Q: What was wrong, in your opinion about the 1950s?
Answer: I was born in 1940, so the 1950’s was the beginning of ‘rational’ awareness. Although it’s almost impossible to rationalize a period while you’re living it. So this is a ‘looking back’ reflection.
• National hysteria about Communism. It maliciously infected our behavior, attitudes, judgments, and actions. I look back on it as a time of national insanity. We were not a rational nation during that period. It culminated nearly half a century later in the Vietnam catastrophe. In my classroom, we lost a good teacher who refused to sign her “loyalty oath” as a point of principle. Teachers were not allowed to discuss the differences between the two systems, beyond that “Democracy & Capitalism is good” and “Communism & Socialism are evil.” If a student were to inquire, “Why?” he’d become an immediate object of suspicion.
• Racism: prior to the 60’s, we assumed that black people were invisible, and were better served by staying invisible. Jackie Robinson was at first a huge shock, and then became our “poster boy” to prove that America was so great that we’d never been guilty of racism. After all, hadn’t we fought a Civil War to end slavery? Little did we suspect that the 60’s would expose our true selves… and it wouldn’t be pretty.
• Materialism: America went on a huge shopping spree. Bigger cars with huge tail fins was just the beginning. Everything you could desire came on the credit plan. Keeping up with the Joneses next door. Every child will go to college; every child will grow up to be “better off” with more of everything. Early into the 21st century, we’ve achieved massive student loan debt, national credit card debt that equals the national debt, and a huge hangover. We no longer believe that “every child” will grow up to be better off than their parents.
• Sexism: women in corporate America, or the professions, or political life, were virtually unknown. Women were restricted to a narrow range of work and men were mostly excluded. Being a male nurse, a male secretary, or a male (elementary) school teacher, was seen as effeminate and demeaning. Male teachers in high school and beyond were accepted, because a ‘strong arm’ was needed to control unruly young male students. America denied this, of course. Not so much denied, as we were blind to it. Television sit-coms idealized the “housewife and mother” role, and the “father knows best” roles, cementing the stereotypes. Let a WOMAN run for President? Are you shittin’ me?
• Homophobia and other intolerances: it was perfectly legal to “beat the shit” out of queers, homos, and faggots. Well, not “legal,” exactly… but everyone looked the other way. It pretty much culminated in national disgust when a university student was crucified on a mid-winter Wyoming fence.
• A-Bomb insanity: I actually got to learn how to dive under my school desk, kneel on the floor, and tuck my head down between my knees. “Duck & Cover” would save us from the Communist A-Bomb sneak attack. Teachers were forced to do this while maintaining a serious attitude. Giggling was not allowed. Neither was questioning the sense of it.
• Religious intolerance: everybody was a good little Christian. Others? What others? “Ecumenical” meant that Baptists were expected to tolerate Lutherans, and hopefully, vice versa. We were still trying to understand why a Jew should be allowed to run for office. After all, we let them vote, didn’t we? But a JEW for President? Hell, we wouldn’t even let a CATHOLIC be President!
• Elvis Presley, Rock n’ Roll, and Teenage Angst: EP has become an object of satire (10,000 EP impersonators, anybody?), Rock n’ Roll has evolved, and thank God! I never have to hear another lovesick “Teen Angel” top-50s hit.
• Senator Joseph McCarthy: further proof that Congress is a dysfunctional cesspit of egos, greed, opportunism, cat-fights, hissy-fits, and a magnifier of every bad aspect of the human soul. At least today it no longer pretends to be the bastion of “American Democracy.” It has dropped all pretense, as it is accountable only to those who own it, and no longer to those who vote.
More? I could go on and on … after all, I grew up during those “days of yesteryear,” as the Lone Ranger announcer called it.
You’re in Seattle. I’m north in the Islands. Washington was great for racism: we truly believed that Indians were fat, greasy, drunken, shiftless, and constantly whining about not getting the “free ride” that their treaties were supposed to provide.
During one university year, on tour with a summer group giving presentations, I stood on the school grounds of Friday Harbor H.S. and listened to the principal explain the ‘little brick building’ set off by itself behind the main school. “That’s the classroom for our Indian students,” he explained to us. “It’s kind of a baby-sitting thing. They don’t learn as well as our regular students.”
Washington? Racist? Nooooo … just sortin’ ’em out according to capabilities. Right?
I could go on about the 50s, but maybe I’ve made my point.
EDIT to add a footnote:
The 50s was like a drunken binge for America. We’d just emerged from the fears, sacrifices, and rationing of WW-II. And the preceding Depression Years were still fresh in family memories: every grandparent had lived through it; every parent had suffered the effects; and every kid heard the stories at the dinner table. Now we’d survived WW-II (my stepdad was a wounded sergeant from the Aleutian Islands invasion campaign) and we were free to cut loose and enjoy “the best of everything.”
It was the Sixties that came as a huge shock, with unprecedented national upheaval as a mirror that showed us the false image of ourselves that we’d hidden behind.