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Oct 2, 2012

American Pie in the Fire?

I'm a little dumbstruck with the level of panic about the state of "morality" in the US today. Ultimately I think it stems from ideas about sexual morality, but more generally, it seems that many people think that things are very bad right now, and want them to go back to "the way they were before".

Don McLean has given us the apparent breaking point between "the way things were" and "the way things are" as February 3, 1959 in his song, American Pie. Apparently, before that period in time, people in the US were in a Leave-it-to-Beaver-cum-Donna-Reed utopia, busy eating pie, praying, singing, dancing, pleasantly stating the old motto of the United States "In God We Trust" as a morning greeting, and pledging allegiance to "One Nation, Under God".

It all sounds wonderful, doesn't it? Well, as things that sound too wonderful often are, this particular reality is a complete mythology. 

A more appropriate song for the perspective on history that we should possibly be taking in the time surrounding The Day The Music Died is Billy Joel's We Didn't Start the Fire. Rather then highlighting a utopian society, Joel goes through a large number of references to problematic times that have existed for the entire period. Rather than informing the reader of a black-and-white, father-knows-best, skinned-knees-fixed-by-apple-pie fantasy world, the true colors of the world around are highlighted and put into more of a continuous context. The world of 1950-1960 was not an ideal place in any stretch of the imagination, especially if you were not a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant male. The Red Scare, the Cold War, the Beat Generation, and desegregation were all in full swing, as Joel tells us, just to name a few.

A other points for you to consider:
  • The phrase "Under God" was added to the US Pledge of Allegiance in 1953. 
  • The phrase "In God We Trust" was voted as the motto of the US in 1956. 
  • In 1957, American students of African descent went to school for the first time in a mixed-race school in Little Rock, Arkansas, protected by men with assault rifles. 
  • Women's salaries were not even remotely close to men in equivalent positions. 
  • Domestic violence was so common it even showed up in advertisements.
This period of time that most Americans seem to remember never actually happened.

In actuality, we're basically at the best period in history by any objective measure you can think of. Take a look at Steven Pinker's "The Better Angels Of Our Nature," which highlights a large number of statistics on violence, in yearly trends. It is fairly obvious that we are effectively at the best period in human history with respect to violence. We have the cleanest water, the longest lives, the most opportunity, the best health care, the most freedom, and the best chances, than at any other point in human history. Even in the developing world, things are looking better than they effectively ever have before. These times of "growing pains" can be easily overcome by yet "more of the same" that we've been doing for the last 50 years. More science. More medicine. More education. More tolerance. More freedom.

Are there problems in our current societies? Of course. There are always problems. However the problems we currently have pale in comparison to the problems of yesteryear. It's time to move forward rather than pine over the past. The success of the last century will be repeated in this century, but only if we're able to let go of the fears, and think with a logical, level head about it.

After all, we didn't start this fire. But ultimately we should be grateful to those who came before us and made things so darned good as it is, but realize what worked and what didn't. Evidence-based reasoning, civil liberties, fairness, and justice won out over prejudice, dogmatic superstition, inequality, and violence. I hope this trend continues.

1 comment:

Shripathi Kamath said...

Don't forget how Ralph threatened to belt Alice on the Honeymooners if she did not "listen". Guess that was funny then.

The scary part for me is seeing how far to the right the left has moved in politics.

Nancy Pelosi voted for indefinite detention. Imagine that.