How Have We Changed?

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As I stood before my many friends from forty years earlier, I felt an enormous pride in their achievements. Many returned with advanced degrees and worldly experiences well beyond the reach of our parents. Those who continued the working-class tradition of their families reflected the long, rising curve of prosperity and material comforts unimagined in our youth.

There were other changes. Their daughters have ambitions well beyond marriage and childbearing. Almost no one at the reunion smoked, and forty years ago nearly everyone did. Now physical fitness is a way of life, and then it was eccentric behavior. Overall, however, our gathering was a tribute to a rare time in America when the can-do spirit prevailed, when the nation was an economic and political collossus unchallenged in the world arena, when all seemed possible and we were the direct beneficiaries.

Of course, we were all white.

The other America—African-American, Native American, Latino, Asian—the people of color, whatever color, were invisible to most of white America forty years ago, except when they were celebrated as entertainers or athletes. Forty years ago the face of the American political, economic, and cultural establishment was white only.

Four decades later all the primary colors are vivid and visible in the mosaic of America. We still have too far to go in resolving our complex feeling about race, but the fact of a multiracial society is no longer denied. I can think of no greater or more welcome change in forty years.

Beginning with simple servomechanisms that came out of World War II, followed by rapid advances in electronics through microcircuits and silicon chips, overwhelming changes have been brought about since 1954 in the way Americans live and think and view the world.

The key word is control . Our living spaces from bedrooms to bathrooms and kitchens are controlled by automatic devices that did not exist forty years ago. Our automobiles are no longer entirely controlled by the drivers but by numerous electronic thingamabobs. Office and professional workers are never out of the control of computers and ever-changing modes of communication. Writers and publishers are controlled by word processors. Patients and physicians in hospitals are controlled by electronic machines totally incomprehensible to the average human being. Computerized equipment has replaced the card catalogs of our libraries, speeding the use of, but homogenizing, information and our preserved folk culture. Intensive use of pictures and spoken words to instruct and entertain has started a decline in the exactness of the language in recording complex and abstract ideas.

It is too early to determine the full effect of these man-made controls upon American society, but thus far we appear to be more isolated from one another than we were.

I hate to say it, but feel the need to acknowledge the quiet triumph of secularism in the past thirty years. This is not an invitation to admire my sibylline powers, but in fact, I did venture in my first book that it was unreasonable to expect that there wouldn’t be consequences from the assault in the university on religious faith. In my day lusty agnostics would on the least invitation happily engage in trench warfare against Christianity. Okay. But it is worse now, or such is my reading. The evangelists of agnosticism no longer feel the need to move their armies against what, in their judgment, is nowadays only a derelict defense force. It isn’t that, of course, but the indifference to religion, reflected in the life of the university, is a development of great social consequence. If one listens, for instance as I recently did on the relevant anniversary, to the message by FDR when he communicated to the American people that D-day had happened and the reconquest of Europe was in prospect, one is starkly reminded of how our leaders then addressed us. “Almighty God: Our sons, pride of our nation, this day have set upon a mighty endeavor. . . . They will need Thy blessings . . . we know that by Thy grace, and by the righteousness of our cause, our sons will triumph. . . . Thy will be done, Almighty God.” That was common currency from the aristocratic and the ruling classes, in FDR’s case conjoined. He spoke language that suggested the ultimate dimension of the human experience, and this was the foundation of American idealism, liberty under God, as we came to phrase it. I cannot imagine a modern President speaking so, even though the incumbent and his predecessors are Christians by formal understanding. What all of it means is that the great regulator of days gone by is no longer vibrant, and the consequences hardly need to be enumerated. In other ages it was all there: crime, libertinism, self-centeredness, infidelity. But it was viewed as departure from the correct standards. Now we get such as the Surgeon General, whose answer to the question Is it wrong to conceive out of wedlock? was “No. Everyone has different moral standards.” That would include Pol Pot.

Forty years ago, a medical student, I could walk the streets of various American cities without great anxiety. I well remember leaving my college dorm room unlocked all the time, and similarly, my medical-school dorm room. Now fear (of robbers, of injury, even of death) hovers over many of us who walk city streets, drive city roads—black and white, well-to-do and poor: a significant and melancholy turn of events.