How Have We Changed?

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Such hidden-ball tricks apparently work so well that we must expect more and better ones. The note in italics at the tail of the op-ed piece will say, “Dr. Pundit is a Fellow of the Social Responsibility Council,” but not that its fat-cat angel used to help finance the John Birch Society. Madison Avenue’s “Ad-Liberty League” will make awards for untrammeled creativity, yes, but its undercover mission will be gradually to soften up viewers for hard-core pornography in commercials . . .

Re change in America since 1954:1 would have no doubt. It is the wonderfully greater sense of moral purpose with which the affluent and the comfortable (of whom, of course, I am one) defend their well-being and specifically their income against the claims of the unfortunate and the deprived. This holds for money and especially for leisure, and in a degree that might astonish even Thorstein Veblen. How good leisure for the fortunate, how depraved for the welfare mother.

The most interesting change in my life since 1954 has been the development of the computer. Of course we all have been affected by computers in hundreds of ways, but for me the computer’s most striking impact has been its effect on my typing. All my life I have been a two-finger typist. I know pretty well where the different letters are, and I can hit the keys at a reasonably rapid pace, but no matter how hard I concentrate I make lots and lots of typos. I do not believe I have ever typed an entire double-spaced page without hitting at least one wrong key. I was not even able to use an electric typewriter because when 1 tried, I could never get through a paragraph without inadvertently nicking the shift lock with the pinkie of my left hand when striking the a with my typing finger. The result, of course, would be several lines of capital letters unnoticed because of my slavish concentration on the keyboard in my futile effort to avoid errors.

Over the years I spent large sums hiring professional typists to produce “clean” copies of my messy manuscripts and equally large amounts of time checking over the typists’ work to make sure they had not left out anything or gotten a date, a page number in a footnote, or some other number wrong. In doing this, nine times out of ten I decided to change something that was typed just the way I wrote it. That meant more professional typing. Sooner or later I would have to give up and accept what the typist produced as final copy.

Today I am probably an even more inaccurate typist than 1 was back in 1954. But thanks to my trusty spelling checker, on paper I now look flawless.

I think the most important way America has changed since 1954 is that we are no longer a United States, but rather a crazy quilt of special interests in conflict.

How has America changed most since 1954? We are less likely to think of ourselves as a single people. Forty years ago it was more or less clear what it meant to “be an American"—now, who has any idea at all? Indeed, paradoxically, the very question seems now somewhat un-American. So enamored are we of diversity, of multiculturalism, of the sense of ourselves as many rather than one, that merely trying to define what an American is today is itself un-American.

This is more than a matter of shifting metaphors, replacing the melting pot with the mosaic, though that is part of it. The melting pot was always too innocent to be true; this country was always more of a mosaic, even when it pretended to the homogeneity of the melting pot. But the earnestness contained within that sugary metaphor, fairy talc though it may have been, served us well for generations, and was not nearly as reactionary a force as we now assume it to have been. The eagerness to think of ourselves as one people provided a kind of spiritual underpinning to such powerful forces for social change as the creation of social security in the 1930s or the civil rights battles of the 1960s.

Now, the dream of homogeneity lies shattered. We no longer aspire to it as a people; we no longer believe it has any connection to the hope of a better life. We are less innocent, vastly less trusting—and unable, at least so far, to find a way to bring out of our current infatuation with confrontation and differences any kind of vision of harmony and wholeness. It is not that we were once homogeneous and now we are not: it is that once, despite all our differences, we had a sense of common purpose.

My father spent the winter of 1954 struggling to overcome sentiment with reason. He was trying to abandon a lifelong allegiance to the New York Yankees and become a fan of the previously hated Brooklyn Dodgers (soon to be the Los Angeles Dodgers, a mobility that could supply another appropriate story for this issue). My father, a committed civil libertarian and political activist, was appalled that the Yanks had not yet hired a black player (Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier with the Dodgers in 1947). He succeeded in his struggle, and the Yanks brought up their first black player, Elston Howard, in 1955. But too late for my dad, who remained a Dodger fan for the rest of his life.