January 1, 2020

"[V]irtues were fixed and certain... standards against which behavior could and should be measured. When conduct fell short of those standards..."

"... it was judged in moral terms as bad, wrong or evil — not, as is more often the case today, as misguided, undesirable or (the most recent corruption of the moral vocabulary) 'inappropriate.'"

Wrote Gertrude Himmelfarb in "The De-Moralization of Society: From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values," quoted in "Gertrude Himmelfarb, scholar of Victorian era and neoconservative thinker, dies at 97" (WaPo). Himmelfarb was the wife of Irving Kristol and mother of William Kristol.
Beginning in the early 1950s, Dr. Himmelfarb published a series of well-regarded books about 19th-century British intellectual history and political and cultural figures. She advanced the notion that the Victorians, with their rigorous standards of morality, hard work, self-reliance and public rectitude — and the British Empire’s muscular economic and military presence — should be a model for modern American life and public policy....
Over time, she and other neoconservative thinkers were largely defined by what they opposed: the “grievous moral disorder,” as she called it, wrought by campus radicals and the Great Society federal aid programs of the 1960s. In her essays, Dr. Himmelfarb grew more strident in her antipathy toward postmodern academic trends, affirmative action, feminism and liberalism in general.

“Virtues are very hard,” she told the Chicago Tribune in 1995. “Vices are easy to come by. Once young people had the leisure and money to indulge themselves, it was almost inevitable that they do it.”...

“The intellect on display here is about the caliber of the village biddy who sticks her blue nose into everyone else’s business, offering opinions nobody asked for about how everybody else should live,” wrote critic Charles Taylor, reviewing Dr. Himmelfarb’s book “One Nation, Two Cultures” for Salon.com in 2000. “What did conservatives do before they had the ’60s to blame?”
ADDED: WaPo doesn't link to Charles Taylor's 2000 article, so let me. It's "Himmelfarb vs. the '60s/There's no room for real life in Gertie's America."
Implicit in all conservative hand-wringing about the sorry state of our culture, in whatever era that hand-wringing has appeared, is a longing for some lost golden age. But when was this paradisiacal era?....

Yearning for an idealized mythical past while vilifying the "diseases" of contemporary culture inevitably results in isolation from that culture... In order to oppose an idea or an epoch, you must first give it its due, and Himmelfarb simply will not....

These are the realities of our lives that Himmelfarb's doctrinaire insistence on rigid, traditional forms of family and behavior (she is in favor of making divorce more difficult) would deny.... Her pompous insistence that we restore the outmoded stigmas attached to things like divorce is the sort of thing that causes at least as much misery as divorce itself....

Himmelfarb says that we live in an age of people reluctant to make moral judgments. Let me appease her by offering one. It is morally obscene to propose, as she does, the sacrifice of people's happiness and even their lives in order to "raise standards."...

Himmelfarb prefers principles to action. But nowhere does she own up to the consequences of those principles. We can outlaw abortion -- but if we do, young women will maim and kill themselves trying to rid themselves of unwanted pregnancies. We can babble on about the perils of "value-free" sex education -- but kids will experiment sexually with or without information that might save their lives. We can make divorce more difficult -- but people will grow bitter in loveless marriages and pass on a deep suspicion of the institution to their children. We can insist that private charity must replace government assistance -- but people will lose their homes, will starve, and some will die....


rhhardin said...

A lot of conservatives are social liberals, but keeping in mind what works as a system and what does not distinguishes those from leftists.

Vet66 said...

They fought the Vatican and the Danes. Then they made friends with the French, fought the Netherlands, dealt with "Bloody Mary" and the Germans before settling into current Church. The burning question centered on; did man make the Church or does the Church make the man..."

Makes you wonder after watching Pope slap the hand of the needy Asian woman reaching for him only to have her hand slapped away. Seems the woman not the "Man" makes the Church especially considering the current sexual misconduct charges roiling the Church.

rhhardin said...

Himmelfarb is blue.

whitney said...

She's Bill Kristol's mom

Phil 314 said...

I was thinking just the other day about the changes in public morality in my lifetime (60+ years)

As a six year old I recall:
-rare to hear a swear word in movies, never on TV and not in mixed company
-no sex in movies (I remember the movie “I am Curious (Yellow)” as some sort of breakthrough
-suits and uniforms for men at work
-shorts mainly for kids

Etc etc.

Shouting Thomas said...

95% of people don't read books (or articles) at all.

The percentage might be higher than that.

The most peaceful, happy family home is one in which Mom and Dad are male and female and the children are theirs alone, with no mixing in of ex-spousal offspring. It's better if the whole family goes to church every Sunday.

Yes, that past did exist. And, it was good.

So, this guy wants to get laid, and he wants to remove all impediments to getting laid. Who doesn't?

Ann Althouse said...

"Makes you wonder after watching Pope slap the hand..."

I'm going to have a post about that... working on it now.

gilbar said...

So, Charles Taylor says that It's FINE to have:

MANY kids raised by poor single mothers; 'cause otherwise SOME women would be unhappy
MANY children aborted; 'cause otherwise SOME women would be injured in backstreet abortions
Sexual Promiscuity taught in schools; 'cause otherwise SOME kids would experiment on their own
Government Big brother watching our welfare; 'cause otherwise SOME people could be hungry

He uses the phrase "at least as much", I do not think that word means what you think it does

This Chuck, seems as bad at arguing his points, as many other Chucks; something in the name?

Kevin said...

Charles Taylor never heard of people moralizing about not recycling, wearing fur, eating meat, owning guns, allowing charter schools, or any other left-wing outrages?

Perhaps it’s not moralizing itself to which he objects.

gilbar said...

Chuck (not our Poor Chuck) says...
There are downsides to things; THEREFORE, we shouldn't do things

Shouting Thomas said...

The virtues remain fixed and certain.

Those are the Ten Commandments.

The notion of "progress" in moral issues is illiterate, ahistorical vanity.

The struggle between the moralists and the amoralists has been going on for at least 5,000 years.

Ann Althouse said...


You've got to stop writing "Chuck" gratuitously in your comments. I will be deleting your comments that do that from now on.

rhhardin said...

Most of our troubles come from having sexual organs. Armpits were meant to make us think pure thoughts but they wound up too close to breasts.

rhhardin said...

George Carlin the ten commandments

Lloyd W. Robertson said...

It was Daniel Patrick Moynihan, pretty much a liberal, who coined the phrase "defining deviancy downward." I believe his concern was mainly with the poor. If we act as though crime, poor schools, and poor hygiene are OK for the poor, we are giving them some encouragement to give up on themselves. Maintaining standards may be a way of urging them to take better care of themselves and their children. This doesn't mean zero divorces, or zero abortions. Himmelfarb probably influenced her son Bill Kristol and other NeverTrumpers: the view that character and personal morality are so important, Hillary and members of the Bush family are more promising presidential candidates than Trump. That I believe is civility bullshit. There was a funny paraphrase of Himmelfarb: somebody had better goddam well start going to church--and it's not going to be me.

Dust Bunny Queen said...

A society that wants to remain civil, does require defined values of some sort. Otherwise we become unmoored and eventually there will be chaos. If there are no rules, or more importantly (ala Hillary Clinton) the rules are arbitrarily enforced, the people will devolve into anarchy or devise their OWN rules.

This doesn't meant that society needs to be so highly regulated or that that regulation comes from the top down. The rules of society are tacitly decided and approved by the general population. Laws are there to reinforce the adherence to "some" of the rules. Don't murder, steal, embezzle for example. Other rules are enforced by societal approbation, shunning, and other even more permanent methods (lynching).

Heck, even Chimpanzee or Porpoise groups have rules.

CONSEQUENCES of rules can be good or bad and then society will make an adjustment. We can outlaw abortion -- but if we do, young women will maim and kill themselves trying to rid themselves of unwanted pregnancies.

OR....more people will be more careful to not become pregnant by withholding sex until marriage.
OR...instead of willy nilly murdering their children, they will suck it up and get married and find out that it all worked out. Fulfill the responsibilities and rules of society. Many many marriages in the past were 'shotgun' and turned out well.
OR.....the children are born and raised by others. Family. Adopted.
Lots of alternatives to aborting and murdering your children.

Where we went wrong was to allow the Government to decide to abrogate the deciding of the rules to itself, WITHOUT the consent of the people. The government can enact laws. It cannot, mandate morality or social rules. Hence the resentment to Roe v Wade. It might be legal but it isn't considered moral by a large swath of society.

Roger Sweeny said...

People don't make moral judgments? They will only go so far as to call something "inappropriate"? No one who has read a NYT editorial or listened to any of the candidates for president would say that.

I guess it was a passing thing.

ga6 said...

Cannot resist:

"How much wood would a woodchuck chuck
if a woodchuck could chuck wood?
He would chuck, he would, as much as he could,
and chuck as much wood as a woodchuck would
if a woodchuck could chuck wood."

William said...

In my lifetime, sex has moved from this dark, mysterious force that needs to be respected, feared, and kept within bounds to a leisure time activity to be indulged in as much as your scheduling will permit. Any frills or curlicue that your libido is equipped with should be explored and not repressed... Pros and cons of marriage: If you want to lead your best life, marriage is sometimes a hassle. If you want your children to lead their best life, marriage is more often a better opton than divorce..... Trollope, having finished one trillion page novel, would immediately and without pause pick up another foolscap of paper and start his next novel. There's something to be said for sexual repression. It helps you focus. The Victorians had some impressive work habits. Due appreciation should be given to the Victorians. It was they who created a world that, for the first time, allowed significant numbers of people to live above the subsistence level.

traditionalguy said...

The popular author of Twelve Rules For Life states the rules as advice to be the best we can be. His psychologist's POV is the miracle antidote to Groupthink Morality that only destroys secular individuals lives today.

Moses had 10.
The Scout Law had 12.
Peterson has 12.

As for me and my family, we will do our best to do our duty to God and Country and obey the Scout Law.

narciso said...

one might venture the 60s, was like that bite of the apple, well learned to be arrogant, to think we were the masters of our fate, that nothing that came before was worthy,

Mike Sylwester said...

The PBS series about Queen Victoria is superb. PBS has been re-broadcasting the third season, which I am re-watching. I hope that the re-broadcast means that the fourth season is imminent.

Michael K said...

The government can enact laws. It cannot, mandate morality or social rules. Hence the resentment to Roe v Wade. It might be legal but it isn't considered moral by a large swath of society.

DBQ, you did not include birth control. There is no reason why any young woman needs to get pregnant except for a rare failure of birth control. It is even easy to place subcutaneous implants that do not require remembering to take a pill every day. There is a reason why Democrats oppose making birth control an over-the-counter item. It is to support the abortion industry of Planned Parenthood which funds them.

I am pro-choice but "safe, legal and RARE."

Mike Sylwester said...

The third season of the PBS series about Queen Victoria ended when Prince Albert suddenly collapsed to the floor. She and he had been having marriage problems for many months but now had mended their relationship.

And then they were kissing and then he collapsed to the floor! And that was the end of the third season!!

So, there has to be a fourth season. The series cannot end like that.

By the way, this series has had many laugh-out-loud moments. Several characters are very funny -- King Leopold, Prince Earnest, Princess Feodora, the Duchess of Buccleuch and Lord Palmerston.

tcrosse said...

Over at the Atlantic there's a long obit by David Brooks: "A great deal, she wrote, is lost when a society stops aiming for civic virtue and is content to aim merely for civility."

tcrosse said...

If I were writing a series about Victoria, I would be sorely tempted to give Harry Flashman an appearance.

DavidD said...

Why have I never heard of this woman until now?

Dust Bunny Queen said...

MichaelK said: DBQ, you did not include birth control

So true! Birth control, not just condoms, changed everything. Safe, reliable and today...inexpensive. It should be OTC.

I am pro-choice but "safe, legal and RARE."

Me too for early abortion. Within the first trimester. Before viability of the child. AND with the additional codicil that abortion should NOT be publicly funded. Get charitable donations. Raise the money yourself but do not force the money for what many consider immoral purposes.

Again...the issue of the Government getting involved in trying to legislate rules of society that are not "organically" agreed upon. Laws make things legal. They don't make things moral or approved by society.

This is also why we have jury nullification. Which the government hates :-)

Sebastian said...

"[V]irtues were fixed and certain... standards against which behavior could and should be measured. When conduct fell short of those standards ... it was judged in moral terms as bad, wrong or evil"

Not just Victorian: life in the West before 1900.

tcrosse said...

The concept of Sin has migrated from sexual practices to matters of diet.

mockturtle said...

The concept of Sin has migrated from sexual practices to matters of diet.

And carbon emissions.

Sebastian said...

"So, Charles Taylor says that It's FINE to have:"

Whoa. This bugged me for a second. It couldn't be that Charles Taylor, could it, the Charles Taylor of A Secular Age, a book I recommend to all conservatives? The Charles Taylor who pretty much generalized and deepened Himmelfarb's point, better than anyone as far as I know?

No, phew, it was some columnist.

Unknown said...

For a fuller, more interesting and charitable take on Himmelfarb, read this, https://www.nationalreview.com/2019/12/the-historian-as-moralist/

mccullough said...

It is amusing to watch the Left now whine about Morality and Norms when it comes to Trump. They are very upset The Evangelicals support Trump.

What about his Adultery? His Vulgarity? His Chicanery? His Selfishness?

traditionalguy said...

Middle class sexual taboo morality was taught in Queen Victoria's name. But the European Royalty has never been anything but a continuous sexual hedonism swap party. Victoria and her Empire lived off the drug trade that destroys lives. Check out Victoria's Boxer Rebellion Wars, read Ginny Churchill's Biography, and then tell me the late 1800s were straight laced Victorian Morality people.

wild chicken said...

Per Trollope, the problems seemed to start when women were allowed to choose their own husbands ..

narciso said...

they upheld standards, they used opium to open up markets, and the British Navy to keep them open, china has returned the favor with fentanyl exports, with contaminated food stuffs and building materials, Colonialism may not have been perfect, but has the post colonial experience been better in north Africa, or the middle east,

hawkeyedjb said...

Dust Bunny Queen said...
If there are no rules, or ... the rules are arbitrarily enforced, the people will devolve into anarchy or devise their OWN rules.

Yes - and this is universal. As someone once said, if you can't get justice from the State, you'll get your own justice. The Godfather was a good example of this, but imagine if large numbers of people feel they cannot get justice from the powers-that-be. If all those law-abiding middle class heavily armed people decide to go full Antifa, watch out.

Marc said...

I don't go to the Post any longer and so my reading there is via the excerpts Althouse posts. Doesn't surprise me at all that they chose to publish that Charles Taylor's nonsense to mark Gertrude Himmelfarb's death. The obituary at the New York Times is worth reading (although one sees, from the correction appended, that they originally got the wrong Charles Taylor).

Marc said...

I realised as I hit 'post' that the nonsense paragraphs of Charles Taylor were supplied by Althouse, for the general increase of knowledge or because she sees some merit in them, I don't know. The one paragraph (the 'village biddy' one) of Taylor's also appears in the Times's obit.

Nichevo said...

Everybody feels so bad for poor China about the Opium Wars. Cuz they had nothing to do with it of course:


The reason could be traced back to 1699, when the first British ship traded peacefully with China and brought back silks and, for the first time, the peerless herb called tea—which China alone on earth produced cheaply and in abundance. In exchange, the emperor would take only silver bullion. And this policy had persisted ever since.

Within fifty-odd years tea became the most popular drink of the Western world—particularly of Britain, the major trading nation on earth. In seventy years tea was the single major source of internal tax revenue for the British Government. Within a century the outpouring of wealth to China had critically depleted the British treasury and the unbalanced tea-bullion trade was a national catastrophe.

Over the century, the British East India Company—the gigantic semiprivate, semipublic firm which possessed, by Act of Parliament, a total monopoly on Indian and Asian trade—had offered everything and anything with growing desperation—cotton goods, looms, even guns and ships—in place of bullion. But the emperors imperiously refused. They considered China self-sufficient, were contemptuous of “barbarians,” as they called all non-Chinese, and regarded all the nations of the earth as no better than vassal states of China.


Opium became the inbound staple of trade. The Company quickly monopolized the world supply of opium outside Yunnan Province and the Ottoman Empire. Within twenty years the bullion traded for smuggled opium equaled the bullion that was owed for teas and silks.

At last trade balanced. Then overbalanced, for there were twenty times more Chinese customers than Western customers, and there began a staggering outpouring of bullion that even China could not afford. The Company offered other trade goods to stem the tide. But the emperor remained adamant: bullion for tea.

lane ranger said...

Re the Charles Taylor review, so many straw men . . . .

Bleach Drinkers Curing Coronavirus Together said...

So Himmelfarb and her coterie were neo-Victorians moreso than neo-conservatives, then. Makes sense. And what a fatuous bunch of garbage. Does anyone or did anyone suggest that Britain was wrong to evolve beyond their silly Victorian manners, which were BTW never even appropriate for a frontier society such as America was at the time? No. No one says that the slavery and chattel status of women and debtor's prisons and child labor and widespread poverty and disease and wealth extremes of the times that Dickens noted were norms that should have remained fixed as the Victorians were replaced by the Edwardians and Windsors.

If Himmelfarb was so enamored of Victorian society she should have freaking moved to Britain and started a revivalist society there, instead of inflicting one on us here in America. The British, who knew so much better than the American Evangelists and moralizers ever could have about Victorian failings, would have no doubt given her a run for her silly publishing money. Or better yet, run her out of town. Only in America could an entire political faction fallen prey to such a silly line of thinking. The Brits actually lived through the Victorians; they knew better. It would have been hilarious to watch their reaction had she tried to push that stuff on them as they slapped her silliness down.

Bleach Drinkers Curing Coronavirus Together said...

The virtues remain fixed and certain.

Those are the Ten Commandments.


Do you have no other gods and remain pious to a single one?
Do you make no graven images?
Do you never take the lord's name in vain?
Do you remember the sabbath day and keep it holy?
Do you not bear false witness?
Do you not covet?

rcocean said...

97 - now that's a long life.

narciso said...

certainly the pendulum has swung the otherway round, clock work orange seems to be a how to manual, of course burgess suggested this came in the aftermath of a soviet takeover of the uk, we unlearned most everything that made society real in the 60s, both here and the uk,

FIDO said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
FIDO said...


Althouse posts what, four lines of Himmelfarb, gives a short bio, lets some hectoring twit have 4 paragraphs to savage the woman, with sanctimonious appeals to sympathy "Someone will die! Booga Booga. Someone might be unhappy! Booga Booga."

Well, right back at you, Madam Althouse. You posted a huge piece refuting her claims, so this is a tacit editorial thumb on the scale.

How are those stats about female happiness recently? Which way is the trend with your 'modern' impulses?

Single parenting? How is that working for the kids?

Your delightful decent into pharmacological 'philosophy'? Lots of addicts out there checking out and dying.

How are the suicide rates after your post modernist philosophy took hold?

Are we a more cohesive society or one riven with hate?

So your society having a total lack of principles has not exactly been one which has been particularly better and demonstrably worse than Himmelfarb's stance: Which was virtue is hard enough to implement without people who should know better tearing it down as rubbish and replacing it with worse rubbish.

As someone pointed out (paraphrased) Lefties advocate libertine positions but live like Victorian Episcopalians. At least the successful ones do.

The only place where Himmelfarb and Althouse intersect is her sexual prudery but Althouse's seems to come from Feminism, not morality.

Ralph L said...

The PBS series about Queen Victoria is superb

Thankfully, they haven't made her fat and ugly--yet.

Per Trollope, the problems seemed to start when women were allowed to choose their own husbands ..

He wouldn't have a plot without that. But the heroine must wait for love, not money, rank, or social ambition.

daskol said...

I'm amazed at the level of her writing published in Commentary. A similarly positioned middlebrow journal today, like the New Criterion, say, doesn't require the level of erudition required for parsing Himmelfarb.

daskol said...

Also somewhat amazing: with intellectual giants Himmelfarb and Irving Kristol, where did Bill Kristol's at best mediocre intelligence come from? Regression to the mean is a bitch.

n.n said...

Liberalism, progressivism, conservativism, and libertarianism, too. Even anarchism, the complement to totalitarianism, has religious standards. Shame and phobias, empathetic appeals, cancel culture, abortion culture, and scalpels at high noon.

narciso said...

well anarchism cannot ultimately work, because it leads to a power vacuum that is filled by the strongest power, they haven't figured that out yet,

Narr said...

Oh where to begin? In CO, Russia didn't take over Britain--the influence was cultural, from a loser society to a decadent one (he just got the loser society wrong).

As for Victorianism, it was already a trans-Atlantic phenomenon; its unsuitability to American conditions has nothing at all to do with its influence and reach. But these things take knowledge and nuance to understand, so I'm here for the slow students (I think most of us are, really, one way or another).

Here's an irony. The Brits forcing opium on China has been excused here on the basis that the Brits were addicted to tea, and like, really needed it, man, and those Chinese were just being assholes. That one still gets used today by USAian drug warriors--we have to intrude on your economies and in some cases devastate your ecology, so loser addicts here can . . . what? Live another loser day. In both cases an honest "only we matter" would be polite.

And for all her learning, Himmelfarb just never realized that whatever the good and bad elements of Victorianism, that was all gone; it couldn't be willed.

The PBS series is lovely to look at and well acted, but please don't mistake it for history.

It's "Based on a true story," y'all

narciso said...

I get it the East India Company, might be the Threadneedle Cartel, named after the street with the financial interests in London, Palmerston who was Foreign Minister during the first Opium War, ended up Prime Minister by the Second, along with the conquest of Nigeria,

Thuglawlibrarian said...

Overthinking will lead to sadness.

Not when it comes to aeronautical engineering.

William said...

I, too, enjoy the PBS series on Victoria, but, as Narr notes, it's more of a suggested by a true story thing than actual history. I watch it mostly because of Jenna Coleman. She is preternaturally cute. I've seen portraits of Victoria as a young woman, painted by artists skilled in flattering their subjects. Victoria in their brush strokes is no more than mildly attractive. I think the history of the world would have been far different if Victoria had actually looked like Victoria....In a metaphorical sense, Victoria looked more fitting when she was old, fat, and squat. At that moment of time, she better represented the solidity, gravitas, and venerability of the British Empire. A cute, engaging nymph does not represent the appeal of the British Empire.

mike in houston said...

AS I PASS through my incarnations in every age and race,
I make my proper prostrations to the Gods of the Market Place.
Peering through reverent fingers I watch them flourish and fall,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings, I notice, outlast them all.

mike in houston said...

...As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of Man
There are only four things certain since Social Progress began.
That the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,
And the burnt Fool's bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire;

And that after this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins
When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins,
As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn,
The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!

Narr said...

I love the smell of Kipling in the morning!

A skirmish at a border station,
A canter down a dark defile--
Two thousand pounds of education
Drops to a ten-rupee jezail