Sunday, May 15, 2011

Why I Love the 50s

No, it’s not just nostalgia. And yes, I know everything that was wrong about the 50s. The world was on the brink of nuclear disaster. Are we less on the brink of climate change disaster? Racism, suspicion of “the other,” and class differences intruded on the post-war peace, but if we are honest with ourselves, there is as much hatred and suspicion today as there was mid-century, and if bullying gay kids to the point of suicide is not as awful as hounding socialist sympathizers then I’ll be damned. I’ve heard it said that conformity was oppressive in the 1950s and we have more freedom today, but in truth, we’re still being pressured to conform. Today’s conformity is less about fashion and more about our beliefs and behaviors . . . is this better or worse? And while it’s true that mid-century women were forced into limited roles, today’s women are forced to work that second job because a family can’t support itself on only one. Today we haven’t got the choice to stay home and raise children. We hand our children over to the dominator controlled media instead. Is this better or worse?

In the 1950s women smashed their tender flesh into girdles . . . aw, hell. I’ll concede that point. I’m really happy to wear my leggings out to dinner and don sneakers for work instead of stockings and heels. So, let’s just leave this argument alone. Why bother? Every generation and era has its benefits and liabilities. Sometimes, I long for the uncomplicated, short, and bestial life of my Neanderthal ancestors and I definitely prefer the 1950s environment to this 21st century techno-consumerist wasteland. Call it nostalgia, if you like. Call it a preference for the devils we had then instead of the devils we have now, but here are some of the things from the 50s I wish I still had:

There was more community and neighborliness. People knocked on your door and there was a whole lot less fear of your immediate neighbors.

Less consumerism. Yes, the advertising business was in full swing, but we were more conscious of it, and advertising was less sophisticated and subliminal. We loved buying stuff, and we had the money to buy it, but we appreciated it more, took better care of it, and expected what we acquired to last. We didn't look to our stuff to fill our hearts: we had families and friends to fill our hearts.

We experienced more interpersonal relationships, and had way more face-to-face time with our family and friends. We spent more time entertaining one another and participating in group activities and informal sports, and way less time in front of screens or interacting with electronic machines.

I suppose that many marriages were unhappy, and I’m not suggesting that people stay together who would be better off divorced, but yes, we aimed for stable families and families were more stable. We really did value families and children more then than we do now, as reflected in the mythologies of television stories from the 50s and today and the punitive corporatism that takes away community responsibility for the general welfare, and despises the poor, the sick, the elderly, and the fatherless children . . . Maybe the echoes of the Depression in the 1950s were being felt as compassion for the  less fortunate.

We sure as hell had more hope and faith in the future. We expected science to serve the common good instead of corporate profit. We believed in the potential for generosity and goodness in humanity and imagined a world without war for our grandchildren, a family of nations, and the ultimate success of the project to create a world of peace and abundance.

We valued hard work, saving money, sharing, building, creativity, trying new things, children and the elderly, hobbies and leisure time, eating meals together, politeness, taking the time to do a good job, and other fine things now faded into jaded obsolescence, and these values were actively taught to children through religion, education, media, and other institutions of culture.

We were given a better education in public school. We read more and felt a stronger impact from intellectuals as well as socially aware and forward thinking social commentators.

Children had more freedom and responsibility. Children were healthier and more active.

It was a cleaner, less polluted, quieter, slower world.

We ate mostly real food instead of plastic food and ate at home more and with family more.

There was more artistic freedom, because art, music, and other aspects of creative culture were less controlled by commercial interests and the entertainment industry. We made our own more and talent was still the foundation for commercial success in the arts. Art was able to be critical of cultural norms and was having a tremendous impact as social critique.

Last, on a personal level, I love the aesthetic of midcentury, both the challenge of abstraction and expressionism, and the colors and forms of vitalism and modern functionality.

One might argue that I don't know what the hell I'm talking about, but I do. I lived it.


Aron said...

I guess my biggest problem with nostalgia is that it mostly removes you from present moment. Every pro about how things used to be has its cons of how things are right now and visa versa.

puny human said...

Well said, Aron and true. For me, the present really is pretty awful, and I don't want to be here. Whether in the woods in trance or at my drawing table or remembering my childhood, I seek to leave this world as it is, and enter an alternate reality.

Thanks for reading!

Aron said...

More accurately, I should have said nostalgia tends to remove me from the present moment. That's where I usually discover a lot of discontent, disconnection, disarray, worry, etc.

However, I think going into the woods in a trance or being creative or even remembering my childhood can put me in the present moment as well. I don't think I would call that nostalgia, though.

Anonymous said...

I share your sense and sensibility regarding a lot of what you wrote...but allow me to quibble with one statement: "There was more artistic freedom, because art, music, and other aspects of creative culture were less controlled by commercial interests and the entertainment industry." Actually, the blacklist was in full swing, denying "communists" and "labor agitators" the ability to appear on TV and in movies...and musicians had far fewer outlets for their artistry (a media conglomerate that owned all the record labels & radio outlets, a situation that's been somewhat ameliorated by the advent of the internet and an increasing number of independent recording labels). -allen

puny human said...

Good point, Allen. I tend to focus on painting, the abstract expressionists and other social critique through art, and the inbreaking of black music, and so on, but as several folks have pointed out, that's only one side of the coin. I'm starting to come to a deeper appreciation of the dual nature of every post-dominator society . . . of the Tao, really . . . beauty and ugliness, positives and negatives. Thanks for your comment!

Tak Hallus said...

I've been re-living the 50s, one day at a time, through the music, the Space Race, the science fiction magazines, and the sci fi movies.

Last year, I decided to share my journey with everyone. You might enjoy it.

(it's a free blog)

puny human said...

Very cool blog, Tak! I read Alas, Babylon in the 1970s, when the threat of nuclear holocaust was still a living thing, and it was terrifying!