Cultural commentators try to define the culture of a decade by finding themes that distinguish it from the decade before and the decade after, and so are distracted from taking note of the long term trends that develop across decades. So the Seventies are the era of Disco and high heel shoes for men and John Travolta in “Saturday Night Fever”, that different from the more radical Sixties, or the computer revolution of the Eighties. As such, labelling decades by their themes is an exercise in nostalgia: a way to recall somewhat faded memories of what it was like to go to your Senior Prom. It might be better to label decades by those who occupied high office. The Nineties were the Clinton Years, and that meant both temporizing social policy and dealing with Monica Lewinsky and moving the boundaries of Europe to the Russian border. But the usefulness of giving themes to decades is that it allows the commentator to see the decade as negating what had come before. The Great Depression of the Thirties abolished the Flapper Era, even if major union organizing, such as in the garment industries, had gone on during the Twenties; the Forties banished the Great Depression, the United States winning a great war and entering a period of unparalleled prosperity, even though that decade saw only the start of the movement to get rid of Jim Crow. Sometimes this labelling process can mean thinking one decade reverses the themes of the previous decade, and that can be very misleading, as I think is the case when the Sixties is seen as setting right everything that was wrong about the Fifties, that much maligned decade that came before the revolutionary era of the Sixties. I went to high school and college during the Fifties, and so I want to set the record straight.
The Sixties are exaggeratedly claimed to be the start of everything good. There was the sexual revolution, which meant an end to the double standard that regarded girls who had sex before marriage as fallen, sex having been invented, so the British poet Philip Larkin ironically claimed, on a certain date in 1963, though, of course, the sexual revolution had to do with the introduction of birth control pills in the early Sixties as much as with any cultural shift. (I refer you to an earlier blog piece, “The Role of Women”, to explain why the conditions of women in the Fifties were not as bad as they are portrayed to have been. In brief, women led easier lives running a family than did their husbands who worked in factories.) The Sixties also got the landmark Civil Rights Bills through Congress, and saw protests in the street against the Vietnam War and for Civil Rights, as well as the Beatles and other significations that young people were in charge in that they controlled so many consumer dollars and also because middle class students were moving into colleges and universities, the state university systems coming to the East Coast and not just the land grant college states of the Midwest and the Pacific rim. The Fifties, by contrast, were the period the Sixties were rebelling against: conformity, highly structured dating rituals, racial segregation, limited opportunities for women. But that is to mistake the Fifties.
First off, the Fifties were not an age of conformity; to the contrary, the decade was one of “rebels without a cause”, which was the title of a pop psych book of the time that portrayed young people as aghast about a cultural situation they did not fully understand but which presumed (as every era does) that conventional life was the way life had to be, and so one had to struggle to knock down the invisible walls that held the social universe in place. Indeed, the Absurdist drama of the decade, such as that by Beckett, Albee, Ionesco and Genet, championed the idea that we were confined by our illusions and were justified in striking out, inchoately, against them, just the way Marlon Brando did as the motorcycle gang leader in “The Wild Ones”. Take your one night stand to the cemetery and move on to the next town to destabilize. The Beats, for their part, were independent of mainstream culture in that their poetry was Whitmanesque rather than formal in composition, however much they became recognized as geniuses, sold for far more than they were worth, by the mandarins of Fifties culture. Even us lesser lights could revel in our independence, engage in our own battles against conformity, by reading Albert Camus or railing against Madison Avenue.
It is also to be remembered that the main battles of the civil rights movement were fought in the decade that preceded the one that saw the passage of the Civil Rights Bills. Brown vs. Board of Education was in 1954; the nationalization of the national guard to oversee the desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, took place in 1956; the Montgomery Bus Boycott which made Martin Luther King, Jr. a national figure took place in 1958-- and so did the Southern Manifesto, by which all the Southern Senators declared themselves in favor of segregation. Desegregation, however, was a movement that was more a trend than part of the atmosphere of a decade. Its roots reach back to the Forties, when Truman desegregated the Armed Forces and Jackie Robinson desegregated baseball and Hubert Humphrey caused the Dixiecrats to walk out of the Democratic National Convention of 1948 because he introduced a very small bore civil rights plank for the Democratic Platform, calling merely for an Equal Opportunity Commission and the end of lynching. Indeed, the fight for civil rights goes even further back than that-- to Theodore Roosevelt inviting Booker T. Washington to the White House when segregation was in full flower. But if there is a decade in which the theme of progressive thought was primarily civil rights, it certainly was the Fifties, before other status groups, like young people and women and counter-cultural hippies and gay people, came to the fore.
Another way of describing a decade is to look at its popular culture, as when PBS offers us nostalgic tours of previous musical eras. This is a weak way of evaluating a decade because culture and historical events are not aligned with one another. Carol Burnett, for a while, featured songs from a different year on every program. She once, unironically, referred to the songs of that wonderful year, 1942, a year just horrible in most other respects. Be that as it may, the popular music of the Fifties had neither the grandeur and complexity of the Big Band sound that dominated the previous decade, nor the Beatles and Bob Dylan, who would dominate the Sixties, but it did have a number of singers who could project their individual personalities beyond the banality of the music they sang. These included Perry Como, Dean Martin, Dinah Shore, and Rosemary Clooney. Frank Sinatra wasn’t the only one.
The main descriptor for the Fifties is a much more serious one. As with most decades, it concerns the attempt to find meaning in the events of the decade that immediately preceded it. That was the case when the Sixties tried to come to terms with the logic of atomic mutual deterrence that had dominated the Fifties. Books like Herman Kahn’s “On Thermonuclear War” and films like Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove” were efforts in that direction. The issue for the Fifties was to make sense of the Second World War, which had dominated the previous decade. How had that enormous debacle, the worst war by far in human history, come about? How was it that Germany, a place of the most advanced culture, have fallen so low? I prefer the explanation provided by the French historian Elie Halevy. He said in his book “The Age of Tyrannies” that fascism came to places that had not sufficiently adjusted to the Industrial Revolution, had not abolished their peasantry but retained a powerful aristocracy and so turned to authoritarian rule so as to allow those in power to remain in power.
Other commentators went farther. Hannah Arendt provided the book “The Origins of Totalitarianism” in 1951 that gave general currency and significant arguments to support the idea that left wing and right wing radicalism were two sides of the same coin: the devolution of liberal democracy, which championed the idea that individual consciousnesses collaborated in creating democratic institutions that honored freedom of consciousness and conscience, into a system where every aspect of life was ruled by fear and the threats of those in control to the point that people lost their souls to a collective consciousness that, as George Orwell had put it in 1948, turned war into peace and hunger into prosperity. What was learned from the Second World War was to be eternally vigilant and wary not of foreign powers, except to the extent that they had been taken over by groupthink, but to be eternally vigilant and wary of those domestic forces that pursued an agenda which denied what had become the time honored rights that were part of the American and English Constitution and soon would be part of the guidelines for the recovering European nations, liberated from Fascism in Germany and Italy and not so much later in Spain, as well as those nations and regions that had long democratic traditions, like France, Scandinavia, and the Low Countries.
And so the position held by “the vital center” in the United States in the Fifties, and such it was called by political and economic commentators such as John Kenneth Galbraith and Arthur Schlesinger Jr., was to adhere to an independence of thought that would avoid the appeals of either anti-Communism or Stalinism. This meant Harry Truman’s Fair Deal Liberalism but it would include Eisenhower’s willingness to maintain New Deal programs, to ratify Social Security and federal labor legislation, so long as the big corporations also got served with big projects like the Interstate Highway System. This is much farther left than what we mean today by the “center”, which is simply to move slow on all revisions of entitlement programs so long as the taxes of the rich are reduced, social issues like abortion and home schooling left to those further right than center. But in that moment, the center seemed a worthwhile cause because it fended off the at once barbarous and highly organized assault on human consciousness and civil liberties that made up the Western consciousness. It was a noble cause, and those of us who grew up under that banner find it still a meaningful vocation.