The Fifties

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.

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