Anyone who’s ever watched American Graffiti or Happy Days knows what era modern social conservatives pine for… it’s the era of the 1950’s, pre-Vietnam, pre-Francis Gary Powers.
More recently, I was struck by the comment of a Vietnam veteran in Ken Burns’s documentary series. I’ve recently been streaming it on Netflix, and the series is amazingly balanced, thorough and beautiful — just as you’d expect from Burns.
The comment by the vet, however, was that modern America was shaped by the Vietnam era, and that we are better off for having gone through it.
Certainly, America was changed by that period. Our first inkling that the president could lie to us occurred during the Eisenhower administration, when pilot Francis Gary Powers was shot down by the Soviet Union. At first, Eisenhower issued wholesale denials. When it became clear, however, that this was an American spy plane pilot and that he had been shot down by our then mortal enemies, most Americans were shocked. They could not imagine that a President would lie to us.
Those doubts as to the veracity of politicians grew into wholesale cynicism as it became clear that first Lyndon Johnson then Richard Nixon were regularly lying about Vietnam. It became clear that lying was done by both parties.
That cynicism flowered as a result of the Watergate scandal. A post for another day would be how Watergate was really a result of Vietnam. But suffice it to say, the veteran was right: that era changed us.
To be sure, the myth of the 1950s seems very attractive. It was an era of relative peace and prosperity. The United States was truly the dominant power of the world. Things seemed to make sense. People knew their place.
That description of the 1950s is in reality a myth, quite distant from reality. The obvious point is how many people were invisible, as Ralph Ellison described in his classic novel. To the extent that African-Americans, Jews or Asian-Americans were acknowledged, it was as their racist images. Women were relegated to lives of boredom and alcoholism, told that if taking care of their husband and children was not enough for them, there was something wrong with them. LGBTQ people were firmly in the closet, and abortion, birth control and racial inter-marriage were all illegal in most of the country. To be a member of any of these groups meant you were non-existent as a person.
If you disagreed with the dominant culture, you were labeled a communist and subjected to imprisonment. We think authoritarianism is a threat today, but it is nothing compared to the circumstances back then.
In essence, the monolithic nature of the culture at the time meant that if you were not a white, Christian, Protestant male or a happy housewife supporting one of that group, you were excluded from society.
The response of some more enlightened conservatives to the gay rights movement is illustrative. They claim they have no problem with what gay people do in the privacy of their own homes. They just don’t want to be subjected to their lifestyle publicly. This argument ignores the fact that what gay people did in their homes privately was illegal in most of the country until 2003, and that gay people were regularly subjected by having to watch heterosexual people displaying their lifestyle publicly. But more to the point, it shows that the conservative goal is to continue the dominance of white protestant male culture and to keep everyone else invisible.
We are shocked by the hypocrisy of the Christian right, but in reality, their goal is to return America to that era, one where they were dominant and everyone else was outside the mainstream. When we look at their politics through that lens, suddenly their advocacy makes total sense.
However, even for the dominant group, the 1950s wasn’t so great anyway. At a minimum, our nation’s per capita GDP was far lower than it is now. In essence, we were all far poorer. Back then, only the very rich would have more than one car per household, and a 1500-square foot home was a mansion.
Visiting Graceland can be quite informative. In fact, the biggest surprise for many of us visiting this example of a lavish mansion from that era is how average it seems to us these days. Indeed, even middle class folks expect a superior lifestyle to the rich back then.
In terms of peace, the period was book-ended by the Korean War and the Cuban Missile Crisis. There was a reason it was called the Cold War. People today can’t imagine the real fear folks in that era felt that nuclear war was imminent. Indeed, we probably came closer to nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis than at any other time before or since. The 1950s included the “duck and cover” drills in which students would hide under desks to practice what they would do in case of a nuclear attack. This fear was driven by the success of the Soviet Union in exploding first a nuclear, then a hydrogen bomb, and in repeatedly surpassing our space program.
Furthermore, some of the institutions that dominated American society at the time have been relegated to irrelevance through attacks by the conservatives over time. For example, during that time, labor unions were strong, supported by favorable laws at the federal and state level. Those laws have been decimated over time by the very conservatives who claim to want to return to that era.
Thus the vision of the time the conservatives claim to want to return to really never existed. Then again, as we have seen of late, adherence to the facts was never one of their strong suits. At least through this analysis we can understand what they are advocating for.
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