It sure can be deceptive.
Looking back over our memories tends to create the illusion that things were better then than they really were. Such selective memory gets particularly bad if something today really bothers us, and we imagine that previous generations must have been far more proficient than the bozos running things today are.
Take, for example, the standard many Americans use for our country's glory years: the post-war 1950's, during our epic baby boom. Life seemed so much more vibrant then. Opportunity was in the air. We were inventing and growing and exploring and rocking and rolling and driving and building. You didn't even have to be rich to enjoy the bounty in lifestyle advancements that have become a hallmark of that unique period of time.
But you did have to be white.
And indeed, it was, as we're soberly discovering, simply a unique period of time. A period of time that, despite being as productive as it was, probably wasn't as great overall as we like to imagine it was.
What A Ride
Still, even for those of us who were born much later, the 20th Century's middle decade represents a quintessential period of socioeconomic exuberance and optimism. Consider all of the measures by which the 1950's are fondly - if not entirely accurately - referred:
- Designs of the American automobile, such as the Cadillac fin, the '57 Chevrolets, and the Ford Thunderbird
- Epic cinematic spectaculars and iconic TV shows, such as Ben Hur, The Ten Commandments, I Love Lucy, and Superman
- Big cities were still economic engines, even as suburbia was gaining momentum
- Public education was considered safe, efficient, and admirable
- Rock and roll was still in its infancy, and its audience almost as naive
- Dads went to work, moms stayed home, and their kids were wholesome (or, so Leave it to Beaver says)
- Interstate highways were brand-new and uncongested
- Passenger train service was then what air travel is today, only more pleasant
- Only the Army had annoying government regulations
- The incredible shrinking nuclear family was early in its evolution; extended family still lived close by, not across the country
- Divorce was rare
- Sundays were for church
- Baseball was America's game
- ... and on and on...
In retrospect, however, despite how nice it all may sound to you - and, yes, some of it sounds nice to me, too - I have to admit: I wouldn't want to go back and live in the 1950's.
For one thing, medical care was woefully inferior to the standards we expect today. Think of how far we've come in the fight against cancer, the repair - and replacement - of broken bones and malfunctioning organs, and basic life expectancy. Would you want to relinquish the advancements in health science that have been made in the past 60 years?
We also didn't know much about how badly we were corrupting our ecosystems with the massive amounts of pollution our economic engine was belching into the air, water, and landscape. Unfortunately, it took about three decades for us to realize the amount of toxic residue "progress" creates. Even today, much of the pollution we think we've removed from our society we've simply relocated to poorer and less politically powerful parts of our world, where people who can't complain as loudly about environmental degradation suffer from the byproducts of our plastic universe.
Plastic universe, indeed. Our economy was rebuilding itself by becoming a consumer-driven one. Driven to consume a lot of cheaply-made stuff we really don't need. Instead of farming, the manufacture of basic utensils and equipment, and other industries we'd consider primitive by today's standards, our version of capitalism flopped into dependency mode after World War II, a mode in which products needed to be designed, sold, and purchased in a pattern that sustained companies that otherwise provided little upon which human life is based. Things like striped toothpaste, Wiffle balls, hairspray, powdered milk, Frisbees and hula hoops, frozen French fries, and Kentucky Fried Chicken. In terms of raw economics, as long as you have customers willing to pay market price, all of these commodities can only help improve a society's economy. But people of faith should know that contentment is not based on acquiring or consuming things; those are two lifestyle patterns a consumer-based economy wantonly encourages.
I still remember the first time I saw a photo of one of the black female students being taunted by a crowd of white kids outside Little Rock High School (photo at right). I was reading a textbook in Mrs. Wolf's sixth grade class in upstate New York, where the only black family in town lived in one of the nicest homes in town, and I had no idea why anybody would dislike black people. I looked behind the tall, dignified black girl in the white dress and sunglasses, to the short white girl with the short hair directly behind her. Her mouth galvanized into a loud snarl, her eyes dark with vitriol... had this black girl done something to inflict physical pain on her? The leering law enforcement men in the background, the other white woman clucking her tongue; none of it made sense to me then. I'm glad I didn't have to live through it - either as a black person, or a white one.
Can We Move Forward By Selectively Idolizing the Past?
Turns out, that evil episode in Little Rock back in 1957 served as a stepping stone upon which race relations in America made its way across a sea change in how blacks participate in modern, 21st Century life. Things still aren't perfect, just as they aren't perfect in our economy, which, although vastly expanded from even its 1950's robustness, has been struggling for years to accommodate swings and trends in the buying patterns of consumers. Healthcare, too, has become so complex, its costs have exploded, and we've yet to determine how the overwhelming majority of us can afford to pay for it.
At least the Cold War is over. Or is it? During the 1950's, Americans lived in increasing degrees of fear, a mindset that helped precipitate the vase military-industrial complex that the decade's signature president, Dwight Eisenhower, warned an otherwise cavalier country against. While diplomatic relations with Russia and China may now be on a low boil, and as Communism has petered out virtually everyplace else - with bothersome last-gasps from North Korea and Cuba, the international politics of the Cold War may be history. Meanwhile, however, our country is grappling with staggering responsibilities for all of that redundant weaponry whose nuclear components won't evaporate like political dogma. Then there are the millions of private sector jobs created by a misguided patriotic zeal from Cold War arms race industrialists, and sustained today by hawkish advocates for unparalleled military superiority.
As Britain's Lord Acton wrote in 1887, "power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."
Have we become so dependant on a taxpayer-funded military-industrial complex that we're like frogs placed in a pot of cold water? As the heat from our military's demands on our Treasury gets turned up, we acclimate to the rising costs until we're boiled to death. All in the cause of protecting ourselves more extensively than any other society in history.
Which, actually, is where this whole infatuation with the 1950's comes full circle. "Sure, we had the Cold War then," we allow, "but look at how much else in our country was going so well."
I suspect that part of our national commitment to Eisenhower's dreaded military-industrial complex comes from a desire to live in a simpler time, when we knew who our enemies were, and what it took to at least keep them in checkmate. The USSR had as much to lose from a nuclear holocaust as we did, and we both pretty much used the same playbook when it came to securing our respective nation's interests.
These days, our fiercest enemy isn't a state as much as it is an ideology. An ideology with capricious splinter factions within it. They don't want the same things we want. They don't live like we do. Our cultures have little in common. In the face of such contentious unconventionality, it can be enticing to try and revert to the 1950's and somehow capture its mojo in a bottle, à la Back to the Future. But not only can we not go back, it's really only in nostalgic retrospect - and only if you're Caucasian - that the 50's were idyllic.
Charles Dickens says it best in A Tale of Two Cities:
"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair."
With selective perception, we can still relish through nostalgia the good things our country experienced during the 1950's.
But not only can we not go back, how does it help our nation's current woes to try?