faith and character, of meaning and consolation, whose very existence seems mythical to those who never lived there. Some who did live there have come to doubt whether it was quite as marvellous as their memories tell them. The Lost City, Alan Ehrenhalt’s moving portrait of 1950s Chicago, reminds us that many of our sweet memories of that very different era are true, and in the process challenges many of the imposed beliefs of our time.
“Millions of Americans who are now reaching middle age,” observes Ehrenhalt, currently “mourn for something of” the 1950s. They yearn for the “loyalties and lasting relationships that characterized those days.” Their longing is essentially for “a sense of community that they believe existed during their childhoods and does not exist now.”
The Lost City does not issue a uniform endorsement of the ’50s. Its author tends to accept popular dogmas on everything from “sexism” and “homophobia” to racial egalitarianism and Vatican II. It is the basically liberal cast of Ehrenhalt’s mind which makes this book so painful to read. He realizes that “every dream we have about re-creating community in the absence of authority will turn out to be a pipe dream in the end.” He exhorts the “generation that launched the rebellion” to “recognise that privacy, individuality, and choice are not free goods and the society that places no restrictions on them pays a high price for that decision.” Yet, in the end one searches his book in vain for ideas of how we are to restore the vibrant local parish in the post-Vatican II church, how discipline is to be enforced in schools and homes without the old-time methods of which Ehrenhalt consistently disapproves; how we are to have a “majority culture strong enough” to teach children behavioural standards when that culture is undefended.
We can only feel sorry for Ehrenhalt and his “millions” of middle-aged Americans. For the simple truth they find impossible to admit is that the slide into the abyss they rightly worry over cannot be halted unless one is pledged to a robust, Orthodox version of Catholicism, Protestantism or Judaism or, at the very least, to a firm version of our European culture and its traditional standards.
The safe, efficient, livable Chicago of the 1950s will not be restored by Republicans peddling “balanced budgets” or Democrats chattering about “building diverse community”. The restoration of our civilisation — whose by-products of stability, safety loyalty, and meaning Ehrenhalt so desires – will only be achieved by leaders who understand the depth of our decadence and attack its roots.
When Americans accept every aspect of the decadence that envelopes us, from informality in dress and disrespect for all authority to the sinlessness of homosexual acts and the secular nakedness of the public square, the battle is lost. Defenders of tradition have never developed a world view capable of standing firm against protracted “progressive” assaults. One explanation may be the negativeness of traditionalist rhetoric. Ehrenhalt presents the defenders of norms in 1950s Chicago as primarily interested in discouraging evil. A more joyous advocacy of the blessings of faith, honour, and decency for instance, Catholics spreading the glad tidings of Chesterton or von Hildebrand might have been more enduring.
In truth, the Lost City was never entirely lost. It still exists among those who keep it alive as individuals, families or communities. Ehrenhalt is clearly wrong when he writes “What is past, is past.”
There still are churches and schools similar to those of his youth. They are no longer in the mainstream, but their doors, and lessons remain open to all. There are still individuals and families and neighbourhoods who refuse to accept the ugliness and evil of “modern” culture, speech, dress, and entertainment. Their souls are nurtured by the standards and creations of previous generations. They have maintained their links to the pietas and gravitas of their ancestors.
Will such institutions and individuals ever possess the numbers and leaders necessary to rescue their nation? To that question only God knows the answer. Meanwhile, what we can do is join their ranks. If we are to be led off the main stage of history, let us do so with flags unfurled and trumpets blaring, forever loyal citizens of the Lost City.