Optimism explored

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.

  • David Wilford

    Thanks for the sober analysis of faux optimism, Bob.

    All I know otherwise is that one of the most thankful days of my mother’s life was when the polio vaccine was given to me. And here I am, still alive and kickin’.

  • Alison

    I think a lot of this depends who you are. As a transgendered person, I’m certainly more optimistic now than I would have been 50 years ago. I can now go about virtually any aspect of my daily life in my target gender without much being made of it. I’m sure the future will bring even more acceptance of transgendered people. I’m sure there are quite a few groups that could claim that things are looking up.

    It might also depend on what you are talking about. I’m optimistic about the chance that all of the different groups in this country might be accepted for who they are. I’m optimistic that we’ll do something to ensure health coverage for all. I’m optimistic that my kids will grow up to be healthy and intelligent people who will make a difference. On the other hand, I’m pretty pessimistic about our chances to beat this global climate change thing. As a human race we’ll survive, but I suspect it will lead to misery for many.

    Optimistic? Pessimistic? Realistic? I don’t really know.

  • GregS

    For a barometer of the times, visit the History Center or any library and read the newspapers from the 1950’s. Read what people said about themselves then.

    My favorite was the Progress Edition of the Saint Paul Dispatch and Pioneer Press.

    Remember the Jetson’s? The Progress Edition shared that vision of a future gleaming with plastic, chrome and odd shaped, non-utilitiarian architecture.

    Technology was man’s best friend…and women liked it too.

  • David Wilford
  • bsimon

    Can someone who was there comment on the relative optimism/pessimism of the Red Scare vs. the modern threat of Terrorism?

  • Bob Moffitt

    “Mitch, one of the better writers in these parts”

    Come again?

    I agree that Mitch is more coherent than some of the chattering class on that end of the local blogosphere, but Mitch Berg, one of the better writers in these parts? FAIL.

    Don’t get me wriong, Mitch is a smart guy who communicates well. We have chatted online from time to time, but I would not call him — or myself — one of the “better writers in these parts.”

  • Joel

    It’s interesting that Mitch Berg’s claim of optimism in the past seems to stem entirely from the kinds of vehicles people drove back then. Could it really be that simple?

    I don’t believe people were any more or less optimistic in the past (pick any time) than we are today. I believe every generation grapples with it’s issues, and senses that they are worse off than past generations.

    It’s easy to look back on history with wistful eyes. But facts rarely match up to perception. Fortunately, we must have overcome those past Great Challenges, otherwise we’d not be here today. And as Alison said, there are things now in our time to be optimistic about, and things to be pessimistic about. But we must persevere.

  • Mark Gisleson

    I was so optimistic I thought Richard Nixon was our best hope for the future. I believed there was a light at the end of the tunnel and that seatbelts existed solely for the benefit of the ambulance drivers so they wouldn’t have to go looking for your body.

    I was also optimistic because 161 out of 165 members of my class survived getting their drivers licenses in an era of muscle cars, no seatbelts and narrow country roads with deep ditches.

    My family was optimistic because there were years in the ’60s when we didn’t actually LOSE MONEY operating a family farm and feeding out 200 head of cattle a year.

    And I was personally optimistic because the year I graduated from high school, the minimum wage was $1.25 an hour, and that was enough to live on my own and feed myself, put gas in my car and buy me beer and cigarettes. With today’s minimum wage it would be more a matter of “pick one of the above.”

    Good post Bob.

  • Bob Collins

    //Don’t get me wriong, Mitch is a smart guy who communicates well. We have chatted online from time to time, but I would not call him — or myself — one of the “better writers in these parts.”

    You’re confusing his politics with his writing ability. Have you not read the “it was XX years ago” series…. or music reviews? He’s a terrific writer.

    Now, you may not like the subject, but that doesn’t make him a bad writer.

    Plus it’s just my opinion. I get to decide what writers I think are good. (g)

  • Bob Collins

    // I was personally optimistic because the year I graduated from high school, the minimum wage was $1.25 an hour

    Ah, memories. 1975. Boston. Around this time of the year. I asked the manager at the hamburger joint for a raise from $1.15 to $1.25 an hour.

    He said, “no.”

    Most of my colleagues were Iranian students (this was when the shah was still in power). Nicest people I ever met. Man, the boss really took advantage of them.

    Good times.

  • Mitch is an entertaining and prolific writer, but it’s hard at times to separate his analysis from his politics. I took this post of his to be primarily in the entertainment category and let it slide; as analysis of real people and real life, though, it’s hardly good writing because it’s not true.

  • Bob Collins

    The ’50s, perhaps, really WERE the best of times and the worst of times. When I visit my mother now — she’s 86 — she has the XM Radio going with nothing but Big band music.

    “Why don’t you ever listen to stuff from the ’50s?” I ask.

    “The ’50s?” she said. “I don’t remember the ’50s.”

    Like many “Greatest Generation” folks, my parents had a pile of baby boomers… none of whom allowed for any parental contact with reality.

    BTW, Charlie Quimby is an excellent writer! But you knew that, because I’ve mentioned it many times.

  • GregS

    “The ’50s?” she said. “I don’t remember the ’50s.


    C’mon, what parent listens to their kids music? The 50’s music was teenage music then. A parent then would no more listen to it, than a parent now would get into rap.

    For our parents, the 50’s were a long memory of the 1940’s culture that stretched into the 1960’s.

  • Bob Collins

    But in 1950, my mother would’ve been … 27

  • Greg,

    I am a parent now, and I am into rap. Ok old school rap that I grew up with not this hip-hop junk the kids are listening to today. 🙂

  • GregS

    But in 1950, my mother would’ve been … 27

    Sure, but the 50’s culture didn’t spark until later in the decade.

    But there is something more. Look at photos of that era, people looked (and acted) more mature then.

    I look at pictures of my father. He was about the same age. He looked 40. His attitudes were 40.

    He had a lot of friends buried in Manilla.

    Eternal adolescence didn’t hit until the 1960’s.

  • GregS

    Ok old school rap that I grew up with not this hip-hop junk the kids are listening to today. 🙂

    Heck old-timer, that was music of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s.

    I should have been more clear about which rap.

  • Bob Collins

    I’m not sure eternal adolescence is a new phenomenon (the ’20s, anyone?), nor am I sure that an entire generation can be characterized by a single adjective. For example, if your father looked 40 at 40, I’m not sure that’s conclusive proof that means the generation acted its age.

    That may be the point that Sedaris was making.

    Unrelated, I look back at pictures that don’t seem all that long ago of my parents and my in-laws and I think, “wow, they seemed so old then, and yet they were so young.”

    We think they were acting their age, but only because it’s difficult — if not genetically impossible — to view our parents any other way. Our kids probably think the same thing.

  • Joel

    //Look at photos of that era, people looked (and acted) more mature then. – GregS

    Careful Greg. Don’t let the style of that era fool you into thinking the people of that time were all wholesome, perfect little angles. I’ve heard plenty of stories from when my parents and grandparents, and other’s parents and grandparents, grew up (50’s and earlier) that have striking similarities to my own shenanigans as a youth (80’s to mid 90’s).

  • GregS


    One does not have to be wholesome and an angel to be mature, one simply has to be an adult and have adult attitudes.

    People who came of age during the depression and WWII, had to mature earlier than the eternal youth of the post war.

  • Bob Collins

    Greg, I assume you’re a fan of “The Death of the Grown-up: How America’s Arrested Development Is Bringing Down Western Civilization”?

  • c

    I think with better communication-and these words I say loosely- we know more about what’s going on around the world and next door. There are no secrets, ok not as many as there used to be. We know about the pediphile on the next block or that our drinking water is recycled from the Mississippi. We know more, and I think back in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s ignorance was optimism. Then those babyboomers put the kabosh on the whole hush and started looking at the dirt that was swept under the carpet.

  • minn whaler

    couple of things here:

    1) Since when does good writing have to be true?

    2) I am a consumer of all kinds of music and found that it even helped me know and communicate better with my sons (now 20 and 23). The biggest shock was to hear music of the 70’s/80’s blaring from their rooms as they were growing up. Sure hard to tell your kids to turn down one of your high school favorites.

    3) My parents, married in 1951, were quite into contemporary music as well. My dad hosted sock-hops and was a dj. He brought me 3-45’s in the early 60’s (The Beatles first 3 singles) and they made sureI got to see them on Ed sullivan, which was 45 minutes past my bedtime.

    My Dad (now 77) told me in 1969 that games you could play on your tv were coming.. few years later.. pong.

    Point? It all depends on a person’s insight. Some embrace the future with a never turning back attitude, some can never see a brighter future, so the past seems like it must’ve been better, and some live day to day. No one is right or wrong, they just have their own perspective. The greatest thing about yesterday, today or tomorrow is no 2 people think exactly alike and oh how boring it would be if they did. Is that optimism?

  • GregS

    Greg, I assume you’re a fan of “The Death of the Grown-up: How America’s Arrested Development Is Bringing Down Western Civilization”?

    Don’t know too much about the book, but I will tell you all a little story.

    The other day, I learned my nephew shattered a vertebrae in his back. It seems he and a couple of “the boys” down in Southern Minnesota jumped a bus off a dirt ramp they made with a D9 Caterpillar tractor.

    David, his nickname is Duh, hurt his back, but the other guy in the bus had to get airlifted to Mayo. He is in critical condition. He is 45 years old, married and has a couple of kids.

    Rumor has it; he hit the ramp at 65 mph.

  • Cheryl Collins

    Wow….I can remember ducking and covering in the 3rd grade which would have been 1958 or so. We were so stupid!!! We have to be smarter now.I am afraid my optimism is dwindling though the older I get. They say if your memories outweigh your dreams you are headed for the end. hmmmm.

    I am proud of you being such a good writer.

  • Bob Moffitt

    “You’re confusing his politics with his writing ability”

    No, I’m not. I was talking about his writing. You’re also making some assumptions that he and I differ on politics.

    My working for the American Lung Association of Minnesota should not automatically label me as a liberal, any more than working for MPR define what your personal politics are.

    That said, it IS your call to say which writers you think are good. Since you invite comments on this blog, you offer others a chance to give their two cents worth, too. For that, I thank you (and MPR).

  • Bob Collins

    I can honestly say when I think of organizations that have a reputation as being liberal, the American Lung Association never crossed my mind.

  • Bob Collins

    //I am proud of you being such a good writer

    That’s from my sister up in Maine. She’s the smartest one in the family, actually. I’ll have to write about her sometime.

  • Bob Moffitt

    “I can honestly say when I think of organizations that have a reputation as being liberal, the American Lung Association never crossed my mind.”

    All righty then. Good to hear. Provided we don’t strike you as being a conservative organization either, we are doing our job of remaining strictly nonpartisan, focused on lung health and clean air.

  • Bob Collins

    Call me crazy, Bob, but I’ve always viewed body parts as rather apolitical.

    Except for the appendix. That baby screams libertarian.

  • c

    now that’s kiinda interesting….do you think that there are any right brained conservatives out there?