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Tuesday, May 15, 2018

The Fifties Weren’t That Bad - Historical Revisionism And Ignoring Universal Values

A quick look at days gone by, and we can see how far we’ve come.  The Fifties was an era of institutionalized sexism, racism, and economic oligarchy.  It was a gluttonous period, a non-stop orgy of consumption; a self-satisfied and obnoxious period during which America made an arrogant claim to world leadership while ignoring the poor, minorities, and civil rights. 

The Fifties was a sanctimonious decade, one which glorified family values while at the same time ignoring the patriarchal submission of women – ‘housewives’ who were no more than chattel, dominated by husbands, manipulated by advertising, confined to Kinder, Küche, Kirche and left to despair in soulless suburbs. 

It feels good to hate the Fifties, to see it as the worst expression of American self-righteousness, cultural bathos - an irredeemably backward decade.  The Fifties confirm today’s more enlightened values; burnishing the present with the ignorance of the past.

Image result for images hoover vacuum fifties ad mothers day

For many women ads like this are incendiary – they are images of sexual slavery and reminders that the last traces of sexism have not yet been removed from American society. The vintage sites that post them are complicit in perpetuating the myth of female docility.  They are fuel, they say, for the unreformed and unreconstructed men who share them; men who long for the days of male primacy and only hope that the tide will turn and that society, realizing the errors of social progressivism, will return to a more stable and sensible one.

While these sentiments are understandable – condemning the past to feel good about the present is not restricted to issues of sexual equality – they are neither logical nor defensible.  Expunging, airbrushing, or ignoring the past is the very way to perpetuate it.  If and when all history of slavery and the antebellum South has been removed from public discourse, and only the victorious, abolitionist, Reconstructionist Northern views remain, the exploitation, damaging retribution, and political shortsightedness that characterized the period will most definitely return. 

The Fifties, like any decade of American history was no better or worse than any other.  Its much-maligned social conservatism was the sine qua non of rapid economic progress.  Social stability, cultural unity, moral probity, and patriotism were the foundation of post-war progress.   Moreover, such calm conservatism was a needed balm after almost a decade of war and two decades of economic depression.  It was not surprising that returning veterans wanted no more upheaval, dissension, and conflict.

Image result for images president eisenhower

There are critics who assert that such cultural conservativism was much more than a temporary, brief hiatus in American individualism.  It was the last decade in which fundamental, historical moral and ethical principles were not only accepted but embraced.  There was something essential about stable families, worship, respect, and community – the foundations for all Western societies since Ancient Greece – that overrode any more individualistic aspirations.  One cannot say with any confidence that today’s fractious, aggressively self-interested, an irreparably angry society is any better than the Fifties.  There is no such thing as absolute right.  Everything has a cost.  While women had far less social mobility and power and influence than they do today, were not their traditional roles of caregiver and homemaker valuable? 

Caricature of the past does no good except to satisfy the self-image of the critic.  History is nothing but a perpetual drama of human nature.  The particular expressions of that nature may change, but the fundamental impulses of self-preservation, territorial expansion, and defensive perimeters remain the same.  The Twentieth Century was arguably one of history’s most violent; and a future century will certainly surpass it.  At best with a knowledge and understanding of history and an acceptance of human nature, we can deflect society’s worst impulses.

From the perspective of today’s progressive society where secularism and civil rights form the ethos of America, the Fifties are a throwback – a fat, self-satisfied, unambitious, and ignorant period.  Yet to brand it as such ignores a more enduring philosophical legacy – one which places far more importance on criteria other than social progress.  The Hindu caste system did indeed confine individuals within a rigidly hierarchal structure; but its purpose was rationale.  If the world is illusion, as written in the Upanishads, and if the only goal of human life is to evolve above and beyond it, then a socially restrictive system designed to limit extraneous and meaningless ambition, is infinitely logical. 

Image result for image statues dance siva

India is forgoing that philosophical premise and is quickly becoming as secularly ambitious as the West.  The results can be seen in the country’s remarkable economic progress, its economic mobility, and its international authority.  Is this a qualitatively better world than the one before?  Is a world with fewer spiritual underpinnings better off?

There will always be the tendency to smirk at the past; but to view history only through the lens of current affairs is myopic.  The worst part of myopia is not missing the temporal values of the past – in this case the stability, uniformity, and patriotism of the Fifties – but ignoring what is fundamental to all successful societies.  It is no accident that every civilization – Ancient Greece and Rome, Persia, India, China, and Japan – have adhered to the same principles.  Cato the Elder, a Roman philosopher and educator developed a curriculum for the young future leaders of the Empire, one which emphasized honesty, respect, courage, faith, compassion, and decency as well as management, oratory, and military strategy.  Such a curriculum would be applicable today and should be the context within which to view history and the Fifties.

Image result for images cato the elder

There are many reasons why the Roman Empire declined and fell – conflicts between the Senate and the Emperor, political corruption, overly ambitious expansion of Roman territory, the increased ability of barbarian tribes to counter Roman military strategy, the restive slave population (Spartacus) and increasing unemployment among others.

One of the most often cited reasons is perhaps the hardest to quantify – a decline in morality. Yet there can be no question that Rome’s transition from a society with a strict code of moral discipline, rectitude, and ethical leadership to one of dissolution, excess, and sybaritic pleasure had to play a part. Sir John Bagot Glubb, British general and historian wrote about this decline (The Fate of Empires and the Search for Survival):

For example, in the early Roman Republic, students received a basic education that stressed character development and virtue. But in the later Roman Empire, teachers taught rhetoric (the art of speaking) when emotionally persuading assemblies was no longer of political or practical value. Finally the corrosive effects of material success encouraged the upper class and the common people both to discard the self-confident, self-disciplined values that helped to create the empire. Then the empire eventually collapses

Over the last years of the Roman Empire, the lack of this classic moral discipline was particularly evident in the ruling classes.

Emperors such as Tiberius kept groups of young boys for his pleasure, incest by Nero who also had a male slave castrated so he could take him as his wife, Elagabalus who forces a Vestal Virgin into marriage, Commodus with his harems of concubines who enraged Romans by sitting in the theatre dressed in a woman's garments.


As historian Will Durant pointed out, “There is no significant example in history, before our time, of a society successfully maintaining moral life without the aid of religion.” Durant showed that when a society becomes morally corrupt, civility is destroyed, the society becomes unstable, and inevitably the nation slides towards collapse.

By classical standards the Fifties would rank far higher than today’s society which rejects any notion of the doctrinaire, received wisdom, and universal values.  Morality is considered relative; and as such there can be no commonly-accepted standards of right behavior.  Yet if Cato’s principles are indeed universal and common to all thriving civilizations, why should they not be first on the list of criteria for the modern age?

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