For millions upon millions of Americans of a “certain age,” the cultural landscape has changed dramatically, become largely unrecognizable; familiar guide posts gone. They’re right. Never before in our history have public attitudes, behaviors, beliefs, standards and expectations turned over so thoroughly or as rapidly.
An exaggeration? The U. S. has, after all, long been a dynamic society given over to change, experimentation, novelty; its people far less bound by tradition than most any other. Isn’t our history filled with odd individuals and with efforts to break the mold, veering off in unexpected directions? Didn’t most every town once produce a village atheist who boldly challenged prevailing religious practices and beliefs? What about Amelia Bloomer, an early and representative suffragette and advocate for more sensible female attire? Consider as well those “utopian” communities organized by the middle of the 19th Century that challenged existing practices about gender roles, marriage and property rights; or the frontiersmen and “mountain men” who lit out for the wide open west and lived independent lives beyond the boundaries of civilization. Later on musicians created “jazz” and scandalized polite society with novel sounds and rhythms. Conventional society prefers to limit such disruptive influences. Recall how super salesman “Professor” Harold Hill shrewdly played on such fears, challenging townsfolk in “The Music Man,” with his memorable jeremiad “Ya Got Trouble.” River City (Iowa) children, he warned, were behaving in strange
new, unorthodox ways – playing pool, smoking, reading “dime novels,” while certain words were creeping into their conversation, like “swell,” and “So’s your old man.” Such worrisome signs of cultural decline could be offset, he urged, by the discipline and diversion a marching band would provide. And so came uniforms and instruments: order restored.
Hill’s remedy reminds us how American Society has typically responded. For much of our history we’ve managed, despite all the centrifugal cultural dynamics unleashed over the years, to rein in most of them. Religious authorities of all sorts were insistent, and influential voices marking the boundaries of acceptable thought and behavior. The omnipresent McGuffey reader re-enforced these norms in the nation’s classrooms. A genteel “Victorian” culture prescribed what was acceptable and outwardly proper. Etiquette books described the contours of polite society, while the Comstock Law (1873) kept prurient materials out of the U.S. mail. Later on, objectionable books were banned, preachers railed against the blasphemy of “Evolution” and Hollywood movie codes restricted what could be displayed on the silver screen. To prevent cultural changes deemed “alien” and unacceptable, certain immigrant groups were denied entry into the country, hard liquor was banned for over a decade, and Presidential candidate Al Smith was overwhelmingly defeated (1928) because he represented “the sidewalks of New York” which, to most, seemed altogether threatening and un-American.
Thus it is fair to say that while our culture obviously changed over the years, the “guardians” of organized society, in one way or another, were largely successful in maintaining traditions, enforcing existing standards, and supporting familiar ways. And then they lost that ability. Date the start of this process, if you wish, somewhere in the 1960’s and then ever since. Look almost everywhere and you can’t miss it. So much that was once familiar no longer is.
Music, dance, language, dress, body décor (tattoos), food preferences, etc. A gusher of technology flooded the society – computers, cell phones, IPads, ear buds, recording devices, GPS inventions, security systems, camera installations, payment networks, Zoom and podcasts, and a host of other communication and transmissions options. We now can talk endlessly at a distance, entertain ceaselessly, gather together spontaneously – engage with one another 24-7. Gender identities blurred, sexual relations were redefined, family structures unwound. Women have asserted themselves as never before, minorities press tirelessly for acceptance and equitable treatment. The drug culture flourishes while God figures less and less. And there’s more….. but enough.
Why the culture dam broke is a complicated question for another time. But it is real, buffeting millions and impacting almost everyone. Bewilderment, alienation, anger, exhilaration, liberation, political calculation and partisan exploitation – all of the above apply. The most we can say now is we aren’t going back; it’s not going away. But what the road ahead looks like remains an open and tantalizing mystery.