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Column: Anniversaries offer chance to reflect on culture shifts


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This past year marked the 50th anniversaries of a number of historic events: the “I Have a Dream” speech, the assassinations of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem and U.S. President John Kennedy, and subsequent events in Dallas. In a few months, more will follow: the American arrival of a wave of British musical acts, beginning with the Beatles, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, Ronald Reagan’s “A Time for Choosing” speech which launched his political career and the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley.

2015 will see a flurry of such anniversaries: Medicare and Medicaid, the Selma to Montgomery march, the Watts riots, the first space walk.

A half-century ago, we charged into an uncharted territory the topography of which is only now becoming discernible. While previous decades had been characterized by course-altering developments — the Depression, World War II, the ubiquity of television — a thread of continuity connecting American society to deep-rooted Western institutions could be taken for granted.

The term “family” had an agreed-upon meaning, as did “spouse” and “parent.” There is now a definitional fluidity to these terms that the 1963 American would have found bizarre.

In 1963, Americans had much more of a sense of shared space. Since one had to physically go to a stationary telephone to use it — and to share it with other family members in a home — and since transistor radios weren’t generally equipped with earbuds, people generally couldn’t shut out the public environments in which they found themselves and replace them with self-designed individual universes.

It must be acknowledged that, to a degree that now seems foreign, 1963 Americans harbored assumptions, some mistaken and based on uncomfortable insecurities, about various demographic groups. Indeed, one of the major areas in which America’s awareness was expanded was the understanding that humanity was not bound by pigmentation. Similarly, we came to see that a female human being was not circumscribed by a few roles based on her various relationships.

We often threw babies out with bathwater, however. Only now, having some experience with the barrenness of the hookup culture and a couple of generations in which a father’s presence was much less of a given, can we see that there are types of respect accorded people that are indeed properly based on attributes such as gender and age. A culture in which a certain kind of fierceness prevails, in which proving oneself becomes the point of life, and in which bonds are often fleeting and based on gratification at the expense of intimacy, is one devoid of a basic kind of warmth and comity found in happy societies.

The whole notion of art, in the broadest sense of the term, has undergone changes that pretty much render the 1963 notion unrecognizable. In fields from music, film, fiction, poetry and dance to painting and sculpture, the sense of art as a means of more deeply understanding the human condition has been superseded by the view that its function is to express an individual’s emotional reaction to the experience of life. Sometimes the result is raw and loud, sometimes quiet and cloying but all too often eschewing the grand for the banal.

Finally, we have come to define equality in ways previously foreign to the American character. Largely gone is the recognition that an individual’s uniqueness, and designation as a man or woman, would make for outcomes that can’t be established by central planning. In its stead is the great leveling enterprise, which insists on uniform results, despite the fact that they can never be guaranteed. Opportunity, once central to human desires, seems quaint in 2013.

Barney Quick is one of The Republic’s community columnists. All opinions expressed are those of the writer. He may be reached at editorial@therepublic.com.

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