I read a diary a bit ago where the author was waxing nostalgic over what they missed about the 1950s and 1960s post WWII era. The supposed benefits of the cold war etc. Mostly the economic advantages those of us white middle class had.
I too miss some things about the era I grew up in. I shall list a few of them here.
I miss climbing trees and wondering about without having to think about where I was wondering much. Fences at that time were mostly for keeping farm animals in and other animals out. There were no gated communities and you rarely saw a No Trespassing Sign. Those were usually on some official building or some such.
Science and radio were big deals. Watch Mister Wizard and Discovery were cool programs. Both explained and demonstrated things that even a 1o year old could understand. And there were great science fiction shows as well. Like Science Fiction Theater and of course Twilight Zone. But even the games show were intelligent. Like The GE College Bowl and To Tell the Truth. Or funny ones like You Bet Your Life with Groucho Marx. The original show about nothing. Mostly a venue for Groucho’s wit and (often suggestive) humor.
Intelligent talk shows with Steve Allen and Jack Parr and Dick Cavett. Intelligent cartoons like Rocky and Bullwinkle and Beany and Cecil. Dramas and plays by Paddy Chayefsky, Rod Serling , Orson Wells and Gore Vidal. Kiddy TV hosts and The Three Stooges and Our Gang Comedies and Abbot and Costello.
Schools with recess and science toys that you could actually do something with. Sure they could be dangerous but that was half the fun. Science itself was cool and fun. And the radio played music. And the musicians could play instruments.
There is something else that is also disappearing at an alarming rate these days and it is more than alarming a particular part of this country. To the extent that they are losing the minds over it. A cultural phenomena that has been depicted in the movies, on radio and in television for decades. The white christian male dominated society as presented so eloquently by Doug Muder, a 50-something ex-mathematician in his latest essay. The Distress of the Privileged. He uses the movie Pleasantville as an example.
In a memorable scene from the 1998 film Pleasantville (in which two 1998 teen-agers are transported into the black-and-white world of a 1950s TV show), the father of the TV-perfect Parker family returns from work and says the magic words “Honey, I’m home!”, expecting them to conjure up a smiling wife, adorable children, and dinner on the table.
This time, though, it doesn’t work. No wife, no kids, no food. Confused, he repeats the invocation, as if he must have said it wrong. After searching the house, he wanders out into the rain and plaintively questions this strangely malfunctioning Universe: “Where’s my dinner?”
Privileged distress. I’m not bringing this up just to discuss old movies. As the culture evolves, people who benefitted from the old ways invariably see themselves as victims of change. The world used to fit them like a glove, but it no longer does. Increasingly, they find themselves in unfamiliar situations that feel unfair or even unsafe. Their concerns used to take center stage, but now they must compete with the formerly invisible concerns of others.
If you are one of the newly-visible others, this all sounds whiny compared to the problems you face every day. It’s tempting to blast through such privileged resistance with anger and insult.
Tempting, but also, I think, a mistake. The privileged are still privileged enough to foment a counter-revolution, if their frustrated sense of entitlement hardens.
So I think it’s worthwhile to spend a minute or two looking at the world from George Parker’s point of view: He’s a good 1950s TV father. He never set out to be the bad guy. He never meant to stifle his wife’s humanity or enforce a dull conformity on his kids. Nobody ever asked him whether the world should be black-and-white; it just was.
George never demanded a privileged role, he just uncritically accepted the role society assigned him and played it to the best of his ability. And now suddenly that society isn’t working for the people he loves, and they’re blaming him.
It seems so unfair. He doesn’t want anybody to be unhappy. He just wants dinner.
Levels of distress. But even as we accept the reality of George’s privileged-white-male distress, we need to hold on to the understanding that the less privileged citizens of Pleasantville are distressed in an entirely different way. (Margaret Atwood is supposed to have summed up the gender power-differential like this: “Men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid men will kill them.”)
George deserves compassion, but his until-recently-ideal housewife Betty Parker (and the other characters assigned subservient roles) deserves justice. George and Betty’s claims are not equivalent, and if we treat them the same way, we do Betty an injustice.
Indeed this idealic world that is presented in the movie and that the author (Doug Muder) uses to make his point is crumbling all around. To the point that it no longer represents a viable voting demographic. It is especially upsetting to those who are authoritarian on the the religious/political right. Those that the republican party could count on since the time of Nixon.
It’s this domination that is under attack and it’s the threat of having their guns taken away – there by leaving them impotent and defenseless against this onslaught – that is driving them now to extreme reaction. It was bad enough that their view and place in family was being threatened by gays and women and minorities, but now they see themselves with no way to fight back. Guns – the symbol of American manhood from those John Wayne westerns to the fighting on Guadalcanal.
It’s this bullied, boorish arrogant America of the 1950s they do not want to lose. Where their word was final in all situations. Where they could get what they believed they deserved and win any argument – with a bullet if necessary. Now a black man has come out and said they can no longer behave in this manner and has threatened to remove their Smith and Wesson manhood.
And it’s just not fair.