Saturday, September 8, 2012

Cultural Change in America


Somewhere in the ‘80s I wrote class materials on understanding societal change for community leaders, mostly business people, who were having a hard time understanding what was happening to the towns and cities they lived in.  My argument then was that the Civil War did not end until 1965, by which I meant that it was not until the voting rights and civil rights acts of the mid 1960s that the primary issues of the war were finally resolved.  The point I was trying to make was that foundational social or cultural change takes a long time.  It moves at glacial speed in the face of other forms of social and technological change that move faster than we accommodate them.

Those were the same years in which we had begun to fight a different kind of civil war, of which the brutal reality of the Vietnam War was also a metaphor.  The struggle to settle into the hard work of reconstruction after the civil rights legislation had been passed was complicated by the raging storm of conflict over Vietnam at home.  It helped fuel race riots and assassinations.  Old friends, bothers and sisters, parents and children found themselves on different sides.  Claims and counterclaims so muddled the public debate that it was impossible to discern any clear cut line on which to take one’s stand without suddenly discovering other lines on which others took their stands.  To complicate matters, the Cold War ended, and with it the stability and reliability of having a known enemy camp with clearly defined geopolitical boundaries.

Our foundational myths of a national ethos could not hold, and there was nothing to replace them.  What do I mean by that?  As good an example as any would be the WWII Norman Rockwell paintings, The Four Freedoms.  They were the freedom from want, of speech, of worship, and from fear.  Freedom from want featured a happy extended family sitting down to Thanksgiving feast, with grandma placing a huge turkey in front of grandpa for him to carve.  Freedom of speech showed a working man in a worn leather jacket with some papers in his pocket standing to speak at a town meeting.  Freedom of worship displayed a patchwork of heads bowed in reverent prayer.  Freedom from fear showed parents lovingly tucking in small children with a brightly lit hallway in the background.  

Although the theme was taken from an FDR speech, the paintings said everything about our foundational myths of a national ethos without a single word spoken.  They didn’t have to.  With one insignificant exception, all the characters were white and reasonably prosperous.  Most viewers simply assumed that the worshipers were Protestant.  Families were understood to consist of once married, never divorced, loving, contented adults and happy children.  Freedom of speech meant freedom to speak out and be respectfully heard on issues about which we would all agree after everyone had his (or maybe her) say.  No one actually said that.  The paintings didn’t.  It was just assumed.  Everyone knew that this was what was true about America and not true about most the rest of the world.  We were white, Protestant, well off, and good. 

In the late ‘60s and throughout the ‘70s, in spite of the Cleavers and Mayberry, that mythical house came tumbling down, never to be rebuilt.  Here we are, nearly a half century later, struggling to find new words and new paintings to illustrate a new understanding of a national ethos, if we could agree on what that ethos is and a foundational myth most of us could agree on that would explain it.  The Tea Party movement wants to restore a time that never existed, something between Rockwell paintings and Matt Dillon’s Dodge City.  It’s a last gasp and grasp, doomed to failure, but with enough political muscle behind it to do real damage to our future.  Various liberals, progressives and conservatives are vying to discover a more realistic vision of what it means to be family, or speak freely, or worship, or have enough, or be safe in ways that make sense in a world of such dramatic and disruptive change.  A new American ethos is being born.  About the only thing that can be said with certainty is that it will be an ethos of American pride that includes neither American exceptionalism, nor the hubris of America the Greatest Nation on Earth.

I think that what I said thirty years ago to various community leaders is still true.  In the face of the lightning speed of technological change and the havoc that wreaks on daily life, the pace of foundational social and cultural change remains slow.  If it took a century to end the Civil War, I have little expectation that this new kind of civil war will end much sooner.  I hope I’m wrong.

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