A great tragedy of our era is that young people have no feeling of what Western civilization was like. In the government owned and operated schools where they sat for years, they were presented with a litany of the West’s failures, most of them exaggerated, or even imagined.
In this post, and in several that will follow, I’ll be ignoring anti-Western propaganda. To obsess on flaws is dishonest and destructive. The fact that the people of the West have been conditioned to require that viewpoint is not something I’ll indulge. All civilizations have had their failures, and our Western civilization stands out, not as the worst, but as the least bad.
My goal for this series of articles is to give you a deep sense of Western civilization and the cultural assumptions that informed it. I’ll be careful to stay with the truth of each era, but what I want is for you to understand the West that was, down to your bones.
That’s a tall order, of course, especially for short posts, but that’s what I’m going for. And to get the best start possible, I’ll begin in my own time, describing the America of about 1960. To be precise, I’m probably best describing the years 1953-1963; after the Korean war and before the assassination of John Kennedy.
What It Was Like
The first thing to understand about this era is that it was still a time of community. People felt a kinship with their neighbors. They looked out for one another, largely because they had to. If something went wrong in your home, you went immediately to your neighbors for help. If your car broke down far from home, you went to the nearest house, knocked on their door and asked if you could use their telephone to call for help. (And were as likely as not to have someone pull out a toolbox and take a look at the car for you.) Crime wasn’t that much less in this era, but people still trusted one another; partly of necessity and partly because we weren’t inundated with fear every waking moment.
Doctors made house calls on their way home. (I vividly remember my brother being examined on our dining room table.) If you had children, the neighbors – even the ones you argued with – would bring over some milk when there was a heavy snow and you couldn’t get to the store. This was standard in more or less every neighborhood. People did stupid and thoughtless things, of course, but we also relied upon one another. We weren’t atomized as people are now.
Back in this era, moms would leave their kids outside in their strollers (prams) while they went into stores. I knew quite a few women who did precisely this. I asked one of them about it long after and she told me this:
Oh, sure. We’d meet at [a local restaurant]. They gave us a table at the window and we’d park our kids right in front. If a kid needed attention, one of us – not necessarily that one’s mother – would go out, take care of him, then come back in. We all did that then.
And back before air conditioning (which came into homes just after this era), people slept outside on hot nights. In my home town of Chicago, hundreds of families would grab sheets and pillows, head to the lake (it was cooler there) and sleep on the sand.
Moreover, in places like Chicago (though definitely less so in the south or in occasional outbursts), daily race relations tended to be non-hostile. In my early experience, Negros (as they were then called) carried themselves with dignity rather than anger. Certainly I grew up in a nice area and I was sheltered when very young, but I rode the buses and trains by myself at a young age (it would probably be called child abuse now), and observed hundreds or thousands of random people, including at large events.
Another of my observations was that Jews and Blacks felt closer to one another. Both had dark histories of abuse and they felt a kinship. Typically the Jews were bosses and Blacks/Negros employees, but they were loyal to each other. I knew the son of one Black man whose Jewish employers continued to send him paychecks for years after he became too old to work. That type of loyalty wasn’t terribly uncommon at the time.
Divorce was considerably less common in this era, largely because of a different set of incentives. First of all, people believed that the two-parent family was a necessary model, and those expectations (which could be benevolent or otherwise) drove couples to work harder at staying together. Secondly, there were few if any welfare programs that gave a mother more money if she was single. As a result, the nonmarital birth rate was far lower at this time than it is today.
Politics was less vile in this era. Certainly there was corruption and police brutality – those things are eternal where the few rule the many – but politicians and reporters were expected to do their jobs defensibly. Politicians were frequently scrutinized and public affairs were examined at length, rather than in five second sound bites. People read books on a regular basis. Politics had not yet overcome society.
College was where you went if you wanted to learn how to do important things. It wasn’t a place to get drunk or to get a work permit for a high status job. K-12 schools were more serious places of learning too (with zero politics), but I should add that there was plenty of bullying and a somewhat higher tolerance for brutality among the students.
Another thing that seems to have made a difference was that we felt we had something to prove. This was the era of the Cold War, and being better than the Soviets mattered to people. As a result, they defended their beliefs in what constituted “good,” worked to live up to them, and treated others who were likewise interested in the goodness of “the American way” with loyalty and respect.
We had movies and TV, of course, but the programming was far more “family friendly.” Not because of laws, but because the viewers had a strong preferences regarding what was appropriate, sometimes enforced with boycotts of advertisers. In other words, people cared about their culture and wanted to keep it strong. They believed in their ways.
This last point, I suppose, was the key to this era: People still believed in their ways. That is, they still thought the civilization of Abraham, Christ,, Raphael, Bernini, Da Vinci, Newton, Mozart, Locke, Jefferson, Brahms, Edison, Bell and the Wright brothers was a blessing to the world.
As in all generations, these people had their shortcomings, and could be abused by people who merely claimed to be protectors of their civilization, but they still believed in it, and acted like they believed in it.
These people most certainly understood that there was injustice in the world (they had just gone through World War II), and many of them found meaning in fighting injustice. There was plenty of complaining, but most of the complainers were trying to improve Western civilization, not to wipe it away as a curse.
In short, while all the usual human stupidities were present at this time, most people were also committed to a higher standard than their stupidities. And that not only minimized the damage they caused, but maintained an inter-personal environment that was less stressed, more dignified, more reliable, more forgiving, sometimes warmer, and far less suspicious than our present environment.
One thought on “The West That Was, Part 1”
I am a little older than you and I thank you for a very accurate description o how things were then. See the movie October Sky for a good example on the screen
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