The natural state of America, in my theory, is decentralized toleration: We stand together because we can live apart. We are, most of the time, the nation described by Alexis de Tocqueville, made up of various ethnic, religious, and racial strands who believe fervently that we can live and triumph together if we allow one another to observe our local mores. We can embody David Hackett Fischer's "four British folkways" and at the same time be a united people. There's a tension in that, which threatens to come apart. In the midcentury America of the 1850s, the threat was that we would come apart: We had an explosive political conflagration over the issue of slavery in the territories and an explosive ethnic conflagration in the decade that had the largest immigrant influx, in percentage of pre-existing population, of any decade in our history. Citations: Kenneth Stampp's America in 1857; the opening chapters in James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom. And in fact, we produced a civil war.
We had the opposite situation in the midcentury America of the 1950s. After the shared experiences of the Depression and World War II, with universal institutions like the comprehensive high school, the military draft, and the big factory workforces represented by giant industrial unions, we were a culturally more uniform country than we have been before or since. We were a nation of conformism, of the regular guy, of the average guy who gets along with his peers. Citations: David Riesman's The Lonely Crowd; William H. Whyte's The Organization Man. It was a society, to take one example, far more hostile to homosexuality: The midcentury society of the 1850s could evidently tolerate Ishmael and Queequeeg sleeping together in Moby Dick and the poems of Walt Whitman, while the midcentury society of the 1950s cast its eyes away from the obvious gayness of the early Gore Vidal and Truman Capote and Roy Cohn.
The Civil War, the imposition of New England Yankee mores in the way described by Morton Keller, and the creation of national business and professional organizations described by Robert Wiebe in The Search for Order 1877-1910 reversed the extreme decentralization of the 1850s. The cultural rebellions, to the left and the right, described recently in neat form by Brink Lindsey's The Age of Abundance reversed the extreme centralization of the 1950s.
For those of us who grew up in the backwash of the 1950s, this decentralization seemed like an abandonment of American tradition. In the long line of history, I think it is more like a reversion to norm. The seeming inconsistency of currently prevailing attitudes on marriage and divorce, gambling and drinking, cigarette smoking and marijuana smoking, is part of the continuing turmoil of a decentralized society. The results don't cohere, but perhaps that is to be expected in a society like ours.
Friday, September 07, 2007