The Long Way Home 3.8.24

A good title for this week’s column might be bookends. 

I spend too much time in this space writing about my aging process—mental lapses, fading eyesight, and subpar hearing. At least the Bohunk still laughs about it, and my ego gets fed.

Why bookends? 

I happened upon a book included in my 90-day trial of Kindle Unlimited: “The Fifties” by David Halberstam, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, published in 1993. The blurb said, “The fifties were a defining decade for America, complete with sweeping cultural change and political upheaval.”

I came into this world in the 1950s. 

Seven decades have passed since I made that appearance, so it seems appropriate to comment on Halberstam’s description of the turbulent time of change in the decade of my birth and the unstable time of change today. The similarities are striking, and if you believe in progress, the similarities are sometimes depressing. 

Despite profound, positive changes, we don’t seem to have learned much from the past.

The book starts with the rough and tumble politics in postwar America. Contrary to prevailing myths, Americans were not unanimous in some patriotic zeal to save Europe from the insanity of Adolf Hitler and his goons. Many thought Europe should be left to its destiny, and after the war, they expected the USA to pull in its horns in foreign affairs.

The driving “foreign affair” fear of people, many with seats in Congress, was Communism as practiced by the USSR, once and still Russia. Republicans in both houses of Congress, who had ineffectively used anti-socialist rhetoric for 20 years, now jumped to anti-communist rhetoric to smear Democrats and government bureaucrats, along with scientists, artists, and educators who didn’t fit their image of what an American is.

In the early 50s, Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy began a ruthless campaign against alleged communists in government and other institutions. “McCarthyism” described the practice of accusing people of having affiliations with communism, often on the flimsiest of evidence.  People were “blacklisted” and often lost jobs and careers. After four years of terror, McCarthy, a functioning alcoholic, fell under a pile of disgrace.

Members of Congress strutted arrogantly back then, labeling political opponents as traitors, sexual deviants, or just plain communists. It seems members of Congress seven decades later haven’t progressed much.

The book then moves on to the changes in culture, business, and science, which rival those we’ve seen in the last twenty years. 

In science alone, the 1950s brought about the hydrogen bomb, rocketry, computers, and vaccines for polio, chicken pox, measles, and mumps. Those vaccines meant my children and grandchildren would never face those illnesses—a miracle of sorts brought to us by science.

The television industry came of age in the 50s. The 1952 Presidential election brought us the “I like Ike” commercials, news coverage of political conventions, and the making of presidents into celebrities. More recently, it has made celebrities into presidents.

For 30 years, women had the right to vote. But in the 1950s, they were limited to lower-wage jobs and denied credit in their name. Birth control pills weren’t invented until late in the 1950s and weren’t widely available for years. And abortions, which were more common than our sheltered grandmothers would acknowledge, took place in the back rooms of dentist offices and barbershops leaving a trail of tears, humiliation, and sometimes fatal infections.

Today, some want to return America to the 1950s. I prefer the bookend of the 2020s. Despite our malicious politics, stuck in the 1950s, the rest of us have come a long way, baby. 

Despite the problems du jour, I’m nostalgic for those days of the 50s. But today, we’re all in a far better place.