Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Lessons Learned from the 1950s

     Recently I've been reading some history about the 1950s, including the exhaustive book The Fifties by Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Halberstam. We lived in a different world back then, when we were kids and cars had fins, men went off to work, women stayed home, and children were not chided not for texting too much but for watching too much TV.

     Nevertheless, I couldn't help but notice some of the themes running through that decade more than a half century ago are still relevant in 2015 . . .

     For example, today we're all encouraged to "to our own thing" and "follow our bliss." But Halberstam reminds us about Alfred Kinsey, an entomologist who transformed himself into a sex researcher. He was criticized by conservatives and liberals alike, until he was forced to give up his teaching job and lost financial support for his research from the Rockefeller Foundation. Through it all Kinsey believed he was doing something important and he kept on conducting his studies.

     He lived in Bloomington, Ind., where he tended his garden, helped raise his children and was married to the same woman for over 30 years. Ultimately his work was recognized. The Kinsey Reports were bestselling books, and despite some later criticism of his methods, his work won him high regard among many in the scientific community. The lesson? You must believe in yourself before others will believe in you.

     Similarly, today, we're all products of self-help promoters and self-actualization preachers who encourage us to be all we can be, to not just talk-the-talk, but walk-the-walk. Reach for the stars, we're told, and even if you fail, you'll reach the moon.

     Back in the 1950s entrepreneurs like William Levitt, Kemmons Wilson and Ray Kroc all made their fortunes, sometimes in the face of critics who berated them, because they felt confident betting on the future of America. Today Jeff Bezos and Larry Page and Mark Zuckerberg are doing the same thing. It's just that instead of building houses, motels and hamburger stands, the new entrepreneurs are building out the internet -- but they're still plenty optimistic about the future of the American consumer.

     Today we hear both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, as well as half the American public, complain about media bias. But media bias is nothing new. The 1950s saw the usual East coast liberal bias in the voice of Edward R. Murrow on CBS and from the pages of the New York Times.

     But, according to David Halberstam, Time magazine under Henry Luce was the unofficial mouthpiece of the Republican party, and flagrant media bias came from the Chicago Tribune under publisher Robert McCormick. The newspaper was the FOX news of its day, opposing the New Deal, pushing post-war isolationism, supporting the anticommunism of Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Also, as TV took over from print, people began to realize that news in the media was becoming less about actual news, and more about its entertainment value -- a trend that continues today, ad absurdum.

     Also, the 1950s remind us that fighting over politics is as American as apple pie. In 1954 the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that racial segregation in public school violated the 14th Amendment. Thus began the long, contentious and sometimes violent march toward desegregation. The idea of feminism was being born, and the Beat generation foretold the anti-establishment movement of the 1960s.

     Meanwhile, in what might have been a precursor to Vietnam, America was pulled into the Korean war, with some people even advocating the use of atomic weapons, until Gen. MacArthur was fired and an uneasy stalemate was reached that continues to this day. The Cold War was gathering urgency, and Joseph McCarthy tore the nation apart with his accusations of communist activities in government and the arts. All this makes our current battles over health care, gun control, Afghanistan and the Middle East seem like just another, rather mild chapter in the ongoing American debate about policies and politics.
     And finally, in the 1950s, with people fleeing to the suburbs, it did not pay to invest in inner-city real estate, nor was it profitable to buy stock in railroads, steel or textiles. The "next big thing" at the time -- the investments that were to make money -- were in packaged goods companies that sold products to the parents of the Baby Boomers; in car companies that rolled out new models every year; in office product companies like Xerox and IBM.

     Similarly, today you don't want to invest in declining industries like automobiles, chemicals, media, or old-line department stores like Sears or J.C. Penny. You're better off focusing on the future, in the form of technology and the internet -- or perhaps betting on those same Baby Boomers by investing in finance, insurance and health care, or in inner city real estate as their hipster kids move back into the city.

     The French have a phrase for it, don't they? Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.



Anonymous said...

As a historian I cringe when I hear expressions like "Nothing new under the sun." History doesn't repeat itself....the first lesson you learn when you study history. Pop history writers repeat themselves, however. As I look back on the fifties, I see things I detest and things I think were better than they are now.

For example, highway litter was a terrible problem in the 1950s when everyone was buyng a new car following WWII. Today we are doing a much better job of recycling paper and plastic. And about those cars...gas was cheap and gas guzzlers became common. Today many people are much more conscious of gas prices andclean air / auto pollution.

You mentioned Black civil rights progress, but as a woman, I can tell you my granddaughters have much more freedom than I ever did...perhaps too much freedom. Most of the things that mattered to me have been addressed. Birth control is legal and available, you can divorce a scumbag if you have too.

I could go on and on, but we've made some progress as a nation since the 1950s. We've also done serious backsliding as a nation. Read a real Francis Fukuyams, or if your interests lean left, Eric Hobsbawm who ended his life on a very negative note about the west..

Anonymous said...

I remember the 1950s as being ultra-conservative and religious. Then the 1960s came along and changed everything. I became a rebel. Now here I am on the verge of turning 70, the gateway of old age. I am neither conservative nor rebellious. I am now a middle of the roader.

DJan said...

When I saw the movie Bridge of Spies about the U-2 incident in 1960, I realized that the same forces that we saw in the 1950s are still extant and are only marginally different. Good movie, BTW. I recommend it highly for history buffs. :-)

Dick Klade said...

One friend, a respected economist in these parts, justifies his faith by looking at major trends throughout the human experience and finding a progression from evil toward goodness. Despite many steps backward and excessive publicity about exceptions, we do have less violence and crime in the world than generations that preceded us.

If my pal is correct, and he seems to be when one hears the complete rationale, we elders have done pretty well and there is hope for even better days ahead for our kids and grandkids. I read Halberstrom about 10 years ago, and recall him putting a positive twist on much of the portrait he tried to paint of the 50s. His view of those times correlates rather well with my experiences.

Kathy @ SMART Living said...

Hi Tom! My husband Thom and I call riding the "fractal wave" ever since we heard author Jean Houston use it to describe the ebb and flow of life, the pendulum swing back and forth. Because we've been in real estate "forever" we have seen good times and bad times. They all ride the "fractal wave" and it's best to learn from your experience because it will return again one way or another. Some people were so surprised at the mortgage meltdown of 2007-09. They shouldn't have been because it was just another wave. Think real estate is doing well again. Of course it is. But down assume it won't do the opposite at some time in the future. Unfortunately people have VERY short memories. But if you can stay conscious you can usually ride the wave and come out fine. ~Kathy

Wisewebwoman said...

My 50s' experience in Holy Ireland completely different. Repressive and restrictive towards women particularly.

Life keeps changing, though, some for the better (a new age MAY have dawned in Canada)and some for the worse (endless war).

There is much to be thankful for.


Anonymous said...

Look at the VW debacle and how companies really treat their employees, Amazon anyone..It seems to me that people who make billions rarely share it with others and make their employees work like hell and really don't think of them at all..Sorry for the working man..It has never changed but the people have changed, ever since women have been working full time in our society (USA) life has been totally different..I like to think of them as pioneers not the big shots who are making money from the internet and its many companies who have been spawned from it going big time..Too bad the USA doesn't really get Hillary R. Clinton, they grilled her harder than any brat, burger or roast, but she kept a CALM demeanor and answered and answered now here is our candidate for the Presidency indeed, as much as I love Bernie Sanders, being socialist as he is and wanting all to share the American Dream and enjoy living in the greatest country, it is Hillary Clinton who will get the job done with class...Now if she is elected maybe parity for men's jobs will finally be a reality indeedy!!!!!!!!!!!

rosaria williams said...

A great post, Tom. I was not in this country in the 50's, but the 60's were quite liberating, on so many fronts, including how a whole nation woke up after the assassination of President Kennedy. It was a turning point for the youth at that time, asking questions of institutions and cultural norms rather than basking in the sun of optimism and self indulgence.

Stephen Hayes said...

I think it was Napoleon who claimed that history was great so long as you understand it didn't happen that way.

Barbara Torris said...

We all know that two people standing in the same spot will see the same event but when they begin telling about it the story will be very different. The 50's you talked about here are the 50's I knew and loved. Well mostly.

In recent years I read "Advise and Consent" by Alan Drury. the novel won the Pulitzer Prize in 1960. In that book the homosexual issue and communism were the focal points of the story. Another book written during that time was "The Power of the Dog" by Thomas Savage. It was interesting that two books written during a very conservative era dealt with homophobia. Reading books written in an era is very telling.

Retired English Teacher said...

I came of age in the 60's. Those were times where those of my generation thought we were changing the way the world would spin. We had been told by our teachers in the 50's that we were children of great promise because we were born at the end of WWII. I remember the scary times of Sputnik well. Now, I'd love to go back to those "scary" times when things weren't so scary after all. Or would I? Things did seem much simpler then.

I'm grateful to have grown up when I did. I think I have had a great foundation that was established in the 50s for viewing the world of today. I know that the three C's of choice, chance, and change all factor into most things in life. I have had more choices than my mother ever had in life. I also have embraced change and not clung to the past. I guess that attitude has come from not being afraid to take some chances.

Kent Wardell said...

Growing up during the 1950's was magical. During summer breaks, I was encouraged to explore, climb trees, play in the dirt, roll around in the mud and collect anything that moved or stung upon contact. School was boring but recess was great. Now I am retired and the Texas rains have have left the best looking mud puddles in my backyard. It's time to visit the backyard. Cleanup is optional.