Back to the future

Nostalgia for the 1950s is nothing new. In the seventies, we had George Lucas’s American Graffiti, which led to ABC’s Happy Days and it’s successful spin-off Laverne & Shirley. The first Back to the Future sent Marty back to 1955. Even 70 years later, we’re still harkening back to those idyllic, simpler days of the 1950s, when Ike was president, women still wore cocktail dresses all the time and cooked a roast every night for dinner, and kids walked to school, respected their teachers, and all got above-average grades.

Which is nonsense, of course. The fifties weren’t perfect. For one thing, while Eisenhower was president from 1953 to 1961, that mean that Dick Nixon was vice president for that same period. The economy grew, but it grew a lot more if you were involved in an industry that supplied the rapidly growing Cold War military/industrial complex, the same one Ike warned us against.

1954 saw the landmark Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka that overturned the Jim Crow concept of “separate but equal” and required desegregation of public schools. That didn’t happen overnight, and the battle over the racial makeup of schools continued into the 1970s – and in many ways, continues even today.

As recounted in David Halberstam’s epic 1993 book The Fifties, many other changes started in that decade, including the beginning of the fast food and tourism chains with the rise of McDonald’s and Holiday Inn, the launch of the sexual revolution that would come to fruition in the next decade with the development of an effective and affordable birth control pill, and hints of the coming counter-culture with the birth of rock and roll and the popularity of actors like Marlon Brando and James Dean, who played anti-heroes to great popular acclaim. The poetry of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg (championed by the recently-departed Lawrence Ferlinghetti) suggested that American life was perhaps a bit more complex and imperfect than the dominant culture suggested.

So while many people view the changes that started in that decade as positive steps toward a more diverse and equitable American society, there are still those, embodied by the sedition wing of the the “Republican” party, who long for the mythical fifties I described earlier. The time when women, blacks, Hispanics, and pretty much everyone who isn’t white and male, knew their place – and if they didn’t, you could help them remember it through force if needed, and society, and most of the time the judicial system, would back you up.

It’s all about power, and it’s always been about power. As America’s traditional ruling class continues to watch their political authority wane due to demographic changes and more progressive societal norms, they will continue to demand that the clock be turned back to a time that really never existed except on television and in the movies.