The Secret of Happiness: Forget the '50s


November 07, 1991|By RICHARD REEVES

NEW YORK. — New York -- "The Old Country'' is the title of a 26-page survey in the current edition of the British magazine The Economist. It is about -- you're kidding! -- the United States.

It is also a wonderful and concise, if sometimes debatable, recounting of the evolution of postwar America, 1945 to now, in 10 easy steps. And it concludes that we will be just fine if we forget about the 1950s, those happy, aberrant days when we had all the money in the world and life really was like ''Leave It to Beaver'' -- suburbs, three kids, Mom at home and all that.

First, on the business of being old: Michael Elliot, the author of the survey, reminds us (actually tells us because we don't much care about foreign stuff) that American democracy is the oldest continuous government in the world and that, for instance, Germany and Italy as we know them did not exist at the time of our Civil War.

Now, this is what happened, good and bad, he says, after the GIs came marching home from World War II to make babies and money -- personal income rose almost 16 percent in the 1950s and then another 16 percent between 1960 and 1965 -- and we were confident it would always be that way:

* The United States finally and truly united as President Eisenhower built national highways reconnecting the old South into the national economy, and President Kennedy began the process of ending racial segregation.

* The sexual revolution created a society different from America's self-image. Open sexuality, divorce, children born out-of-wedlock, and more, confused Americans, leaving them with one picture in the their heads and another on the streets.

* Women went to work, as they had through all of American history -- women do a man's work in agricultural societies -- except during the prosperous togetherness of the 1950s.

* American capitalism and workers were able to continue to create enough jobs to maintain that fine '50s feeling.

* People moved to the Sunbelt, following the sun and air-conditioning to the South and the West.

* They moved to suburbs. They still do, though it is sometime hard to see that when newspapers report on 400 people gentrifying an old Chicago street and ignore the fact that 80,000 other Chicagoans moved to DuPage County.

* Black Americans proved to be just like everybody else, moving to the suburbs if they got the chance -- leaving behind the ones who didn't make it on streets that got meaner and meaner.

* The white and black America of the 1950s became an international country, as immigrants came from Latin America and Asia. ''However much interest America may take in the rest of the world,'' Mr. Elliot writes, ''the rest of the world takes a continuing interest in America, both as tourists and immigrants.''

* The more-or-less self-contained American economy of the 1950s -- made in the USA, sold in the USA -- became just another part, albeit the biggest part, of a global economy.

* Presidents, beginning with Richard Nixon and his ''New Federalism,'' tried to reject much of the national government's role in domestic policy -- pushing more onto states and municipalities. That led to 51 separate domestic policies, in the states and the District of Columbia, symbolized by 51 separate driving licenses in one country.

What next? Well, The Economist notes, the future may be the past: Balkanization by region or state, class struggle, multiculturalism. ''All of this may be silly,'' Mr. Elliot says, but the last time the United States accepted multiculturalism, it led to the Civil War.

In the end, The Economist decides that ''multiculturalism is a paper tiger.'' Americans prefer to be Americans; that's why they or their ancestors came here.

''America got fat and happy on the back of a historical accident: the consequence of two world wars in which Western Europe, Russia and Japan all temporarily lacerated themselves,'' The Economist concludes. ''If only America could grasp that truth, it could recover its self-confidence, instead of pursuing the ultimately hopeless task of trying to re-create a dreamtime . . . It's time for the old country to learn how it coped when it was younger.''

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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