Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Walker Percy Explains the Rise of Inequality

Yesterday I stumbled across this, printed on a t-shirt:
Ours is the only civilization in history which has enshrined mediocrity as its national ideal. . . . True, our moral fiber is rotten. Our national character stinks to high heaven. But we are kinder than ever.
It's a quotation from The Moviegoer by Walker Percy, published in 1961. It sums up how many elite Americans felt about the 1950s: a boring, sordid time, when the mass culture was Leave it to Beaver, politics was Eisenhower balancing the budget, and the iconic vehicle was not a Packard or a Tesla but the 57 Chevy. Kept from filthy riches by 90% income taxes, the business elite focused gaining status by being more respectable than everyone else. The serious artists reacted by creating Abstract Expressionism, Beat Poetry, and other forms designed to be completely impenetrable to the Levittown masses in their horrible little suburban houses. The intellectuals seethed and scorned.

Looking back from the cruel, exciting 21st century we now recognize that the 50s and early 60s were the most economically equal time in American history. The elite seethed partly because the masses had more of the money than ever before, and through their taste in television, movies and music were setting the cultural tone like never before. Artistes recoiled from the spreading suburbs, but in those suburbs, for the first time in human history, ordinary working people were able to afford decent houses.

I don't have time to get into everything that was wrong with the 1950s, which we all know about. But think about the basic socio-economic facts: that was what an economically equal America was like. That was when television and Hollywood catered to the tastes of the real masses. That was also when our politics was least partisan, with the most bipartisanship in Congress and the most split-ticket voting.

And the nation couldn't stand it. It all seemed like a straight jacket of conformity, a gray prison we couldn't wait to burst out of. And by the nation here I mean mainly the elites. The businessmen hated the high taxes, the corporate conformity, the way union contracts and oligopolies limited their ability to create, innovate, and get rich. The feminists hated suburban motherhood. Black leaders hated the polite racism, which was sometimes more galling than the mailed fist kind had been. Young college students hated the path laid out before them toward corporate offices and suburban houses and longed for something more authentic. The intellectuals hated everything. The Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War provided the spark, but the explosion was coming anyway. Our restless, ambitious country was not going to sit still in identical suburban houses watching three tv channels, voting for tweedledum or tweedledee. We could not accept mediocrity as a national principle.

Everything that has happened since has been about breaking free: from rigid gender roles, from segregation, from television shows pitched to the average suburban family, from a static business world defined by starched white shirts and ever more tightly controlled factories. And we got our revolution: women's rights, minority rights, gay rights, trans rights, 500 television channels, the internet, the global economy, universities with no curricula and no grades, a flood of immigrants bringing a hundred new cuisines, designer drugs, a hundred kinds of music, an upper middle class numbering millions with huge houses, swanky cars, and foreign vacations.

The price was the collapse of economic equality and the disappearance of any unifying culture. And a political echo: the people who miss that world, both its economic equality and its cultural conformity, the people who elected Nixon and have now elected Trump. Because not everybody thought Levittown was a disaster, or that Leave it to Beaver and The Andy Griffith Show were tedious dreck. For many people, that was America at its best. And every time you mourn our own problems – inequality, partisan rancor, a business world dominated by egomaniacal billionaires – think on the 1950s. Because any equal America, any America really run in the interests of working people, is going to be a lot more like that.


Unknown said...

I too have been thinking about this contradiction, and the difficulty of threading one's way through it. By that I mean, I'm very much a PC liberal, but I'm also personally a square who likes the quiet virtues and still enjoys Andy Griffith. There was a strong streak of hostility and even cruelty in the counterculture that yes, feeds right into disruptor entrepreneurship and Travis Kalanick. On a certain level, the message of the Diggers, Further, Hibiscus, the movie Bonnie and Clyde, and the rest was that the world should be made safe for the really cool, beautiful, hypomanic people who can do improv and make it work, and he that gets hurt will be he who has stalled.

On the other hand, there was as we all know a lot that was cruel and ugly about the 50s. There was still plenty of the mailed fist--remember Emmett Till? And there was redlining, Curtis LeMay, constant Martini drinking, the secretary as mistress, bullies beating up kids who liked poetry, McCarthyism, the Lavender Scare, and the rest.

I suppose we humans can't be together without generating a certain amount of hostility and cruelty.

In any case, thanks for putting it into written words, and eloquently.

Unknown said...

I think a fascinating example of these developments is the rural purge, when networks basically purged their popular rural-themed shows like Andy Griffith with Norman Lear and Baretta, etc., as they searched for a less-numerous but higher-spending young urban demographic. Sometimes I've wondered if at bottom populists are still angry about Petticoat Junction. If so, I can understand. Given the place of network television in the American society of those days, there's something immensely high-handed and frighteningly powerful about it. (Personally, I loved both Bonanza and Mary Tyler Moore. I was a big TV watcher.)

G. Verloren said...

I don't see any necessary connection between income equality and homogenous, patriarchally-stilted life.

What's stopping us from having a society of both cultural non-conformity AND economic equality? Why can't we have a 90% income tax on the rich, AND a society that accepts everyone, and their cultures and cuisines, et cetera?

Economic inequality isn't the fault of women, blacks, gays, and foreign immigrants asking to be treated like human beings. Economic inequality is the fault of the rich exploiting the weak, full stop.

It must be pointed out, the 1950s wasn't actually a time of economic equality for everyone - only economic equality for white, straight men. Women absolutely did not have economic equality, as they did not have social equality, and were overwhelmingly dependent on men to provide for them, relegating them to subserviant housewife roles. Blacks absolutely did not have economic equality, as they too did not have soocial equality, and were segregated and discriminated against, particularly in the south, but also to a lesser extent in the north. And so on for homosexuals, and for unaccepted ethnic minorities, et cetera.

There's nothing stopping us from taxing the rich and using that money to help the poor, except the rich themselves. One need not have a bland, conformist, homogenous society in order to stop the wealthy from lining their pockets at the expense of others. You just need system of laws and courts that isn't rigged in the favor of the rich, and politicians whose votes can't be bought by moneyed interests.

Shadow said...

I blame Ozzie and Harriet. Did he ever work?

One could drive through the south and from one's car window witness first hand the very visible, severe poverty -- another world. Some things, some very important things, are more equal now than then.

John said...

@Shadow Flutter: yes, there was much more deep poverty in the 1950s than now, a change partly due to programs like Food Stamps and Medicaid. But the country as a whole was much poorer than now; a Levittown ranch house was a tiny, uncomfortable thing, but they seemed big and exciting to millions of people in 1950. We have gotten much richer than they were. But because the rich have gained more than the rest of us, inequality really has greatly increased, even though we have fewer very poor people.

John said...

@Verloren: what's stopping us from having a society with both freedom and equality is that they require opposite habits of mind. Equality results when everybody wants to sacrifice for the common good, inequality when everybody insists on getting his or her own way. Those habits do not distinguish between money and everything else.

Unknown said...

That explanation that we can't figure out how to respect our differences in an equitable society seems on the weak side. People are capable of respecting one another's differences while also understanding that it is in everyone's best interests to pool our resources. If not because of empathy and kindness, then because of self-interest. Our current view is faulty. That somehow when "I get mine" I did it alone, and I'm free to watch the rest of the world burn. But this is not how human society works. What harms you harms me - in ways I can and cannot see.

The "rugged individual" America loves is a myth.

We are interdependent. It's how we have come this far. It's why we need more people to have freedom and the ability to contribute to society without the deep economic inequality that existed in the 50's for women and people of color, and now exists for us all. When we take care of each other, we take care of ourselves. When we allow for different viewpoints, we create new ideas, new worlds. We aren't doomed to inequality no matter what we do. What we need isn't uniformity or institutional subjugation based on prejudicial prescribed roles. It's a change in perspective: We really are better together.

Not that I think that shift in attitude is going to happen in my lifetime, but if a person can understand that, then people at large can too.

Shadow said...


We're right back in the first part of the twentieth century regarding wealth distribution.

For those interested,

Look at (bottom, after references) the link below. It compares wealth distribution across three time periods: early twentieth century, mid-twentieth century, and present.