I’m currently reading “The Scarlet Letter” by Hawthorne and I just stumbled over a passage that made me think of the contrast between Then and Now.
Before the actual story begins, there is a kind of explanatory preface in which the author describes his time as chief executive officer (yes, the term is a very old one, apparantly) at the Custom House. At the time, he has several elderly colleagues serving under him whom he just doesn’t have the heart to dismiss. Most prominent among them is the Collector, a former general who somehow after his time in the military and a period in which he ruled over one of the Western territories (we’re talking about the time when the westward expansion was under full steam) ended up in this dead-end position in New England. The narrator, Hawthorne, describes the old face and muses how, even near the end of his days, this man still retains some of his former strength deep inside. He writes
There was one thing that much aided me in renewing and re-creating the stalwart soldier of the Niagara frontier, – the man of true and simple energy. It was the recollection of those memorable words of his, – “I’ll try, Sir!” – spoken on the very verge of a desperate and heroic enterprise, and breathing the soul and spirit of New England hardihood, comprehending all perils, and encountering all. If, in our country, valor were rewarded by heraldic honor, this phrase – which it seems so easy to speak, but which only he, with such a task of danger and glory before him, has ever spoken – would be the best and fittest of all mottoes for the General’s shield of arms.
This acknowledgment and celebration of the earnest attempt, of the ethos of duty and responsibility without guarantee of success, even if failure is indeed the result, is something the contemporary US culture is in danger of losing. Sure, in Silicon Valley, failure is seen as virtue – because it means having tried. But Silicon Valley is a bubble world in many senses.
For the broader masses, there’s the Trump school, according to whose preachings, failure makes the loser.
And while it saddens me deeply to juxtappose him to Trump, there’s also Master Yoda, whose words, unfortunately, in nowaday’s culture presumably carry more weight than Hawthorne’s and who says:
Just a small example of how cultural norms shift. Actually, we can only see the results of this shift. As with language, it’s hard to notice cultural change while it’s taking place.