Were we less hopeful when we — that’s the country we— were younger? Or does it just seem that way because we don’t know any better?
The question came to me today because of two unrelated conversations — one online, and one on the radio.
First, Mitch Berg, who writes the Shot in the Dark blog, muses on the subject, recounting a conversation last Saturday with Star Tribune columnist James Lileks:
James and I were talking about how crushing pessimism was one of the dominant leitmotifs of American pop culture over the past fifty years. We also noted that next week’s Minnesota Street Rod Association convention at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds (at which the NARN will be broadcasting!) harkens back to an era when America was profoundly optimistic – where the sky, and beyond, was the limit. Cars were big, brawny, cheery and optimistic.
I noted, in contrast, that this is the face of the current American car-buying public (or at least the stereotype of it).
Mitch, one of the better writers in these parts, makes a compelling argument — how can anyone lose an argument when a ’65 Mustang is on your side? — but it’s this premise of optimism over the generations that I find intriguing (ignoring for now that the conversation was about optimism as reflected by popular culture).
If I were James Lileks, I’d riff now about the fact we know the drivers of yesteryear were optimistic because they didn’t install seatbelts in their cars. They were that sure they weren’t going to die in a flaming wreck. And then I’d link the beginning of our “pessimistic years” to the seat belt, and connect it to government interference. Somehow, I’d get around to the Corvair, because all important moments in the history of our nation should somehow relate to the Corvair.
But I’m not James Lileks, so I’ll just point out that in the ’50s we were so optimistic that we built bomb shelters because we were sure a nuclear holocaust was inevitable. Maybe it wasn’t that we were optimistic about the future. Maybe we just lived like their was no tomorrow because we didn’t think there’d be one. Or maybe we were optimistic because we thought we’d survive a nuclear holocaust merely by getting under our desks. What is that if not unbridled, blessed, don’t-know-any-better optimism?
In the video above, we’re told “even a newspaper can protect you in the event of an atomic bomb.” Instinctively, I become more pessimistic. With the decline of the newspaper business, we are at the mercy of the bomb now.
I don’t pretend to know whether we were more optimistic, or just naive back then. In my hometown, the paper companies dumped dye in the Nashua River and every morning we’d strain to see what fluorescent color our river was that day. Was that a sign of our optimistic generation? Or were we just stupid, as we were — looking back — when we thought nothing about pitching our litter out the window of our cool cars?
And that’s what leads me to the unrelated related conversation today: MPR’s Nikki Tundel’s excellent segment with David Sedaris. It was a passing reference in a long conversation to the way we long for a time in the past… a time in which we did not live, but we miss it anyway.
“It’s kind of like being all wistful about the Renaisance and the cool outfits you could’ve worn,” Nikki says, “overlooking the Bubonic Plague and all the rats running around.”
“When I was a teenager, I so wished I had lived in the 1940s, but then when you think about it, I would be on Iwo Jima. Or as a homosexual, I would have to be married. I couldn’t live with Hugh unless I told people he was my cousin or something,” Sedaris said.
The only people, possibly, who can adequately compare our optimistic nature as a country, are those who lived both in the ’50s and are still alive in 2008.
But we’re all qualified to consider whether we’re optimistic now. The quick reaction is to cite war, environmental concerns, the economy, and the Minnesota Timberwolves and conclude that we are not optimistic. And yet, there’s evidence we are. In the ’50s, a diagnosis of cancer was a death sentence. Now people are more likely to ask, “what are my treatment options?” before they’d ask “how long have I got?” What is that if not optimism?
So, think about it for a few minutes and then comment below. Are you optimistic.