Who were we?


S. T. Karnick

There seems to be a general consensus that the American culture has changed noticeably in recent years, in particular since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. But no one has effectively articulated exactly what they take that change to be: from what to what has the American culture transformed?

To see where the culture has been in recent years, we should surely start with the Baby Boom generation, especially those who reached college in the 1960s, for that is the demographic group that had the most effect both as producers and consumers of culture in the past three decades. The culture in which the Boomers grew up, at least as characterized by historians and social critics, seems to differ greatly from the one they later created.

There has long been a prevailing view that the 1950s culture was all Walt Disney movies, McCarthyism, and Ozzie and Harriet. In this view, the ’50s were a time of unprecedented social conformity and suppression of all attempts toward individualism and self-expression. It was an inexplicable irony, then, that the generation of young people who grew up in this culture should have developed into the most rebellious, antinomian group of people in quite some time: the ’60s Baby Boomers.

Such a huge and puzzling irony, however, should instill a suspicion that the premise is wrong, that the ’50s culture was not quite what it has been portrayed to be. This notion actually fits the facts quite snugly. Far from being a hotbed of conventionality, the American culture of the ’50s in fact did much to promote individualism, self-expression, egalitarianism, and a widespread reaction against mindless conformity.

In the movie theaters, for example, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, Rebel Without a Cause, On the Waterfront, The Wild One, Giant, The Young Philadelphians, Fear Strikes Out, East of Eden, Twelve Angry Men, The Long, Hot Summer, and countless other such films depicted the nation’s political, social, and religious authorities as corrupt, incompetent, and ineffectual. The solution: individualism. The cowboy films, science fiction, horror flicks, and adventure movies that kids were more likely to watch reflected similar premises. Even wise old Jiminy Cricket, in the popular Disney film Pinocchio, exhorted the young Boomer to “let your conscience be your guide.”

The major literary movement of the time, the Beats (such as Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti), was likewise a force for rejection of bourgeois complacency and respect for social authority. In popular fiction, adolescents followed the adventures of fiercely independent characters in books by hugely popular 1950s authors such as Mickey Spillane, Ian Fleming, and Robert Heinlein. Playboy magazine began publication, moving soft-core pornography toward the mainstream.

The most prominent musical movement, rock-and-roll, promoted, in both sound and lyrics, as well as the clothing styles associated with it, more “natural,” less fussy and traditional attitudes toward romance, courtship, and what used to be called the social graces.

In comic books, the heroes were unique individuals such as Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Captain America, Aquaman, the Flash, Plasticman, Captain Marvel, and the Green Lantern. They often worked as teams, but the important thing to bear in mind is that, unlike their 1960s counterparts, especially the Marvel Comics and Doom Patrol heroes, they were relatively comfortable in their individuality. Their problems were with the evildoers, not often with their inner selves. Superman’s life as Clark Kent was obviously dull compared with his adventures as Superman, and Batman clearly received his greatest joy from clobbering miscreants, not puttering about the Wayne mansion. Here too, the culture was teaching that individuality is good.

On television, situation comedies such as Leave it to Beaver, Father Knows Best, and Ozzie and Harriet presented a positive and, yes, somewhat idealized view of family life, but there were countless families then, and still are now, who live pretty much as these were shown to do. Moreover, there were serpents in these gardens, such as Eddie Haskell, Wally Cleaver’s sneaky schoolmate in Leave it to Beaver. In addition, series such as I Love Lucy, Make Room for Daddy, The Honeymooners, The Trouble with Father, and The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis showed married life and family circumstances as baffling and chaotic. Would you like to live like the Ricardos? Or Dobie Gillis?

In the variety programs, groundbreaking comedians of the time left the rules in the dust, as in the programs of Steve Allen, Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Soupy Sales, Jonathan Winters, and Ernie Kovacs. The dramatic shows also featured strongly individualist characters. Consider, for example, Superman, The Lone Ranger, The Lone Wolf, Marshall Dillon in Gunsmoke, the crusading attorney of Perry Mason (where the authorities are always wrong), independent tough guy Peter Gunn, the raffish Sgt. Bilko, and the roguish heroes of Bat Masterson, Maverick, 77 Sunset Strip, and Hawaiian Eye. Other insouciant private detectives were featured in Boston Blackie, Mr. and Mrs. North, and The Thin Man. Programs such as Route 66 and Adventures in Paradise explicitly celebrated the joys of rootlessness.

Things would get much weirder on television in the 1960s, of course, but the foundations had already been laid in the previous decade, when the first Baby Boomers were in their formative years.

As this brief synopsis suggests, the American culture of the 1950s was far from being a monument to conformity; it was actually a strong promoter of individualism, self-expression, and questioning of conventions. In addition, although the leaders of the ’60s counterculture talked much about brotherhood and communalism, their activities played out in a powerful, nationwide trend toward individualism. Of course, so strong an emphasis on individualism rapidly led to a moral egalitarianism, as people became increasingly loath to criticize others’ efforts at self-expression, particularly those that seemed “victimless.” We are still experiencing — and enduring — the consequences of that culture.

S. T. Karnick is editor in chief of American Outlook magazine, published by the Hudson Institute, and an NRO contributor. In the second and final installment of this series, S. T. Karnick analyzes the present culture and explains its origins.