01 May 2013

We can't go back to the 1950s

The President started this one. Showing his support for Planned Parenthood, he warned that the anti-abortion movement wanted to "turn back the clock to policies more suited to the 1950s than the 21st century." To which columnist Cal Thomas responds: what would be wrong with that? He knows the answer already, thank you. "Like any decade, the '50s had its problems -- racism, discrimination, sexism," he notes redundantly. On the other hand, "In the '50s, for much of mainstream America drugs were something you bought at a pharmacy with a prescription; living together meant getting married first, then having babies; abortion was not legal; our culture wasn't the enemy."

In his focus on morality Thomas neglected to cite the prosperity American workers enjoyed in the Fifties, which one might think would be the trump argument in favor of that decade. In any event, there's little point in either side invoking an entire decade in a debate over present-day policy. The President implies, or at least Thomas infers from his remark, that the Fifties were some sort of dark age. For some it probably was, and for more it seemed so, but the paradox of the decade was all the railing you could read or hear against an oppressive conformity the existence of which was belied by all the railing. Thomas himself suggests that, warts and all, the decade counts as a golden age compared to our time. By certain measures it can seem that way, by others not. It was a Cold War culture, and like their counterparts in Eastern Europe Americans to some extent sharpened their minds for defense against both actual (racism, sexism, McCarthyism) and perceived oppression, striking back on all levels of culture, from Jackson Pollack to EC Comics. Thomas is perhaps most wrong about the Fifties when he asserts that the "culture wasn't the enemy;" many people at the time thought otherwise. The Fifties may have been a more dramatic time to live in, but it's "drama" of the pejorative sort to suggest that any policy change in the present day can take us back to the Fifties, for good or ill. The President himself may not have accused his foes of taking the country back in time, but enough people on his side have said such things for Thomas to jump to the conclusion. Going back entirely should be no one's ideal, but no single change that seems "back to the 1950s" would bring back everything identified with that decade. Americans with a historical consciousness should be less concerned with taking us back to any idealized time, or defending against being taken back to a demonized time, than with bringing the best of the past, some of which may be forgotten, forward into the present. The past can always offer lessons to objective conservatives (not to mention liberals and radicals) without serving as a model for reactionaries. Turning the Fifties into a unitary thing that must be endorsed or repudiated as a whole only reduces the past's usefulness for all of us.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Economically speaking, we can't go back to the 50s without destroying the manufacturing capabilities of most of Europe and a good deal of Asia. Morally speaking, we were no different then than now. We just hid it better. Culturally - those bits that define the 50s as the 50s - may be useful to the dull boors who prefer to live in their "glory days", but I can think of nothing appealing about that decade, personally.