Wissot: The ‘Good Old Days’ weren’t great for everyone (column)
The prism of time changes everything. We remember the past with the false fondness we call nostalgia. But the political slogan “Make America Great Again” begs the question, which America? And which Americans are being addressed?
I recall the America of the 1950s and 1960s, the time of my childhood, adolescence and early adulthood, as being relatively tranquil, peaceful and safe.
My parents allowed me at age 11 to take the subway from my apartment house in the Bronx to that of my 11-year-old girl friend in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn so that we both could see a movie in Manhattan. I thought it would be cool to be alone in a dark movie theater with a girl for the first time. The time I spent on the subway train was way longer than the time I spent in the movie theater, practicing the best techniques for getting a girl to kiss you.
The fact that my parents gave me permission to ride the subways of the city for such a long period of time at such a young age speaks to how relatively safe we felt then from the dangers of children being abducted or harmed when alone in public.
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But that was my experience. I’m sure the parents and guardians of children my age living in the tenements, projects and subsidized housing, found in the poorer neighborhoods of the city may have had a different feeling about how safe their children would be if allowed to roam freely without time or place restrictions.
Many in this country would like to go back to the time when athletes were not as overpaid and spoiled as they are today, a time when, like children, they were seen and not heard. Would Mickey Mantle have taken a knee in the 1950s when the national anthem was being played at Yankee Stadium in order to protest a social injustice?
But Mickey Mantle was a white kid from Oklahoma who was being paid a lot of money, $100,000 a year, to play baseball. The America Mickey Mantle was living in was far different from the America experienced by Jackie Robinson and the other black players who had recently broken the color barrier that allowed them to play Major League Baseball.
For them, taking a knee might have been justified, given the fact that they still had to travel on segregated trains, stay at segregated hotels, eat in segregated restaurants and playing before fans segregated into different sections of the ballparks they visited.
For white straight men of the 1950s and 1960s, America must have been a happy place to be. The economy was good, jobs were plentiful, and being the sole breadwinner in the family was the norm.
Not so for gay men and some married women. For gay men, the challenges weren’t economic (though being openly gay would not help you land or keep a job). They were social. Stay in the closet or be ostracized, abused — even arrested — for having the temerity to express your sexual orientation in public.
Many married women were happy in the “Leave it to Beaver” and “Ozzie and Harriet” lives they led. But for those who weren’t, the opportunities were limited. Employment for women was mainly in lower-paying jobs. Divorce was illegal in most states prior to 1969 and, when allowed, limited to circumstances involving adultery. Being stuck in unwanted marriages was often the case for many women (“The Evolution of Divorce,” W. Bradford Wilcox, National Affairs, Fall 2009).
Being white or black, straight or gay, male or female, had everything to do with the America you lived in and the America you might want to or not want to go back to today.
I can understand why white, working-class males stuck in low-paying jobs or, worse, chronically unemployed, limited to high school educations, saddled with unpayable debt and perhaps victims of opioid dependency might yearn for the greener pastures of the past, when unskilled jobs were there for the taking, union employment readily available and the manufacturing plants in the country buzzing with business.
But that world doesn’t exist anymore. And all the political sloganeering and grandstanding isn’t bringing it back. Longing for a preferred past is natural. Expecting it to return because of unsubstantiated promises is futile.
Jay Wissot is a resident of Denver and Vail. Email him at email@example.com.
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