How Have We Changed?

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Self-righteousness has been a persistent American response to change. Fundamentalism revives as popular music grows noisier and corporations grow bigger; the 1990s are like the 1920s. Right now a lot of self-righteousness is directed against women. Yet my hunch is that the changing role of women, which has affected our intimate relations and our expectations of strangers, may be the most important change in the last forty years. Television—its ubiquitous influence is another significant change—helps by showing old movies. The films of 1954 put women in roles that now seem quaint. The change may be a reason that we hear the complaint that there are no roles for older actresses. The ditsy dowager has become less credible, and we haven’t yet figured out how to tell a story in which the judge is a grandmother. I think we will, though, because society nowadays seems to demand more intelligence and more participation by the intelligent of all ages and genders.

From my own self-centered perspective, the most extraordinary change in America over the past forty years is that I have somehow been transformed from a boy of sixteen to a man of fifty-six. I find this astonishing, and I don’t know how to account for it.

The other America—people of color, whatever color—was invisible to white America forty years ago.

When I look at the Bigger Picture, two remarkable changes suggest themselves to me, and I have the sense that they are somehow related. First, the regionalism that was such a defining aspect of this country has been eroded beyond measure. When you drove across the country in 1954, bouncing along on bad roads, risking ptomaine in dubious diners, holing up nights in roadside cabins and tourist courts, you were rewarded with a constant change of scene that amounted to more than a change of landscape. There were no chain restaurants, no franchised muffler-repair shops, and even the brands of beer and gasoline were apt to change when you crossed a couple of state lines. Nowadays you take the Eisenhower administration’s most enduring legacy, the interstate highway system, and eat at Burger Kings and sleep in Days Inns, and when the scenery palls, you duck into a mall, walk past thirty franchised shops, and catch a movie at the fourplex theater. Even the local accents have softened, weathered away by forty more years of national television. We have become more nearly a single nation than we used to be.

And at the same time, the complexion of this nation is infinitely more varied than it was forty years ago. America was peopled by persons of Northern European stock. Most had been here for many generations. Immigration had slowed to a trickle, and the more recent arrivals were also European—Irish and Italians and Greeks and Armenians, and refugees from what we were still calling war-torn Europe. There were fewer blacks, and they were far less visible, found mostly in the largest Northern cities and the rural South. There were a few Mexicans in the Southwest, a handful of French Canadians in New England.

And now? Nearly a third of the population of my own city, New York, is foreign-born, arriving in the same numbers they were a hundred years ago. And the new immigrants come from every continent but Antarctica. You see it most vividly on both coasts, but it’s just as true in the heartland, where it’s more apt to surprise you—the Indian family operating a motel in rural Mississippi, the cluster of Vietnamese restaurants in Denver, the Hmong craftsmen in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

All changed, changed utterly. Or, in another light, not changed at all. America has spent the past forty years evolving, becoming more completely what it has been from its beginnings. It has taken one more step (or a series of steps, or a glide) in that ceaseless process called Self-Realization.

Even as you and I . . .

Sunshine is bad for you.

End of the Cold War . . . JFK’s assassination . . . a decline in civility . . . failure of our public school system . . . the Wall Street boom . . . man in space . . . Japanese cars . . . no smoking . . . AIDS . . . the computer . . . political correctness . . . McDonald’s . . . the drug culture . . . cable TV . . . Watergate . . . anorexia . . . Muslim fundamentalism . . . junk bonds . . . Roe v. Wade . . . the shopping mall . . . Hefner’s Playboy . . . Disneyland . . . the designated hitter . . . the Xerox machine . . . women’s lib . . . the breakup of the phone company . . . mutual funds . . . beepers, mobile phones, and other invasions of privacy . . . the demise of the Herald Trib, Look, Collier’s , the Satevepost , et cetera . . . the decline of our postal service . . . sexual liberation . . . the end of the “Solid South”. . . the “no” bra . . . gay lib . . . the ozone layer . . .

Recently I attended a reunion of the families of my youth, working-class families that in the early and mid-fifties had converged on a remote site along the Missouri River in South Dakota, formed a community, and built an enormous dam. It was a joyous get-together because it recalled such good times. Our parents came of age in the Great Depression and helped win World War II, and here on the South Dakota prairie they had been involved in a monumental project that paid good wages. It was for us, their children, an age of promise. Most of us lived in intact, nuclear families. Many of us were the first members of our families to attend college.