Sunday, June 3, 2012

Waiting for the Ground to Stop Moving

Remember the 1950s? Things were so quiet, so calm, so easy. So safe. The icons of the day were Donna Reed and Robert Young and cute little Beaver Cleaver.

Everyone was white and straight. And women knew their place.

Then in 1954 the Supreme Court decided that segregation wasn't legal. And in 1955 Rosa Parks said no. And things were never to be the same.

Change followed change with what must have been, to those who had been comfortable in Eisenhower's America, frightening speed. The women's movement. Civil rights. Black Power. Roe v. Wade. Stonewall riots. Viet Nam. Assassination following assassination. Changing societal attitudes toward premarital and extramarital sex and a variety of drugs. Oh, and then there was the resignation of a president.

For most of us, especially those born in the 1960s, who remember nothing of the decades before, the changes in our society were just what there was. But for older generations, it was almost too difficult to deal with.

Don't these folks look fashionable?  3-D at its' best!In the decades that have passed since the tumultuous sixties, things seem to have quieted down. Images of interracial couples, that once sent people screaming from the room, are now commonplace. It's no longer necessarily a career breaker to announce that one is gay. The world we see in shots of audiences is very different from the world we saw in the iconic Life Magazine picture of an audience in 3-D glasses in a theater: in that picture, every single person was white. Every one. [see right margin] African Americans were either missing completely or in the balcony and safely out of sight. Today, a similar shot would show a marvelous rainbow of faces, a fairer representation of what America really is: white, black, brown, and yellow; single and coupled; able-bodied and disabled. And most of us who remember the Good Old Days cheer at the difference in how we present ourselves to the world.

Most of us. But for some, all those changes were just sources of discomfort that were swept under the rug. If we don't think about them, they'll go away. If our immediate world remains predictable, we're OK.

And then America had the temerity to elect an African American as president. Those who fought the onslaught of cultural change could no longer pretend that things were really still OK.

The upheaval of the 25 years between 1954 and 1979, like the Viet Nam War that fell within it, is still being felt. Aftershocks of those temblors continue to resonate in our culture. And like any violent movement of the earth, we are left off-balance. And being off-balance makes us insecure, makes us want to find a place, whether physical or in memory, where we were safe.

So we want to go back to the way it was.

I can't figure out a better explanation for the behavior of legislators both in Washington and in state capitals around the country, legislators who were swept into office by people who wanted a solid piece of ground to stand on. Ground that did not include the safety of abortions in clean clinics. Ground that did not include contraception and the accessibility of women's health screening to all women, even the most poor. Women in particular seem to have become the target of the insecurity of the earthquake generation, because after all if women would only remember their place, things would be so much more bearable. The days of returning home to a wife in pearls and a waiting martini (or Coke) seem so appealing (never mind the cost to the women who did what their husbands wanted to the exclusion of their own needs).

I even wonder whether the illegal immigration problem would be so severe if the flood was coming from the north. Because the uptick in suspicion of people of color, the continuing racial profiling despite laws passed against it, are telling me that it's not just women who are being targeted. We are aware (or we should be) of the disproportion of black inmates in our prisons, not because more blacks commit crime, but because most blacks have to rely on overburdened public prosecutors who advise them to accept a plea bargain rather than go to court. The number of incarcerated blacks who are being released after decades of imprisonment thanks to improved forensic science only proves the point. All blacks, after all, look alike, so if one is accused and has not adequate representation, one ends up behind bars. And no one cares.

If Barack Obama's father had been a Swedish student here on a study visa, fathered a child, then went back to Stockholm, would Donald Trump and Orly Taitz still be stamping their feet and demanding a "real" birth certificate? But a man of Mr. Obama's skin color must be proved to be ineligible to hold his office. (We all know that his skin color alone should disqualify him from sitting in the Oval Office, but apparently the Founding Fathers lacked the foresight to insert that stipulation.)

Every time a member of the earthquake generation watches the 6 o'clock news, he or she is reminded that things aren't the way they should be. And he or she, out of a profound sense of insecurity, demands that everything that has changed in the past 50 years return to the way it was.

Look around. Nothing is the way it was after an earthquake. Just ask the people in Haiti. Or Japan. Or northern Italy. Or Northridge, California. The earth moves, landscapes we loved disappear, and new ones replace them, and in a decade or two we have come to be settled in our new landscape. Unless we are so mired in the past that we can only mourn what was and curse the fates that caused what we had to crumble.

It's time to wake up. The America that has emerged from the upheaval of the 50s and 60s and 70s is a richer, healthier, more vibrant America. It welcomes the contribution of effort of all its citizens. And to demand that we return to Father Knows Best is to do precisely what democracy is NOT about: comforting the minority to the exclusion of the majority.
I am indebted to Robert D. Putnam for the image of repeated upheavals in our society, described in his new book, American Grace.