Flipping channels in my hotel room the other night, I caught ten minutes of Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, a film I like enormously. It’s an “old” movie, from the Fifties, but Cary Grant’s suit is pretty much identical to the suits around today. Likewise, his shirt and tie. The architecture is familiar. To a viewer from 2011, a film from the 1950s is a glimpse of an earlier version of what’s still recognizably our world.
But what would a visitor from Eisenhower’s America make of our time? He might eventually get around to marveling at the iPod and Twitter, but I would bet his initial reaction would be complete amazement at the people. Instead of the sober suits and hats of a 1950 Main Street, men and women crowd the sidewalks in brightly colored leisurewear that, to his mid-century eyes, gives them the air of overgrown children, especially when slurping sugary drinks through straws from containers not dissimilar to baby bottles. He would observe that a remarkable number of these people are extremely large, waddling along like supersized moppets. The actual children are also strikingly overweight. If he went into a big-box emporium, he would be struck by how unhealthy many of the inhabitants are, cruising the aisles in motorized carts. If he were in almost any American city, he would notice that almost everybody serving him — at the newsstand, at the coffee shop — appears to be an immigrant of ethnicities barely present in the United States 60 years ago.
And I would wager that, even if you shove the latest Droid under his nose and invite him to express his astonishment, he’ll say, “Well, I never,” and then go back to pondering the spectacular evolution of America’s human capital. Nineteen fifty may look to us like an earlier version of our world but 2011 would not look to him like an advanced version of his world so much as a freak mutation — and not the one he expected. In my latest apocalyptic blockbuster, I mention en passant that a signature image of Fifties sci-fi movies and comic books was the enlarged brain, the light-bulb cranium with which a more evolved humanity would soon be wandering around. Evolvo Lad had one in his tussles with Superboy. So did Superman’s sidekick in a futuristic fantasy called “The Super-Brain of Jimmy Olsen.” So did Lois Lane, although she wasn’t happy about it. “The evolution ray that made me super-intelligent turned me into a freak!” she sobbed, clutching her unsightly Edisonian incandescent of a head.
Don’t worry about it, Lois. In a bleak comment on the limits of predictive fiction, our brains didn’t get bigger. But our butts did. If DC Comics had gone with “The Super-A** of Jimmy Olsen,” they’d have been up there with Nostradamus. To a visitor from 1950, the physical transformation of the citizenry would be the most significant fact about America in 2011, and one far more startling than the Xbox. He would look at the childlike clothing and wonder what it said about the overall cultural sensibility: Was this a society dedicated to eternal adolescence? What about the size of people? Was this a country growing ever sicker and feebler? And was that why so many of the jobs had to be done by foreigners?
Not much of this comes up in Republican primary debates, but it seems to me more telling about where the nation’s heading than any CBO statistics about debt-to-GDP ratios. If Obamacare survives the next presidential term, it will never be repealed. I object to the president’s governmentalization of one-sixth of the economy on liberty grounds: The introduction of government health care changes the relationship of citizen and state to something closer to that of junkie and pusher. I was thinking of Britain, Canada, and Europe, but I didn’t know the half of it: The scale of disaster here will be of an entirely different order. Three-quarters of American men between 45 and 64 are supposedly overweight. Nudge the diabetes statistics a decade or two down the road, and you’re looking at budget-busting health expenditures beyond the wildest nightmares of Sweden and Quebec.
Who will pay for them? In the southwest United States, will a predominantly young Hispanic population be willing to be ever more onerously taxed to pay for the health-care costs of a predominantly old white boomer population? Or will America fracture on age and infirmity lines? That’s the future the (liberal) Hollywood filmmaker Albert Brooks foresees in his novel 2030. Could the U.S. act to prevent the Brooksian dystopia? Yes, but our visitor from 1950 might ponder the overgrown child-men padding the streets and wonder how quickly a society dedicated to eternal adolescence can recover its survival instinct.
All of which is to say that my pessimistic pals on the right who warn that the United States is in for a grim future as a large Greece are being hopeless Pollyannas. America rarely does things by half, and there’s no reason to believe societal decay would be an exception to that rule. Culture trumps economics, and it is perplexing to me that, even in the stilted, artificial debate formats favored by ABC and CNN, no one thinks to ask the candidates about these issues. Perhaps it’s for the best. Perhaps even Newt would have no solution to hand. You really need one of those light-bulb-cranium superbrains. But Evolvo Lad seems to have retired. And they’ve banned the light bulb.
– Mr. Steyn blogs at SteynOnline.