Last week I wrote a two-part article about Woodstock and the events leading up to it, and it got me to thinking about my years growing up in the Midwest. For space reasons, I did not include these thoughts in my Woodstock article, but I’d like to share some of them with you today.
I consider myself to be blessed to have lived in America when it was a symbol of stability and freedom to people throughout the world. Now, as America continues its sociological transformation downward, I find myself increasingly saddened by the fact that none of my children will ever have the opportunity to experience the America of my youth.
There is no question that computers, smartphones, and all the other space-age technology we take for granted today are wonderful tools. They make life so much easier and so much more entertaining. However, as with everything in life, there’s a tradeoff. Actually, there are many tradeoffs, but the most glaring one is the loss of innocence.
I’ve long maintained that the 1950s were the pinnacle of American greatness — not militarily, but sociologically. And today, looking at it more objectively, I believe a big part of that innocence was made possible by ignorance — blissful, mind-numbing ignorance.
Of course, there were many people who didn’t share all of my wonderful experiences. For example, not all minorities had the opportunities they enjoy today. Obviously, that was a bad thing. But hardworking, resourceful people of all races, religions, and ethnicities found a way to achieve success even then.
To be clear, this article isn’t about minorities, justice, or politics. Millions of words have been written about all those things, and with good reason. So much so that fighting injustice has been at the forefront of American objectives for decades. The race baiters and race charlatans are still around, but to most people they are nothing more than a clown show in post-racial America.
That said, this article is about life as viewed through the eyes of a semi-privileged white kid who believed that Columbus, Ohio was the center of the universe and that both life and youth were eternal. In the 1950s, everything stood still and every day was predictable. My parents, my siblings, my friends, my house, my school, Ohio State football — nothing was ever going to change. Life was static and therefore predictable.
It would be impossible for today’s youth to imagine, or understand, the innocence of the 1950s. As far as I knew, drugs didn’t exist in my little corner of the world. Nor was there such a thing as political correctness. And as to homosexuality, the only time I ever recall hearing the word gay was in the verse “Don we now our gay apparel” in the Christmas song “Deck the Halls.”
Girls? I guess there were a few who were a bit on the risqué side, but the vast majority of them could fit comfortably into a Dick Clark audience — well groomed, prim, and proper. In retrospect, they were, like all people in all times, conformists. They wore the traditional uniform of all-American suburban girls — cashmere sweaters, saddle shoes, and short, sculptured hairstyles featuring soft curls and waves. It was wonderful.
Had a girl come to school with an earring attached to any part of her body other than one of her ears, she would have been expelled from school. Pregnancy? The thought never occurred to me until a sophomore girl got pregnant and created one of the biggest scandals in our school’s history. Her expulsion was swift, and it was a one-time event.
Finally, along came Elvis, who laid the foundation for the sexual and cultural revolution that was to explode onto the scene in the sixties, culminating in Woodstock in 1969, and things have never been the same since. But those of us who were raised in proper homes and went to proper schools tended to ignore the steadily increasing base behavior of the hippies, because we were focused on getting ahead in life.
Then, in the eighties and most of the nineties, there seemed to be a slowdown in America’s cultural disintegration as the dot.com hotshots — led by Bill Gates and Steve Jobs — became the rock stars of a new generation. In the new century, however, American youths became so overprivileged that they took the good life for granted and became bored. So bored that they became true believers in every half-baked social cause, and every law, every institution, and every certitude became a protest target.
Which leads us to the 21st century, a time when the number-one product America produces is grievance. And its greatest collective demand is for more and more “diversity.” These are the two phenomena that most separate the protected little fantasy world I grew up in from today’s unstable, angry, entitlement-based world.
Diversity is a commodity that was in short supply in the fifties, and, as a result, America was a pretty peaceful place. Whether an American was born in Italy, Ireland, Haiti, China, or India, he assimilated into American culture because he wanted to be an authentic American.
Now, I can just hear some readers saying, “But doesn’t a lack of diversity make life boring? Why would you want everyone to think alike?” I’m not advocating that people think alike. I’m just saying that when a large majority of a population believes in a generally accepted code of conduct, it results in a more peaceful, more civilized, happier society. That’s a self-evident reality.
By the same token, within a society’s generally accepted code of conduct, it’s fine for everyone to think their own thoughts and have their own opinions. But back in the day, the foundation of most thoughts and opinions was a broad-based consensus on American values and the Western concept of right and wrong.
That said, as much as I love the life-saving benefits of modern medicine, as much as I love computers and smartphones, as much as I love the instant knowledge at my fingertips via the Internet, I am obliged to admit that I’d give it all up if I could climb into a time capsule and go back to the fifties ─ and most people I’ve talked to from that era have expressed similar sentiments.
The people I feel most sorry for are those who never had the opportunity to experience America’s Golden Age of Innocence. Perhaps someday the United States will rise from the ashes and make a comeback that will take it through a similar period all over again. And perhaps our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will be the beneficiaries.
After all, stranger things have happened … I think? In any event, that day is a very long way off. In the meantime, it behooves us all to do whatever we can to keep the barbarians at bay.