"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, April 23, 2018

What’s The Difference Between A Chicken–Silly Riddles, Japanese Koans, And The Philosophical Importance Of The Fifties

The answer to the question “What’s the difference between a chicken?” was “One leg is shorter”.  The answer to the question “Which is shorter, to New York or by car?” was “By car”; and so went the series of nonsense riddles in the 50s.  None of the boys playing one-a-cat on the New Brighton green had any inkling that they were reciting mid-century versions of  Buddhist koans like “Two hands clap and there is a sound. What is the sound of one hand clapping?”, nor would they have cared.  They were the sons of mill workers who made locks and ball bearings, lived in three-story walkups, went for kielbasa after Mass at St. Mary’s,  bowled duck pins out on the Berlin Turnpike, had no time for anything more serious than the local Polish language newspaper; and were very happy to work, sleep, and play in a secure world.

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They were the immigrants who made New Brighton The Hardware Capital of The World, whose factories were owned and managed by the Bartleys, Longworths, and Parkers, families whose ancestors had founded them before the Civil War, supplied the Union Army, the American Expeditionary Force, and the United States Army with tools and and mechanical parts; then turned to home sales to expand their market and influence.  New Brighton was typical mid-century American city – divided by class, education, and income and none the worse off for it.  The wealthy captains of industry invested in the city through philanthropy and legacy; immigrants worked the lathes and presses; downtown shopkeepers sold to both; plumbers, electricians, and carpenters kept the city running; and medical and legal professionals served them all.

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Everyone had a place and everyone knew his place. New Brighton’s working class was never restive or unhappy.  The Country Club was off limits to all but the descendants of the patrician elite; and the classes intermingled only in elementary school.  After that the children of the wealthy left town and those of the factory workers stayed, had children who stayed, and only began to move out when the factories closed.   It was the story of America – mobility, migration, upward aspiration, and a better life – but there was no sense of entitlement, patronage, or public support.  The Italians and Poles of New Brighton took class division as a matter of course.  How different from Europe was life in America expected to be? Italy and Poland had for centuries been ruled by an aristocratic, moneyed class until wars, civil strife among competing economic and political interests – and sometimes a Napoleon, Stanislaw August, or a Garibaldi – leveled society.

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Of course class distinctions never die and are always necessary, expected products of social evolution.  There always have been rulers and subjects, wealth and working class, aristocrats and peasants and America was no different. Immigrants have always had patience, determination, remarkable will, and an absolute conviction that their life was in America and no more in Europe; which is why the post-war period was so productive, culturally unified, and happy. 

The Fifties, considered by some to be the low point of American history during which sanctimony, insularity, and social ineptitude replaced the formerly independent-minded, defiant, entrepreneurial America – laissez-faire capitalism, frontier justice, homesteading, westward expansion, and legitimate patriotism – were no such thing.  They were a welcome lull from years of war and economic hardship.  No one wanted the days of the Dust Bowl and the Pacific and European wars to return. There was nothing wrong with the authority of the Church, respectability, and modest tastes after so much ruin.  It was an era of simple rectitude, faith, and social stasis.

Of course there was trouble brewing under the surface of this idyll; and the unexpected consequences of a post-war demographic bubble began to surface – a restive younger generation who rejected the platitudes and conformity of their parents, demanded independence and individual rights, and saw progress as intellectual, spiritual, and social and not just economic.

Yet the Fifties for most was a happy, uncomplicated time.  In such an age, few questioned authority, the social order, or meaning.  Russell, Sartre, Kierkegaard, and Kant only muddied the waters with their questions about existence, morality, and being.  A happy time is one left alone, un-muddled and certain.  History has shown that such periods of relative peace and social tranquility are few and far between.  Why hurry?

The Fifties were years of purposeful indifference.  There was no shame or guilt in watching Lawrence Welk.  The Fifties were years of simple celebration, not mediocrity; of willing choice of social harmony; a welcome settled, and undisturbed belonging.  It is no surprise that anyone who was brought up in the Fifties looks at them as an idyllic time, one without pressures to know, to justify, or to rectify.  Being was enough, a thought surprisingly similar to the most settled and peaceful aspects of Buddhism and Hinduism.  The goal of spiritual enlightenment is not to figure the world out, to make sense of it, or to order it rationally; but exactly the opposite.  To reject the illusion of the material, constructed world, to defy socially-imposed paradigms of understanding, and to evolve from an obsession with change, reform, and history.

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The Fifties like any other decade was no idyll, for during that period the Korean War was fought, the Cold War begun in earnest, and political pogroms led with impunity.  No one suggests that the Fifties were any better than any other decade; only they were no worse.  Most importantly they represented a unique hiatus in American social evolution – a philosophical period despite itself.  

The Hindu caste system has been frequently criticized as a retrograde, anti-democratic, system designed millennia ago to create a rigidly-organized and easily-controlled social order.  Unless this confining, restrictive system is abolished, people will never fulfill their potential, always chattels to an elitist philosophy which has only the interest in maintaining the power and authority of highest castes.

Traditional, devout Hindus say nothing of the sort.  A world in which every individual accepts his fate, his divine hand of cards; and comes to understand that the way to a spiritual evolution is only through rejection of it, and is governed by a system designed to facilitate that progression is a perfect world.

Ironically because the American Fifties has been caricatured for years as a fanciful, bourgeois dream; and because few people living in the decade had any interest in philosophy, meaning, or becoming;  the decade was nearer than any to this high spiritual purpose.

The riddles of the Fifties were as far from a Japanese koan as one can get; but they were as much an expression of the American zeitgeist as haiku.  They were silly and unaffected expressions of late childhood and its simplicity – as much a part of a boy’s life as baseball on the green, the Yankees on the radio, Father Brophy in the pulpit, and Sunday dinner. 

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The Fifties were indeed simple and far less complicated than today.  To many they were an idyllic time, a calm between upheavals and an expression, perhaps for the last time, of universal moral and religious values.

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