How Have We Changed?

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We are still so far from obtaining full racial justice that we forget all too easily how immensely much has been accomplished in the past forty years. I well remember, as a child in one of the nation’s most diverse and liberal constituencies, my shock on the very few occasions that I saw an interracial couple walking down a Manhattan street. Black people never appeared as ordinary human beings in advertisements, but only as the risible stereotypes of fearful, bug-eyed sidekicks like Rochester (for Jack Benny) or Birmingham (for Charlie Chan) or as fat, happy cooks like Aunt Jemima. In my high school, integrated de jure, I met black students only in chorus and gym. William Faulkner said that integration, only a tiny first step to justice, would take generations, for minds cannot be changed by force. But minds are changed by living—the rationale for required integration—and my son not only feels no discomfort with people of any color or shape but simply cannot fathom why anyone ever would.

Race is a surrogate for all other bases of false and cruel separation and denigration: gender, religion, national origin. Therefore our move to greater ease and geniality on this front mirrors a growing acceptance of differences in all areas and marks the most salutary change in American social life during the past forty years.

My professions of evolutionary biology and paleontology have, during this same forty-year interval, discovered the basis for the striking similarities that unite all human peoples. Genetic differences among so-called races are trivial (the evolutionary finding), based on the surprising recency of common ancestry, about two hundred thousand years (the paleontological finding), for all modern humans. For once a cliché turns out to be literally true: Our differences are only skin deep.

The United States, decrying the population explosion in the so-called Third World, itself became overpopulated in the last forty years, with nary a mention of that pejorative word in the media or in the halls of government. From 1950 to 1990 the population increased by almost a hundred million souls—more than three times the nation’s, inhabitants on the eve of the Civil War. The effects have been pervasive. To cite only a few: It has eroded the vaunted dignity of the individual by forcing us to use numbers rather than names as identifiers in the records of practically every institution of society; it has significantly encouraged illegal immigration because the crowded-up areas of the country more readily than ever before can slip the harness of government; it has notably accelerated the rise of crime by nourishing it with the important advantage of easy anonymity for its perpetrators. What all this says about us as a people is that in making a fetish of the idea that bigger is better, we have shortsightedly faced away from the protection of national self-interest.

The most decisive and deleterious change has been the shaming and decline of the American liberal tradition.

The range of speculation on the various topics you propose is enormous, and high on the list of major events for America must surely be the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the emancipation of its satellites. Nevertheless, it may be that the sudden appearance and spread of AIDS is among the greatest dangers and disasters of modern times. A young, sexually active generation had only just begun to celebrate a new and liberating mode of life—with pop-culture heroes, musicals like Hair , an astonishing freedom from old inhibitions and hang-ups—when the wild celebration of the Aquarius Revolution was brought to a dead halt. My generation had sometimes been shy, nervous, and timid about inaugurating sex (Philip Larkin’s “Annus Mirabilis” seemed to sum up our situation:

Sexual intercourse began In nineteen sixty-three (Which was rather late for me) Between the end of the Chatterley ban And the Beatles’ first LP. Up until then there’d only been A sort of bargaining A wrangle for a ring , A shame that started at sixteen And spread to everything .

And we fumbled about awkwardly, making many grave mistakes and often feeling suitably foolish, if not worse.) But nothing that assailed us could match the terrible plague that now presents a continuing terror to any sexually active person, male or female, straight or gay. All that cheerful abandon has been lost and has been replaced by a constant anxiety. This blight upon youthful instincts is no providential retribution for unwarranted license. AIDS afflicts chastely married couples, their children, innocent recipients of blood transfusions. And it seems to have settled down for a long stay.

Revolutions come and go. Even the Russian Revolution has finally, mercifully, gone. But one revolution, I suspect, will remain with us for the foreseeable future: the sexual revolution.