Modesty’s Retreat

by R. J. Snell on January 14, 2013 · 11 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Articles,Culture, High & Low,Region & Place

Banff, Alberta

Over a drink with a fellow Canadian ex-pat about a month ago, I rather wistfully (and irresponsibly) indulged in some wishful thinking as I expressed my longing for the solid values of “peace, order, and good government” which had formed my imagination when young. Raised on the prairies, far from the cultural centres of Toronto and Montreal with their cultural upheavals, the (as I saw it then) very British virtues of stoicism, restraint, politeness, and modesty seemed to define the people and shape the human artifacts.

My maternal grandmother exemplified this, even though she was not British but a Swabian, one of those Germans who had fled Soviet persecution to live in sod houses on the Alberta-Saskatchewan border. One of her fellows, the “gallant little Lutheran from the Crimea,” Reynold Rapp, had resolutely opposed changing the flag from the Red Ensign to the Maple Leaf. Britishness was something to be supported by those who had lived under the Hammer and Sickle, he proclaimed.

More than bunting and ribbon, however, was the restraint, the modesty, the sense that your desires and wishes were perhaps not that important, while the needs of your neighbors and the community—both church and town—were paramount. One worked and strived to better oneself, of course, and my grandma once told me she moved from Saskatchewan to my hometown of Carbon, Alberta, because she heard there were prosperous young men there, but that meant not much more than stability, a modest home, a life of toil, and a quiet retirement consisting of gardening, coffee hour, and some road trips in the tent-trailer. Certain old-world trappings of “wealth,” perhaps, such as the purchase of a china set with accompanying crystal glasses, but these were ordered through the Hudson’s Bay catalogue and used frequently with family and friends to serve humble meals of roast beef, mashed potatoes, and home-canned peas. A quiet dignity was maintained, but ever so quiet.

The towns boasted very little. My little village proudly crowed that it had paved streets (!), a major accomplishment. There was also a curling rink, a pool (outdoor), a skating rink (also outdoor, whatever Canadian weather brought), ball fields (no lights, bleachers, or dugouts), and that was about it. Homes were small, unassuming, decorated with handicrafts, and certainly not modeled after Crate and Barrel. Those of the wealthy farmers were larger and better appointed, but the difference was slight, a matter of degree, and within a scale that did not offend or humiliate the less wealthy. That is, neighborliness governed, and the poorer friend could accept hospitality without being overwhelmed by the grandiosity of the McMansion, for the distance was not so great. And recall the smallness of the towns—you could not but associate with those from different economic conditions.

This was fitting given the character of the people. A picture of my paternal great-grandmother housed in the Glenbow Museum archives shows a family without much (she’s on the right), and not expecting much—stoic, dignified, resolved, modest. And while her children and grandchildren had more, they were of the same stuff—or so it seemed to me as a young man, or at least I consciously imagined it this way, whether it was true or not. Not too much should be expected, and certainly not much should be requested or demanded.

photo Snell

My drinking partner and fellow Canadian reminded me that this Canada no longer existed, if it ever really did; it had been done away by changing conceptions of rights after the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, by Americanization, by Trudeaumania, by the Reform Party, and so on and so forth. Perhaps restraint simply couldn’t withstand the prosperity of the last decades, and the markets did what they did.

I hoped he was wrong, knew he was not.

Having just returned from a two-week visit, I’m struck by the visible demise of modest restraint, particularly in the homes. Driving about the countryside, for this is what one does there, I saw many new homes of a preposterous scale, many thousands of square feet (one even had an outbuilding to house all the mechanicals), with multiple garrets and turrets, all jutting conspicuously from the fields and into my purview. They could not be hidden, nor were they meant to, and on the treeless flatness were visible for great distances.

Right beside them, sometimes just across the road, stood the old farmhouse, diminutive, overshadowed. In the towns, a kind of segregation had taken place, with the older neighborhoods a mix of homes smaller or larger (but of a kind), but new developments on the far side of town housing looming monstrosities dwarfing the older places.

This was not neighborly. This was not modest. This was a thumbing of the nose at those with less, a demand to be noticed, seen.  Roger Scruton writes of the bad manners of much contemporary architecture compared with older patterns, saying:

The principal concern of the architects was to fit in to an existing urban fabric, to achieve local symmetry within the context of a historically given settlement. No greater aesthetic catastrophe has struck our cities—European just as much as American—than the modernist idea that a building should stand out from its surroundings, to become a declaration of its own originality. As much as the home, cities depend upon good manners; and good manners require the modest accommodation to neighbors rather than the arrogant assertion of apartness.

Modesty is not prudishness, it is (1) having a moderate estimate of one’s merits and importance, (2) a freedom from extravagance, (3) a regard for decency or decorum. It is, then, fundamentally opposed to vulgarity and boorishness. And all around I observed (or thought I did) a change in character from modesty to vulgarity, and among Canadians, thought to be among the most mannerly people.

A family member in the construction business told me that when young couples come in to plan the homes, she often tells them to list absolute musts from relative wants, but reports being told several times that “whatever there is, is a need.” Moreover, not just a need, a demand, a right.

At the same time as the palaces multiply, the civic centres collapse. The town halls, source of community life—dances, movies, card parties, club meetings—were unpainted, poorly maintained, and not updated. Schools and churches were closing at rapid pace, businesses shuttered, main streets deserted as the homes became opulent, appointed, odes to entertainment. I’ll admit to some distress at how shabby the towns had become, even as the homes became incredible.

Perhaps new money corrupts even more absolutely than power, but modesty is in retreat and vulgarity extends—and hope remains. One little church I attended eschewed the innovations and the grandiose odes to self, continuing with the liturgy which called all to bow and pray in unison, not standing apart, not claiming merit for oneself beyond the due, not violating the decency of humility before the One. Perhaps that is enough.

Perhaps not.

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Greg January 15, 2013 at 2:53 pm

I’m I the only one who has noticed that Canadians are quite proud of their modesty? ;)

avatar Micha Elyi January 15, 2013 at 2:56 pm

I blame women. They’re by far the major consumers of home improvement porn.

avatar Daisy January 16, 2013 at 8:36 am

So you begrudge your neighbors because they don’t look or live like peasants?

avatar Martin January 16, 2013 at 11:33 am

I heartily agree! May I recommend a good book from 1944 on the subject of architectural good manners, Good and Bad Manners in Architecture: http://www.amazon.com/Good-Bad-Manners-Architecture-EDWARDS/dp/B000RWF8CQ

avatar Allan Eckert January 17, 2013 at 1:11 pm

As a descendant of Swabian immigrants to Texas I am blessed to pastor a little Lutheran congregation that also eschews “the innovations and the grandiose odes to self, continuing with the liturgy which called all to bow and pray in unison, not standing apart.” I grew up among a people like yours who exhibited the virtues of “stoicism, restraint, politeness, and modesty.” But this is changing. In my grandfather’s day obvious displays of wealth drew the displeasure and censure of both the church and family and even the greater community in which they were planted. Now these kinds of displays seem to be almost expected as a sign of success. Trying to get people to be even modestly reflective about why something “bigger and better” is desired is usually met by a blank stare that communicates a bewilderment about why someone would ask such a self-evident question.

avatar Flavius January 17, 2013 at 1:17 pm

Good article.
We live in a low time, falling lower fast. Consider the distance between Eliot’s lament “their only monument, the asphalt road and a thousand lost golf balls” and the modern exaltatation “he who dies with the most toys wins.”
Incidently, if you and your friend were drinking in a bar where there wasn’t a television, would you be good enough to pass that information on.

avatar Anymouse January 17, 2013 at 4:24 pm

“So you begrudge your neighbors because they don’t look or live like peasants?”
This is an oversimplification in many respects, but what is wrong with looking or living like a peasant?

avatar Tony Esolen January 20, 2013 at 8:28 pm

Dear Professor Snell: Greetings! I do hope we get to meet someday soon.

My family and I spend all our summers in Canada, on an island part of Cape Breton — the Isle Madame, home to about 4000 people, with six or seven scattered old villages. We love the Canadian neighborliness and decency, but we notice some sharp differences between people over 50 and people under 40:

1. The people over 50 know how to do everything, or know somebody close by who can do it. They can sail a boat, build a garage, fix your leaky pipes, roof a house or a church, fish out in the ocean, dredge a swamp, install new wiring, and so forth. I’m thinking mainly of the men; we could say similar things about what the women do. But if you’re under 40, you probably don’t know how to do any of these things.

2. People used to do a lot of hunting and gathering. The older people still hunt. The younger ones don’t. I am one of the few people on the island who picks wild strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, cherries, lingonberries, gooseberries, and cranberries, in any real quantity (close to 40 gallons of ‘em this summer and fall, most of which we made into jam). There are berries and fruit, too, that grow wild, like weeds, that are entirely abandoned — the saskatoon berry. People pay five dollars for a teeny basket of such at the store, and all they have to do is look about themselves a little. I know places where you can pick a gallon of blackberries in an hour.

3. The younger people aren’t marrying. So there is complete chaos in the home, and this is accentuated by the awful TV, and the vacuous schools. Homeschooling hasn’t caught on in Canada yet.

We think we’ve been blessed to experience the end of something lovely …

avatar Bobby January 21, 2013 at 11:22 pm

I enjoyed reading this. I grew up in a mid-sized town in the American Midwest (Ohio Valley). It was surely a bit bigger than Carbon, Alberta, but had many of the same attributes.

On a recent trip home, it struck me that most houses built before 1990 were about the same size. Even the “big” houses that had been occupied by prominent physicians or lawyers weren’t much more than about 20% bigger than anyone else’s house. In fact, I’m not sure that I ever knew my father’s salary, or had any idea where it stood relative to those of other fathers in the neighborhood. I now realize that it was substantially higher. But we had a modest three-bedroom house, and always drove modest vehicles (a Honda sedan and a Chevy truck).

I still recall my parents arguing over whether to plant a white birch tree in the front yard. White birch trees, while common in the upper Midwest, are rare in the Ohio Valley. My father thought that such a tree would make us stand out too much from our neighbors, who’d settled for the more common (and cheaper) maple trees. My father relented, and bought the tree. But except for the white birch tree, we were outwardly pretty much like our neighbors. I was well into my 20s before I ever even realized that we’d been wealthy. I can’t imagine that happening today!

That town is gone now, at least in spirit. I’m not sure when it happened, or why it did. I had a childhood that I would not have traded for the world. And I always believed that I would return to that small town and provide my kids with the same kind of rich experience that I enjoyed. It grieves me that I cannot. For one person cannot make a community. It takes a collective willingness of men like my father to take less than he deserved so that the less capable could enjoy more than they deserved. It takes having an abiding faith in something other than the laws of supply and demand. It takes people who are satisfied with the simple luxuries of a white birch tree in the front yard.

avatar Barnaby33 January 22, 2013 at 7:03 pm

One person cannot make a community, true enough. One the one hand some of us harken back to that golden age, when there was a sense of belonging to a community. We seldom examine the violence ignorance and hatred that it accompanied it. I grew up in SoCal, in a small Mormon dominated town. I wouldn’t raise my kids there. For all the peace and sense of quiet, children need intellectual development and a broad perspective on the world. Small towns seldom allow for that.

On the other hand brother I hear you. The architecture around here (San Diego) has just gotten obscene. Not to mention nobody really gives much thought to how to pay for things. Really it seems as if we have created structures to demonstrate grandiosity and yet end up jogging endlessly on a treadmill of mediocrity to fund it all.

avatar Pete Peterson January 22, 2013 at 11:52 pm

RJ,

Very good to see you writing for FPR. I can’t speak to the Canadian experience, but, of course, you’re drawing a portrait of North America more broadly.

I must say it has become fashionable in some circles to deride the BoBo’s for their extravagance. Of course, there is much to commend this: the “McMansions”, the corrupted values and culture.

I wonder what you would have observed had you gone to some of the poorer neighborhoods on the outskirts of the “centres” you mention. I’m alluding now to the rather potent points made by Charles Murray in his “Coming Apart”. I don’t expect the libertarian to get much exposure here, but while many have rightly attacked his rather vague policy prescriptions, his statement and research on the cultural issues facing America’s lower middle class are bracing.

Specifically, he finds the upper middle class – possibly many living the “countryside” you drove through – living rather bourgeois lives on a range of measures from hours worked, to marriage, to television hours watched, to births in wedlock, to church attendance, etc. It is the lower middle class who are living very different lives in all these areas – specifically in the “habits of the heart” this site promotes. This is a gap (on all measures) beginning in the early 1960s.

We may rightly decry the ostentatiousness of the BPR’s (Back Porch Republicans), but do we have the temerity to take on the the erosion of virtue in the classes many of our families lived in during the last century?

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