Bulletins from 1957
Kevin D. Williamson has a typically terrific piece today on “‘Mass Destruction of Capital’ as a Liberal Economic Panacea,” which centers around “a poisonous and dangerous nostalgia in our political discourse, which out of the nearly two-and-one-half centuries of American history finds something close to perfection in only one period of less than 30 years, the highly unusual span from 1945 to 1973, from the end of World War II to the 1973 Arab oil embargo.” Go read the piece. As with pretty much everything Kevin D. turns his hand to these days, it’s well worth your time.
Kevin points out that the absolute standard of living in (his arbitrarily chosen year of) 1957 was enormously lower than that of today, even for the lower class. And he eviscerates a Slate writer who pines for the lost days of American post-war economic supremacy: Quoth said writer, “The mass destruction of capital around the world created a much more even playing field than before, while also placing the United States at the forefront of the world economy.” Williamson mordantly continues, “Destruction of capital” is a cute way of describing the slaughter of some 80 million people and the burning of their cities.”
The nostalgia for “1957” is a real thing, though, as K-Dub describes, a pining for the perceived “generally satisfactory state of affairs in those years: the relatively high tax rates and strong unions of the Eisenhower years if you’re a progressive, the relatively small public-sector footprint and stable families if you’re a conservative.”
True enough, and all those things do attract. However, with a profound tip of the hat to the improving but still onerous lot of 1957’s black America, we ought note that the broader culture of the ’50s didn’t seem like a Golden Age to those who lived through it. Youth nostalgia of the Silent Generation aside, the apotheosis of which is Garry Marshall’s 1974–1984 ’50s sitcom Happy Days, the Fifties were an anxious and troubled decade, when the Cold War (and therefore Western Civilization) seemed in the balance, and rogues like Alger Hiss, Joe McCarthy, et al., made the governing class seem less than reliable.
As it happens, the Œc. Vol. had a chance to spend a couple flights reading Allen Drury’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Advise & Consent in its handsome new reissue. (Which one recommends all minions do. It’s a blast. Buy it here. Especially you, Minion @greatgrace84. One of it many clever and surprising subplots will please you to no end.) In a couple places in the book, Drury allows himself a little bit of opining on the state of the world—as befits a novel about Senators trying to navigate a political and international crisis.
Here, written between October 1957 and November 1958, are two of the reporter-novelist Drury’s contemporaneous takes on the mentalité of the Fabulous Fifties. First, a glimpse into the mindset produced by the Sputnik crisis and the fear that the U.S.S.R. might be headed towards victory.
A universal guilt enshrouded the middle years of the twentieth century in America; and it attached to all who participated in those times. It attached to the fatuous, empty-headed liberals who had made it so easy for the Russians by yielding them so much; it attached to the embittered conservatives who had closed the doors on human love and frozen out all possibility of communication between peoples. It rested on the military, who had been too jealous of one another and too slow, and on the scientists, who had been too self-righteous and irresponsible and smug about shifting the implications of what they did onto someone else, and on the press, which had been too lazy and too compliant in the face of evils foreign and domestic, and on the politicians, who had been too self-interested and not true enough to the destiny of the land they had in keeping, and not least upon the ordinary citizen and his wife, who somehow didn’t give quite enough of a damn about their country in spite of all their self-congratulatory airs about how patriotic they were. Nobody could stand forth now in America and say, “I am guiltless. I had no part in this. I did not help bring America down from her bright pinnacle.” For that would be to deny that one had lived through those years, and only babies and little children could say that.
So now there was a time of uneasiness when everyone told everyone else dutifully that, “It is not our purpose to indulge in recriminations about the past,” and tried to live up to it; and when all thinking men fretted and worried desperately about “how to catch up,” and “how to get ahead”; and also, in the small hours of the night’s cold terror, about what it would be like if America couldn’t catch up, if history should have decided once and for all that America should never again be permitted to get ahead.
And already because of this, the smooth and supple voices of rationalization were beginning to be heard, the blandly clever voices of adjustment and accommodation and don’t-make-a-federal-case-of-it and don’t-take-it-too-hard and after-all-what-will-it-matter-in-a-hundred-years and maybe it-wouldn’t-really-be-so-bad and I-guess-we-could-live-with-them-if-we-had-to. And for America it was a time of nip and tuck, and a darkening passageway with only God’s good grace, if he cared to confer it again upon a people who sometimes didn’t seem to deserve it any more, to see the country safely through.
And, more directly to our point, here is Drury on the general tenor of the culture and the times.
This was the era, domestically, when everything was half done; the era, in foreign affairs, when nothing was done right because nobody seemed to care enough to exercise the foresight and take the pains to see that it was done right. This was the time when the job on the car was always half finished, the suit came back from the cleaners half dirty, the yard work was overpriced and underdone, the bright new gadget broke down a week after you got it home, the prices climbed higher and higher as the quality got less and less, and the old-fashioned rule of a fair bargain for a fair price was indeed old-fashioned, for it never applied to anything. The great Age of the Shoddy came upon America after the war, and Everybody Wants His became the guiding principle for far too many. With it came the Age of the Shrug, the time when it was too hard and too difficult and too bothersome to worry about tomorrow, or even very much about today, when the problems of world leadership were too large and too insistent and too frightening to be grasped and so everybody would rather sigh and shrug and concentrate instead on bigger and bigger cars and shinier and shinier appliances and longer and longer vacations in a sort of helpless blind seeking after Nirvana that soothed them but unfortunately only encouraged their enemies.
A dry rot had affected America in these recent years, and every sensitive American knew it.…her friends fell away, her enemies advanced, and in her heart a slow decay was working. She could have withstood anything if she had been strong inside; but somehow, with the war, she had lost her flying speed. It was as though, having been young, she had matured overnight, but not to middle age; instead it seemed at times that she had matured immediately into senescence, so that she was tired, infinitely tired, baffled and confused and either incapable of seeing the path to take or incapable of setting her feet firmly upon it if she did see it. Everywhere, in every phase of her life, there was a slowing down, an acceptance of second-best, an almost hopeless complacence and compliance with all the things that devious people wanted to do, an unwillingness to come to grips with anything unpleasant, a desire to lean back and sleep; and sleep…
And yet there were great strengths still in the land; she had all her great heritage, all her industrial vigor, her innate decency and good will which not all the vultures who preyed off her in business, in labor, in politics, and press and international affairs, could ever entirely destroy. She needed only to be lifted up again and shown the way, and all the shabby, flabby, drifting years would vanish as though they had never been.
To see this and to do it, however, were two different things; men of vigor and men of vision fought what often seemed a fruitless and foredoomed battle.…
It is interesting to see Drury (b. 1918) hearkening back to a remembered, better past. When was that? I’m guessing perhaps the Twenties or perhaps the wartime resurgence from the Depression and the great victories of 1945. But clearly, for those living through them, the Fifties were not halcyon hang-outs at Arnold’s Drive-In. Our side tends to point the finger at the disruptions of the late Sixties as modern America’s Fall, but it sometimes is worth remembering that as stupid and suicidal as the Counter-Culture proved in many ways, its urge to rebel, to reject, and to find some measure of authenticity came not just out of the inchoate idiocy of Baby Boomer kids, but the extremely sharp cultural critiques of the generation or two before them; signally, but not solely, the anti-American “liberals” whose emergence Fred Siegel skillfully limned. Right to Left, many seemed to feel something wasn’t right. We live among the monuments to their great victories and the ruins of their annihilating follies.
Don’t ask impertinent questions like that jackass Adept Lu.