Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Support Our Annual Fund Drive! We only shake you down once a year, but when we do we really mean it. It costs a lot to keep the site afloat, and our growing audience, well over TWO million unique viewers a month, eats up a lot of bandwidth — and bandwidth isn’t free. We aren’t supported by corporate donors, advertisers or big foundations. We survive solely on your support.
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Bring Back the Fifties!

by DAVID MACARAY

There’s a long-standing myth that the 1950s were a sleepy time in America, an intellectually nondescript and culturally barren time, an ideologically stultified period marked by silly distractions like the Hula-Hoop and I Love Lucy, ruled by a fuddy-duddy, president, and terrorized by fluoridated water scares and hysterical Commie-hunters.

But portraying this decade as socially and culturally stunted not only misses the point, but egregiously misrepresents what really happened.  Defining the American 1950s in terms of consumerism, Dwight Eisenhower and Senator Joe McCarthy is tantamount to defining Oklahoma in the 1990s in terms of  J.C. Watts, Sooner football, and Timothy McVeigh.

Indeed, not only were the 1950s not an era of anti-intellectualism and mindless conformity, they were the diametric opposite.  Even a cursory examination reveals that, culturally, socially and politically, the 1950s stand as one of the most innovative decades in U.S. history.

Arguably, the 1950s were what the Baby Boomers thought the 1960s were.  Everything the Boomers thought happened for the first time during their turbulent coming-of-age years actually happened a decade earlier….and in a more disciplined, presentable and elegant fashion.  The only difference was that these phenomena didn’t affect the masses or spill out into the streets until the 1960s.

The list of cultural mindsets and social movements that began taking shape in the 1950s is staggering:  the drug scene, the free love scene, the music scene, the modern art scene, the civil rights movement (Brown vs. Board of Education, 1954), feminism, the peace movement, the anti-nuke movement (SANE was founded in 1957), the environmental movement.

Paul Krassner’s influential counterculture magazine, The Realist, was launched in 1958, and  Rachel Carson, the patron saint of American environmentalism, was cranking out her nature material (The Sea Around Us was published in 1951) well before the Boomers and Time Magazine got around to officially “discovering” her.

The Fifties weren’t socially conscious?!  Please.  It was during the Fifties that organized labor reached its peak membership (at nearly 35-percent of the American workforce). Unions were not only widely respected, they were acknowledged as a reliable means by which working people could enter and remain members of the affluent middle-class.  During the 1950s, union welders lived next door to college professors and accountants.

Hard as it may be for a modern audience to believe, but union leaders like John L. Lewis, Samuel Gompers, George Meany, Harry Bridges, and Walter Reuther were mentioned prominently in high school civics textbooks.  These labor leaders were treated not only as visionaries and social reformers but as true patriots.

The U.S. underwent a tremendous artistic and intellectual enlightenment in the 1950s, fueled largely by the enthusiastic embrace of Europe:  the existentialist philosophy of Sartre and Camus, the unconscious mind deconstructed by Freud and Jung, the Theater of Absurd represented by Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, Harold Pinter, and Jean Genet.  There was the poetry of T.S. Eliot and Dylan Thomas, the films of Bergman, Fellini and Luis Bunuel, the plays of John Osborne and Terence Rattigan.  These were the Fifties.

Of course, America had its home-grown phenomena as well: Tennessee Williams, William Inge, Margaret Mead, Jackson Pollack, the Jazz Renaissance, the Beat Generation, Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, Stan Freeberg, Jules Feiffer, J.D. Salinger, Gore Vidal, Eudora Welty, and the Golden Age of television (Playhouse 90, Paddy Chayevsky, Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Rod Serling, Sid Caeser, Ernie Kovaks, Edward R. Murrow, Dave Garroway, et al).

And people dare call this decade—this hothouse of creative expression—bland??  Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, Billy Wilder, Stanley Kubrick, Stanley Kramer, Elia Kazan, Mary McCarthy, Budd Schulberg, Saul Bellow, Hannah Arendt, Sylvia Plath, John Updike, Nelson Algren, Bernard Malamud, Norman Mailer—they all more or less came of age in the Fifties.

Marijuana was already being used by hipsters—jazz musicians, beatniks, artists—15 years before it became the coolest thing on campus.  Oh, yeah, something else was brought to white kids during the “boring” 1950s, something that’s managed to stick around a while:  rock and roll.  The Fifties introduced the world to Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and Little Richard.

Moreover, the Fifties marked the first sustained attacks, satirical and otherwise, on such cultural phenomena as subliminal advertising, Madison Avenue, (think Vance Packard, David Reisman and Mad Magazine), herd mentality, consumerism, suburbs, the organization man, keeping up with the Joneses, split-level Hell, and the evils of plastic.

Seminal sociological works like Schulberg’s What Makes Sammy Run?, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain and Notes of a Native Son were written in the Fifties. Simone deBeauvoir may have been “discovered” by women in the 1960s, but her classic treatise on feminism, The Second Sex, was published in America in 1953.

We could go on and on because the list is endless.  I’m reminded of that quote from the movie Flashback, where the Dennis Hopper character says to the FBI agent, “When we get out of the Eighties, the Nineties are going to make the Sixties look like the Fifties.” A clever line….but inaccurate and misleading.

DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy:  Essays on Modern Labor”), was a former union rep.  He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net

David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is “Nightshift: 270 Factory Stories.” He can be reached at dmacaray@gmail.com

More articles by:

2016 Fund Drive
Smart. Fierce. Uncompromised. Support CounterPunch Now!

  • cp-store
  • donate paypal

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

September 29, 2016
Robert Fisk
The Butcher of Qana: Shimon Peres Was No Peacemaker
James Rose
Politics in the Echo Chamber: How Trump Becomes President
Russell Mokhiber
The Corporate Vice Grip on the Presidential Debates
Daniel Kato
Rethinking the Race over Race: What Clinton Should do Now About ‘Super-Predators’
Peter Certo
Clinton’s Awkward Stumbles on Trade
Fran Shor
Demonizing the Green Party Vote
Rev. William Alberts
Trump’s Road Rage to the White House
Luke O'Brien
Because We Couldn’t Have Sanders, You’ll Get Trump
Michael J. Sainato
How the Payday Loan Industry is Obstructing Reform
Robert Fantina
You Can’t Have War Without Racism
Gregory Barrett
Bad Theater at the United Nations (Starring Kerry, Power, and Obama
James A Haught
The Long, Long Journey to Female Equality
Thomas Knapp
US Military Aid: Thai-ed to Torture
Jack Smith
Must They be Enemies? Russia, Putin and the US
Gilbert Mercier
Clinton vs Trump: Lesser of Two Evils or the Devil You Know
Tom H. Hastings
Manifesting the Worst Old Norms
George Ella Lyons
This Just in From Rancho Politico
September 28, 2016
Eric Draitser
Stop Trump! Stop Clinton!! Stop the Madness (and Let Me Get Off)!
Ted Rall
The Thrilla at Hofstra: How Trump Won the Debate
Robert Fisk
Cliché and Banality at the Debates: Trump and Clinton on the Middle East
Patrick Cockburn
Cracks in the Kingdom: Saudi Arabia Rocked by Financial Strains
Lowell Flanders
Donald Trump, Islamophobia and Immigrants
Shane Burley
Defining the Alt Right and the New American Fascism
Jan Oberg
Ukraine as the Border of NATO Expansion
Ramzy Baroud
Ban Ki-Moon’s Legacy in Palestine: Failure in Words and Deeds
David Swanson
How We Could End the Permanent War State
Sam Husseini
Debate Night’s Biggest Lie Was Told by Lester Holt
Laura Carlsen
Ayotzinapa’s Message to the World: Organize!
Binoy Kampmark
The Triumph of Momentum: Re-Electing Jeremy Corbyn
David Macaray
When the Saints Go Marching In
Seth Oelbaum
All Black Lives Will Never Matter for Clinton and Trump
Adam Parsons
Standing in Solidarity for a Humanity Without Borders
Cesar Chelala
The Trump Bubble
September 27, 2016
Louisa Willcox
The Tribal Fight for Nature: From the Grizzly to the Black Snake of the Dakota Pipeline
Paul Street
The Roots are in the System: Charlotte and Beyond
Jeffrey St. Clair
Idiot Winds at Hofstra: Notes on the Not-So-Great Debate
Mark Harris
Clinton, Trump, and the Death of Idealism
Mike Whitney
Putin Ups the Ante: Ceasefire Sabotage Triggers Major Offensive in Aleppo
Anthony DiMaggio
The Debates as Democratic Façade: Voter “Rationality” in American Elections
Binoy Kampmark
Punishing the Punished: the Torments of Chelsea Manning
Paul Buhle
Why “Snowden” is Important (or How Kafka Foresaw the Juggernaut State)
Jack Rasmus
Hillary’s Ghosts
Brian Cloughley
Billions Down the Afghan Drain
Lawrence Davidson
True Believers and the U.S. Election
Matt Peppe
Taking a Knee: Resisting Enforced Patriotism
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail
[i]
[i]
[i]
[i]