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A Special Time
The events of midcentury America heavily inspire the times we inhabit.
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The Unisphere, symbol of the New York 1964-65 World's Fair. Flushing Meadow Park, New York. Courtesy of Shutterstock.
We remember midcentury America for the popular culture, the large scale geopolitical shifts, and the technological advancements. We should also reflect on the complexities of the period.
Along with decolonization and the rights revolutions, the world attempted to embrace a period of human rights and democracy. Our contemporary awareness of ongoing abuses and the hard work of many who advocate for a wide variety of rights is a testament to the struggles of a period where conformity was much the norm.
The midcentury was also a time of economic expansion. Thanks to the changes made by the global shifts caused by the Second World War, the country felt a renewed since of pride and a sense of vindication towards its founding ideals.
James Patterson’s Grand Expectations
James Patterson writes in Grand Expectations, a history of America from the end of World War II to the end of the Watergate Saga:
The “baroque bender” of contemporary design, the historian Thomas Hine explains, revealed the “outright, thoroughly vulgar joy” that many prospering Americans felt in being able to live so well. It was just this sort of pride that Vice-President Nixon expressed in 1959 when he bragged truculently about gleaming American kitchen conveniences at a trade show in Moscow - a show that the New York Times called a “lavish testimonial to abundance” - in order to remind [Nikita Khrushchev] (and the world) of the fantastic economic potential of the American way of life.
All these developments promoted grand expectations, especially among the educated middle classes, about the potential for further scientific and technological advances. This optimistic spirit - the feeling that there were no limits to progress - defined a guiding spirit of the age and, over time, unleashed ever more powerful popular pressures for expanded rights and gratifications. Many contemporaries talked as if there were almost nothing that American ingenuity - in science, industry, whatever - could not accomplish.
This exuberance carried over into Americans’ expectations for their national deeds abroad and the proclamations made at home. The country could solve wide-ranging and complex issues because we are a special nation and had proved it.
Just look at our high flying economy and postwar spoils.
Recommended: New Books Network discussion with Ian Tyrrell about his book, American Exceptionalism: A New History of an Old Idea.
Kurt Andersen’s Big Bang Theory
Still, we are susceptible to historical illusions and fabrications. Kurt Anderson describes the 1960s and 70s as a “Big Bang” that created, for better and for worse, America’s postmodern landscape.
He writes in Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire:
Our Woodstock-branded popular understanding of what grew out of the 1960s is selective, cherry-picked to please and flatter one side and appall the other. People on the left “still swear by the values of the ‘60s,” Charles Reich, author of The Greening of America, recently said. They focus only on the 1960s legacies of freedom that they define as progress. And people on the political and cultural right still demonize the decade from around 1963 to 1973 as the source of everything they loathe.
In fact, what the left and right respectively love and hate are mostly flip sides of the same coins minted around 1967. All the ideas we call countercultural barged onto the cultural main stage in the 1960s and ‘70s, it’s true, but what we don’t really register is that so did extreme Christianity, full-blown conspiracism, libertarianism, unembarrassed greed, and more. Anything goes meant anything went.
The through line between the two passages is that there are multiple ways of reading a dynamic and important midcentury period in America. On one hand, you have a framing of America reaching the heights of economic preeminence with a population experiencing a rising standard of living and expectations. On the other hand, you have a country that is now dramatically broadcasting its awareness of cultural and social differences previously marginalized, thus, the dark side of this exposure is a loss of meaning in a vortex of ideas - many of them contradictory, biased, and rife with bad faith.
As transportation became more reliable and infrastructure projects aimed to expand American roadways, the federation began coalescing into a nationalized collective within a process that had been ongoing for decades. This means that people from vastly different regions saw each other more and were likelier to travel to different regions (bringing along culture and social norms). Though America’s different sections remarkably keep their regional character, increased modernization allows for more attention to be paid towards human rights and instances of economic exploitation.
Though, another narrative is that these developments are part of an ongoing intrusion by the invisible hand of outside forces - mainly the federal government.
These outcomes and outgrowths from a very special time in American history still define our political divisions as Kurt Andersen points out.
Perhaps, if we view this era with a wider lens then we can understand it as a natural culmination of America’s long-lasting obstacles and idiosyncrasies.
The Thirteen American Arguments
Howard Fineman wrote about the 13 American Arguments that seem to be consistently raised throughout our history.
In this book, he gives a section to each argument:
Who is a person?
Who is an American?
The Role of Faith
What Can We Know and Say?
The Limits of Individualism
Who Judges the Law?
Debt and the Dollar
Local v. National Authority
The Terms of Trade
War and Diplomacy
A Fair “More Perfect” Union
It’s a recommended read for these arguments thread our news cycle and highlight our constitutional arguments.
Connecting the Dots
History is the key to the gates of national understanding. We share a story and we share a nation. Since the 1960s, America has been awash in multiple narratives over history - some good, some bad. Much of this serves to give proper light to hidden stories and accomplishments of marginalized groups. These groups are subjected to constant attempts to eliminate and pervert their story within America.
Other histories serve to ease dissonance around changing events or one’s own failure to gain a nuanced grasp of something. It acts in a propagandistic manner and clouds people’s sense of modern times. In America, this happens often in circles that champion raw supremacy.
Incredibly, we can take different pieces of the past to solve contemporary puzzles in our reality.
We can understand this period of American history as one that is anchored in economic mobility. The factors around this mobilization connect to population growth, increased transportation, and the ability/circumstances to give much more attention to human rights concerns.
We can also view this moment as the beginning of a sort of decadence that protrudes from a sense of limitlessness and eternal prosperity.
It opens up the floodgates for distractions, well-funded bad faith arguments, and more shiny objects.
There are demagogues who focus on these objects. They have become a pastime for the news media, instead of asking why these objects are flung out in the first place.
A patchwork of understandings can help us better define this and other periods. In return, we get a clearer understanding of times gone by.
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