Sunday, December 26, 2010

More Liberal Nostalgia

I’ve commented before about the strangeness of the fact that so many of liberals, like Paul Krugman, are waxing nostalgic about the 1950s these days. You might have thought that self-styled “progressives” would be the last people pining for a bygone era in which, by any reasonable standard, disadvantaged Americans were much worse off then than they are today. But here’s Frank Rich doing Krugman one better in today’s New York Times. A celebrated home movie commemorating a middle-class family’s 1956 trip to the newly opened Disneyland, entitled “Disneyland Dream” has him wiping a wistful tear from his eye (my emphasis):
“‘Disneyland Dream’ was made in the summer of 1956, shortly before the dawn of the Kennedy era. . . . The young Barstow family of Wethersfield, Conn. — Robbins; his wife, Meg; and their three children aged 4 to 11 — enter a nationwide contest to win a free trip to Disneyland, then just a year old. . . .

“Soon enough, the entire neighborhood is cheering the Barstows as they embark on their first visit to the golden land of Anaheim, Calif. As narrated by Robbins Barstow (he added his voiceover soundtrack to the silent Kodachrome film in 1995), every aspect of this pilgrimage is a joy, from the ‘giant TWA Super Constellation’ propeller plane (seating 64) that crosses the country in a single day (with a refueling stop in St. Louis) to the home-made Davy Crockett jackets the family wears en route. . . .

“‘Disneyland Dream’ is an irony-free zone. ‘For our particular family at that particular time, we agreed with Walt Disney that this was the happiest place on earth,’ Barstow concludes at the film’s end, from his vantage point of 1995. He sees himself as part of ‘one of the most fortunate families in the world to have this marvelous dream actually come true’ and is ‘forever grateful to Scotch brand cellophane tape for making all this.’”
Let’s do a little felicific bookkeeping. If the Barstows and their neighbors are any indication, a typical middle-class family in 1956 regarded itself  as “one of the most fortunate families in the world” for having the chance to take a day-long transcontinental airplane ride and spend a day at a large amusement park. Today trans-continental air travel in jets that put a TWA Super Constellation to shame is a regular feature of middle-class life and amusement parks that put Disneyland circa 1956 to shame are in driving distance from most middle-class families.

So a modern middle-class family can routinely have substantially the same experiences that the Barstows had in 1956, except for the heady sensation that, by a stroke of unforeseen good fortune, they were enjoying a pleasure that was out of the reach of most of their social and economic peers. That’s a sign that a typical middle-class family today is a lot a better off than the Barstows ever dreamed of being in 1956 inasmuch as both a modern family and the Barstows would probably prefer being confronted with the menu of options open to a modern family now than the menu of options that the Barstows confronted then.

You might have thought that contemplating the difference between now and then would warm the heart of a self-proclaimed friend of the middle-class like Rich. But you’d be wrong. After making the liberal’s obligatory notation about the regrettable racism and sexism of 1950s American, here’s the lesson that he draws from the Barstows’s innocent enjoyments:
“But, for all those inequities, economic equality seemed within reach in 1956, at least for the vast middle class. (Michael Harrington’s exposé of American poverty, ‘The Other America,’ would not rock this complacency until 1962.) The sense that the American promise of social and economic mobility was attainable to anyone who sought it permeates “Disneyland Dream” from start to finish. . . .

“How many middle-class Americans now believe that the sky is the limit if they work hard enough? How many trust capitalism to give them a fair shake? Middle-class income started to flatten in the 1970s and has stagnated ever since. While 3M has continued to prosper, many other companies that actually make things (and at times innovative things) have been devalued, looted or destroyed by a financial industry whose biggest innovation in 20 years, in the verdict of the former Fed chairman Paul Volcker, has been the cash machine.

“The Barstows of 1956 could not have fathomed the outrageous gap between this country’s upper class and the rest of us. America can’t move forward until we once again believe, as they did, that everyone can enter Frontierland if they try hard enough, and that no one will be denied a dream because a private party has rented out Tomorrowland.”
Got that? In 1956, middle-class Americans believed that “the sky is the limit if they work hard enough” and that they “trust capitalism to give them a fair shake.” (Leave aside the fact that, not having had the chance to read Michael Harrington, they were wrong about that.) And how do we know that they believed that? Because our friends the Bartows thought they were “one of the most fortunate families in the world” for winning a promotional contest that gave them a chance to do something that any rich 1956 family could do at the drop of a hat but that was otherwise far outside of the reach of middle-class families. I guess that would make some sense if by “work[ing] hard enough” Rich meant entering enough promotional contests but, somehow, I bet that’s not what he has in mind. In any case, Rich wants us to believe that this country won’t get back on the right track until middle-class Americans recover the Barstows's alleged (false?) belief. Or something like that.

My head hurts too much to try following Rich’s train of “thought” any farther. Read the whole thing and decide for yourself whether I’m misrepresenting his “argument.” If you agree that I’m not leaving out anything vital, you might join me in asking: what does it say about the present state of liberalism that we’re hearing such nonsense from smart and highly accomplished liberals addressing us from lofty media platforms?

1 comment:

John Brown said...

Stop picking on Frank Rich. He can't help it.