I sometimes overhear older people like myself talking about how it was "in the old days," or "back when." The usual tone of these soliloquies sounds warm and nostalgic, and nowadays it's the fifties, not the war years or the Depression time our parents spoke of, that nostalgics recall as better than the present.
Things were certainly simpler then, but seemed complex and unfamiliar at the time. In some ways the fifties were a lot like today. The political conversation was all about communism, but now the Muslims stand in for the communists. Instead of Joe McCarthy on TV, we have Glenn Beck on TV, Rush on the radio, and record numbers of Little Joes on the internet.
Oh, yeah, the internet. There was nothing like that stirring things up and agitating society back in the good old days, was there? Well, actually there was. TV was still brand new right up to the end of the fifties, and millions of us, hypnotized by the novelty of possessing fuzzy black-and-white images sent through the air into our darkened living rooms, scheduled our lives around favorite TV programs. In the early sixties, the first large-scale "Where did all the good programming go?" public discussion broke out, only showing that the novelty of TV was beginning to wear off.
There were major differences between then and now too, mostly stemming from the appearance of stability we shared in the old days, a reassuring certainty which has now evaporated like dew. And the seeds of decline which sprout today were planted in the fifties -- the growth of Empire, and rise of the military-industrial complex Eisenhower warned us about as he was leaving office, and the earliest appearance of that mentality which led to the corporate replacement of government.
All the toadstools planted in the fifties flourished, and finally failed, and today we live with the reality of instability and enormous changes, projected out into the most distant imaginable future. And now we acknowledge the universal belief in stability which prevailed a lifetime ago as a haze of idealistic smoke, the illusion of a proud, strong, but easily-manipulated people.
Photo: Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca of "Your Show of Shows.