I suppose I’m far from being alone among Baby Boomers in thinking of the 1950s as a kind of blesséd time in America. I recently gave a speech in the Ohio town I grew up in, and one of my dearest friends was disappointed that I hadn’t taken the opportunity to extol the virtues of that time and place. He had a point.
Of course, it’s possible for nostalgia to be roseate and maudlin, but the point is that after World War II Americans were energetic, patriotic, and humble; we were proud of our history and respectful of our melting-pot heritage. Not for nothing did Russell Kirk speak of the conservative’s affection for “the rich diversity of traditional life.”
I don’t know the full histories of my grandparents or great-grandparents, and it’s worth pausing to wonder if their lives in the Gay Nineties or the Roaring Twenties may not have made them a lot more tuned-in than I imagined them to be to what I and my cohort experienced in the Swinging Sixties. (I know it was true of my Greatest Generation father and mother.) In any event, having been a boy in the Fifties left me with a strong sense of the continuity among the four generations: the 1860 cohort, the 1890, the 1920, and the 1950.
My great-grandmother’s era was dustier, but her view of what it was to be an American citizen was my view – was and is.
The last line in the Ohio State University alma mater (“Carmen Ohio”) is this: “Time and change will surely show/How firm thy friendship, O-HI-O.”
Time and change were, as ever, constants, but even with technological developments and some subtle cultural adaptations, the change was gradual and tolerable. We knew it to be necessary, even if we weren’t aware of Burke’s famous observation that a “state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation.”
But it’s difficult today not to worry that we have lost the means not to change. As Burke wrote (in his invaluable 1790 Reflections on the Revolution in France), revolutionaries:
have no respect for the wisdom of others; but they pay it off by a very full measure of confidence in their own. With them it is a sufficient motive to destroy an old scheme of things, because it is an old one. As to the new, they are in no sort of fear with regard to the duration of a building run up in haste; because duration is no object to those who think little or nothing has been done before their time, and who place all their hopes in discovery.
America put the pedal to the metal, so to speak, with the onset of the Civil Rights Movement. And it was about time that America’s laws and its cultural attitudes caught up to the reality of “racial” equality. (The scare quotes indicate my belief that there’s just one race: the human one.) But the outcome of that movement, the change it wrought, is instructive about what’s ahead.
America’s racial wound was opened in the beginning. It seemed to many to have been resolved by the Civil War. A hundred years later, America acknowledged that injustice persisted. Now, half-a-century later still, we find ourselves again trying to figure out why we continue to struggle with race, a social issue that has bedeviled us for the better part of 400 years!
It’s a strong argument for not embedding injustice in a nation’s DNA. But that’s hindsight, in part. And as Chesterton said: “You cannot be just in history. Have enthusiasm, have pity, have quietude and observation, but do not imagine that you will have what you call truth. Applaud, admire, reverence, denounce, execrate. But judge not, that ye be not judged.”
We did not imagine that after emancipation in the nineteenth century, and after the several Civil Rights Acts in the twentieth that so many great-grandsons and -daughters of slaves would, in the twenty-first century, persist in poverty and, in some situations, live in conditions almost inferior to slaves, because we rarely have clear and distinct understanding of the consequences of political intervention.
Racism is justly stigmatized. As media proliferated, we saw for ourselves the refutation of bigotry in the lives of black men and women. We all became witnesses to the injustice, and Americans abhor injustice.
In some cases, rectifying bias involved sacrifice of some versions of personal liberty: If your lunch counter is open to the public, you lost your “right” to deny service to a black customer. You learned to live with that. In fact, you learned that the new way was better than the old – far, far better.
All this happened, I believe, in continuity with what I’m not embarrassed to call the American Way.
Now we’re asked to accept that the black experience is in most ways similar to the situation of homosexual people. But such an assertion mostly confuses essence with behavior.
To be sure, there are some African-American people who insist that certain “black” behavior – misuse of the English language, for instance – ought to be accepted as normative, but there’s never been any serious effort to mandate Ebonics, say, as a required course in American education. Homosexual activists, on the other hand, appear to be poised to force their voluntary cultural standards – their behavior – upon the rest of us.
That’s new, revolutionary, un-American, and we must resist it.