How Have We Changed?

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But to my mind the most decisive and deleterious change has been the shaming and decline of the American liberal tradition—involving the increasing power and intolerance of fundamentalism in politics, the hollowness of public piety, the contempt for rational argument, the stress on matters of sexual conduct rather than on Christian love and charity. Led by ex-liberals from Reagan down and ex-radicals (I could name a hundred) in company with self-profiting evangelists, this has produced a poisonously reactionary temper and as great a contempt for traditional give-and-take in politics as it feels toward the poor, the unemployed, and the homeless. The image of America I grew up with—as the last great hope of earth—has shrunk to the point where patriotism is understandably suspect. That is as great and harmful a phenomenon as the fact that, unlike Europeans, Americans run to fat.

There is less respect for human life—a hopelessness that devalues everything. This, combined with the barrage of violence on TV and in movies, desensitizes our children and glamorizes violence.

People are more cynical about government.

The family is evolving, with women in the work force and men taking on more parenting responsibility.

Divorce has become commonplace, and the stigma attached to unwed motherhood has disappeared, creating an underclass of fatherless children and poverty-stricken families.

Society is transient; more people are moving more frequently. There is no sense of permanence or obligation to community.

“Moral relativity” has impeded the teaching of values and ethics to our children. Society expects the schools to handle the upbringing of our children. Schools emphasize “self-esteem” at the expense of personal responsibility and community obligation.

Life is moving at a quicker pace. Computerization has enabled information to be transmitted in the blink of an eye around the world. Society has become technologically sophisticated—cellular phones, fax machines, computers, VCRs, et cetera, et cetera.

Democracy has replaced communism in Germany and Russia and signaled a new era in South Africa.

Polio has been eliminated, but AIDS has appeared.

We have become more sophisticated politically and are asking more questions. We sue doctors for malpractice, sue the police for incompetence, and sue bosses for sexual harassment. The lawyers are cleaning up, but their profession no longer enjoys the respect it once had.

Mechanized outdoor recreationists have discovered the spaciousness of the American West and are joyously cutting it down to democratic size; everyone can handle the mountains now. Four-wheel-drive vehicles and their waspy little cousins, all-terrain go-carts, clank, grind, spin their wheels, and lunge from one scenic overlook to the next. But are the occupants looking? Or just relishing the thrill of the gasoline thrusts that got them there?

Fat-tire mountain bikes startle Vibramsoled hikers, who in turn resent stepping into cow pies on trails that exist because cattle long ago put them there. The swaths that slice the steep forests of the Rockies used to be caused by avalanches; now most of the plunging pathways are torn out of the land for skiers. In no part of the Grand Canyon are you beyond the noise of aircraft loaded with effort-free tourists. And speaking of the Grand Canyon, each summer day something like six thousand cars and waddling motor homes compete for sixteen hundred parking spaces.

The most surprising change has been the radical revision of ;he time-honored relationships between the sexes.

This pouring of people into our once wide-open spaces and their building of second homes and condos and service units (industrial tourism, Ed Abbey called the whole business) certainly seem to have created a new outdoor ambience. But aren’t the developments driven by the same exploitive urges that led—still lead—to open-pit mines, clear-cut forests, and eroded riverine habitats? People do whatever their expanding technologies enable them to do, and they do it with unflagging Yankee zest. I doubt that the urge will ever change very much.

The most interesting turn that American culture has taken between 1954 and 1994, I would argue, is the change from one in which citizens, often unwittingly, employed models of convergence, conformity, and consensus to the opposite, which features divergence, difference, and dissension, if not conflict.

While revisionists are finding undercurrents that will lead to more complex pictures of the mid-century years, I doubt whether they will be able to change the inherited framing images completely. Having had to paper over their differences to win a war and prosecute a cold war; having seen an impulse on the part of many, especially ex-GIs and their families, to settle down and be more or less like one another; having experienced the setting of cultural tones by a set of people whose ancestors had done it for centuries, the citizenry seemed to welcome centripetal impulses.

I think of the formation in those times of the United Nations, the World Federalists, the World Council of Churches; of “The Family of Man” photographic sequence; of Will Herberg’s famed Protestant-Catholic-Jew model of three-way American Way of Life religion that turned out to be one-way; of under God inserted before indivisible in the Pledge of Allegiance (in 1954, to be precise); of ecumenism and interfaith and interracial and integration as strivings.