Monday, November 28, 2011

Ending the "Decadence"

As I've wound up my lectures this term, I've tried hard not to plod through the last fifty years as a series of decades--the 1950s, the 60s, the 70s, the 80s, the 90s--but instead to see the period as "an age" or as "ages." How best to understand the world we're living in now? How best to understand the first years of our time (whenever that may be).

There are lots of candidates. The Age of Conservatism plays well, which allows the story of the rights expanding language of World War II to parlay into the storms of the middle 1960s, which in turn prompted a conservative outburst, Reaganomics, our current political polarization, the Religious Right, and more.

The Information Age also has some merit. The decline of the 100-year industrial revolution in the 1970s meant economic doldrums for many Americans until the economy rebooted in the 1990s, leading us into the information age that we live in today. In this scenario we can easily introduce globalization and it's discontents, the internet, 24-hour news cycles, the Lewinsky scandal, and more. This is certainly more of an economic explanation as opposed to a political or culture one, but you'd be foolish to think there's not a relationship between the three, and that the economy has more often than not been in the driver's seat in American history.

Then there's the idea that "We Are All Multiculturalists Now" that Nathan Glazer told us about in 1997. This tells the story of the triumph of the idea that descent shouldn't matter much in who gets basic rights, our love of diversity talk (and our negligence of class talk), the rise of "political correctness" (which most people simply call "good manners"), and yes, the presidency of Barack Obama.

I find these last few lectures fascinating because things that seemed so important to me in the mid-1990s, now seem so unimportant. I remember a friend in graduate school saying "the legacy of Bill Clinton's presidency will be his embrace of free trade." I thought he was crazy--his legacy will of course be Monica Lewinsky and the culture wars.

As I look over my lecture notes now, I'm pretty darn sure my friend was right.

(this post comes from Kevin Schultz; Blum merely re-posted it to get posts in chronological order).

1980s beyond Reagan's America

Top Gun in the 1980s

When I first started teaching about the 1980s, I felt alone and afraid. I put on the self-confident, know-it-all style that Tom Cruise embodied in Top Gun, but deep down I worried because I knew that I was flying solo. There was no mother “goose” to protect or guide me. I had never heard a professor get into that decade, and although I had lived through the decade, I did so playing with lego toys, watching G.I. Joe cartoons, and believing that Hulk Hogan was a real “American hero”. But now, the decade has a rich literature, especially to explain the rise and dominance of Ronald Reagan’s new conservatism. If I were to attend graduate school now, I imagine that works by Gil Troy, Darren Dochuk, and Kim-Phillips-Fein would be part of my comprehensive examinations.

Both Hist and Major Problems focus on the rise of the “new right” in the 1980s. Hist even titles the chapter “Reagan’s America.” In 1980, he won the presidency with 50% of the vote (Carter only received 41%) but 90% of the Electoral College. In 1984, Reagan won with almost 59% of the popular vote. And it is true, Reagan put his stamp on the United States during those years. His new deregulated conservatism stood against the New Deal-Great Society liberalism created by Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. But as one whose first political button was for Michael Dukakis (I think I would refer to him as “Dewey” when stumping on his behalf to my middle school classmates in 1988), I’ve been in search of a way to fold Reagan’s conservatism into broader themes, rather than see it as the central theme. So here goes.

To teach the 80s this time, I’m going to focus on the concept of “top gun” – from the top grossing movie of 1986 (by the way, Crocodile Dundee was second and Platoon was third). Top Gun, the film, shows so many aspects of historical change. It showcases Vietnam Syndrome (as the fighters are training to overcome the poor American performance in Vietnam and Tom Cruise struggles with the demons of his dead father from the war), a war movie where there is little warfare (typical of the “Cold War” notion that it was more a battle of ideology than armies, although there was plenty of hot and dirty war in the decades), and workplace relations in a nation transformed by feminism (as Kelly McGillis struggles as Maverick’s supervisor with how to be sexual with him without compromising her authority).

Carl Lewis ... really fast
But there’s another aspect of “top gun” that applies to the 1980s. This was a decade when the United States actively set its sights to become the world’s top gun. Reagan’s White House built up the arms race so effectively that the Soviet Union couldn’t keep pace. At the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, Americans marveled at their medal count as they cheered Mary Lou Retton, Michael Jordan, and Carl Lewis. The United States finished with 174 total medals, while West Germany finished a distance second with 59. The top gun mentality and experience hit its high-water mark when the Soviet Union collapsed and the United States easily pushed Iraq out of Kuwait in the Persian Gulf War. As of 1991, the United States was the lone superpower, Reagan’s former vice-President George H. W. Bush was on top of the political world, and historians prophesied an “end of history.”

Television highlighted the rise to the top of many Americans. The Cobsy Show became the most famous sitcom about African Americans – replacing Good Times from the 1970s. And the distinction couldn’t be more telling. On The Cosby Show, Claire Huxtable was an attorney; Heathcliff was a physician, and this firmly upper class probably voted Democrat (the family enjoyed its civil rights heritage with regular references to historically black colleges and universities) but also savored its interactions with Nancy Reagan (as the time when she brought her “just say no” anti-drug message to the program).

Joe Montana ... not fast, but accurate
Within the “top gun” universe, California seemed to be at the summit. Reagan’s conservatism was forged on the western frontier and came out of the 1960s and 1970s conservative backlash in California. In football, the San Francisco 49ers and their “West Coast” offense was not just winning Superbowls, but redefining the sport for television as it rose to prominence. In basketball, the Los Angeles Lakers and their up-tempo basketball style known as “Show Time” was outpacing the “tough” Boston Celtics and “nasty” Detroit Pistons. The state’s economy outperformed the rest of the nation’s with personal incomes and wages growing at a robust rate throughout the 1980s. As of 1991, California’s economy constituted about 1/8 of the entire nation’s economy and its gross product was 60% greater than the second state in the nation, New York. As of 1990, it had almost 30 million people with New York a distance second at 18 million.

Another theme, which I stress as well, is the rise of material prosperity during the decade. Nothing seems as emblematic as the contrast between the Bee Gees “Staying Alive” (where the high-pitched vocalists stand in front of empty, smashed up inner-city homes) with Madonna’s “Material Girl” (where she dances through an abundance so full that even her name is the commodification and sexualization of a sacred, poor, sorrowful virgin).

So what themes do you stress??? Next time, I’ll post about our conversation from Major Problems on the new right and Clinton’s “third way.”

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Talking turkey

Two big conferences mean that Ed and I have been quieter than normal, perhaps the relief of more than a few. But those who are already tired of the family over the long weekend, the marvelous Plimoth Plantation has a nice history of Thanksgiving for you to peruse, if you want to show off over cranberry sauce tonight.

Friday, November 18, 2011

1970s Discussion and Culture

Entertainment versus Effect

Our discussion of the 1970s began with a question for today: which would leave you more disgusted and demoralized, a terrible economy defined by inflation and few job opportunities OR a presidential political scandal that showed wickedness in high places. In groups of two, my wonderful students chattered and chattered. The result was unanimous: the political scandal would be entertainment, while the economic trauma would have such a negative effect that it would be far more important to them.

This led directly into a terrific discussion of how their answers were built upon the history we were studying. Major Problems details not just the “fall of presidents” but in some ways the “fall of politics.” Watergate gets the lion’s share of attention, but the Pentagon Papers and Vietnam were just as devastating. My students don’t trust leading politicians. They expect scandal, hypocrisy, and lies. They’re living in a history transformed by the late 1960s and 1970s. We then talked about how different this was from the age of the New Deal when farmers and city folk, mothers and daughters, artists and mechanics wrote to Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt for help. We contrasted our time with the era of the fireside chats when hearing the voice of the president was inspiring, and not infuriating. I thought, all in all, what they didn’t vote for (presidential scandal) was a great entrée into some of the historical points. And to underscore this, we watched the trailer to All the President’s Men and saw how two supposedly bumbling reporters became political heroes by exposing political scandal.

Then we got into the impact of the economy. This is what they voted for as most frustrating, and so we watched a little bit of the Rocky trailer from 1976. There is so much there. The poor, ethnic Rocky (the “Italian stallion”) whose entire life was a “million-to-one-shot” living in the run down urban blight that was Philadelphia. He’s to fight Apollo Creed, the black champion who believes in opportunity so much that he’ll give Rocky a chance, who parades and parodies American nationalism so much during the Bi-Centennial that he dresses up first as George Washington then as Uncle Sam to overexpose the nation. When it comes to racial politics, notions of nationalism, the rise of new ethnic identities, and the power of stagflation, I don’t think there’s anything better than Rocky (of course, we don’t find out till Rocky III that Mick, Rocky’s trainer, is Jewish … but that’s another storyline).

And finally, we back tracked a little with the trailer for The Graduate. Underneath the political scandal and the economic travail was another massive shift – that in assumptions of what was expected of “men” and “women.” On one hand, it’s hilarious to watch Dustin Hoffman not know what to do when confronted with questions like “what are you going to do with yourself” or when Mrs. Robinson is disrobing. It’s also funny watching this “track star” run (he doesn’t look very fast!) But what I want my students to see – and they can read about this in Hist is that what it meant to be a man and a woman in American society was changing. The new wave of feminism had altered what was and what wasn’t appropriate behavior, and Hoffman’s character signaled that. We addressed several articles from Major Problems that discussed appropriate femininity in the 1950s so now the question became what and how should men act not just in a post-Civil Rights world, but also in a post-patriarchy world (at least where patriarchy is accepted as a norm).

 Next week, we follow more of Rocky and listen to the powerful 80s rock of “Gonna Fly Now” and then jet into the actual air with Tom Cruise and Top Gun. There, American patriotism and manhood are going to fight back, bed their superiors, and win the Cold War through a bravado that overcomes the Vietnam complexes. Somehow I'll also need to work in the rise of Oprah - after teaching my friend Katie Lofton's amazing book on the icon in my US religious history class.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Watergate lives!

I too heart the Seventies, although I try not to call it that--too decadent (get it?).

But it is a fun one to teach. And I was pleasantly surprised to see that a full three-quarters of my students knew roughly what Watergate was before I began the story: a hotel. They may not have known the intricacies of the story, but they were clearly aware of the term, and its importance in history.

The theme of today's lecture is something like Nixon's America--the Limits of Liberalism, and I get to explore the weird thing that is Tricky Dick. Students are shocked to see that he was the one who created (eventually) the EPA, that he doubled the funding to the NEH and NEA, that he brought affirmative action to the federal government. They're also shocked to hear about Ping-Pong diplomacy, the winding down of the Vietnam War, and SALT.

In fact, one student asked a great, if slightly off question: does all this stuff--especially d'etante--make up for Watergate? I don't quite think anything is worth sacrificing democracy for, and I think that's more true in the case of Nixon, when all his actions were more or less odd attempts to ensure his re-election and defang what he saw as the Eastern Establishment that was out to get him.

The next lecture is on late 70s culture--Rocky lives.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

God I Heart "The Seventies"

The Seventies

Perhaps not a glorious decade to live in, the Seventies are a blast to teach. There is no widely held mythology about the seventies to debunk. When I have asked my students about it, they vaguely mention disco, and then someone remembers who John Travolta is (or was). They perhaps reference Jimmy Carter, but no one has brought up Watergate in years (Nixon would be so proud of these young, fine Americans). So there isn’t much unlearning that needs to happen. There may be many reasons for this, but one of them may be that U.S. history classes rarely get past Watergate. During my first semester as a TA (which was in 1999), that’s where we stopped. Now, I’m excited to say that it’s not even Thanksgiving and we’re zooming into the abyss that is the 1970s.

Hist and Major Problems provide some great approaches to the era. Both focus on the “limits” of liberalism and the “downfall” of presidents. Schultz emphasizes the “limits of liberalism” and takes us through Nixon’s presidency, and especially his triumphs in foreign affairs, and through Ford and Carter. Hist also has a nice section on the “politics of identity” (Alex Haley’s Roots) and struggles over women’s rights (ERA versus Phyllis Schlafly). Major Problems has a tremendous array of documents on the Vietnam War, from Ho Chi Minh pleading with Truman for support to County Joe and the Fish lampooning the war with lines like: “Well, come on all of you, big strong men, / Uncle Sam needs your help again. / He’s got himself in a terrible jam / Way down yonder in Vietnam.” And when Major Problems highlights the rise of the new right that resulted in Reagan’s presidential election in 1980, the documents are just terrific. There’s Archie Bunker singing “those were the days,” Phyllis Schlafly denouncing feminism, California’s hating their taxes (this is a history class, right?!?), and Jerry Falwell calling America back to its “Christian roots.”

Black Jesus on Good Times
One example of the limits of liberalism that won’t make it into a textbook, but that typifies the era to me, is what became of “liberation theologies” during the 1970s – those new waves of Christian theology that emerged in the 1950s and 1960s that put the church and Christ on the side of oppressed minority groups (remember Jeremiah Wright – as he was shouting “God damn America” also making the point that Jesus was black?). Liberation theology may seem like a parochial point that is better suited for a US religious history class, but what happened to it in the 1970s was emblematic. In the 1960s, minority groups from throughout North and South America created new brands of theology. It was an exciting time of religious invention. Some black theologians claimed Jesus was black (James Cone, for instance, and the second episode of Good Times featured a discussion about a black Christ). Some Catholic theologians in Latin America claimed that Jesus was with poor, rural, suffering Latin Americans (Gustavo Gutiérrez, for instance). Feminists pushed against Christ’s masculinity (Rosemary Ruether). In the 1970s, these various theologies started to interact with one another. At international conventions, they were hopeful they could create a comprehensive theology that linked all minority groups.

And it all fell apart. As the liberal and radical groups met, they could not agree upon whose suffering was most severe or how best to battle oppression. The result was frustration and splinter. A new group of thinkers called themselves womanists (Jacquelyn Grant, for instance) and saw Christ against white power, patriarchy, and capitalism … some formidable opponents, indeed. Liberation theology, like liberalism, still went on – the Jeremiah Wright’s of the world are examples of that – but they seemed “stuck in the sixties”, as even Barack Obama recognized when he put distance between himself and Reverend Wright.

I like the tale of liberation theologies, in part because I write about race and religion, but also because it brings up some international and multicultural dimensions from the civil rights era, but also because it shows how when the various groups came together, they had such trouble creating a center that could hold.

For discussion later this week, we’re going to discuss that one word Jimmy Carter spoke that nobody wanted to hear: malaise. If any one word could typify the era, that would be it. We’ll see through the Major Problems documents and a few movie trailers (The Graduate and Saturday Night Fever). And then for the 1980s, we'll follow the mythic career of Rocky Balboa.

Friday, November 11, 2011

God I Hate "The Sixties"

Yes, it's true. I hate "the Sixties."

This is mainly because of what popular culture has done to it. It's all "peace, love, and happiness," tie-die, pot smoking, free love, Jimi Hendrix, and youth culture. While that's a slice of what "the Sixties" was (well, the late Sixties), it was just a small slice, and perhaps not a very important one.

So the first thing I do is un-teach "the Sixties" by showing them Halloween costumes of "the Sixties" from today--flower girls mostly--and say, this is not enough. Then I show them a picture of a certain someone being inaugurated in 1968. Did all those hippies really vote for Nixon? Why would they do that?

Another reason "the Sixties" are difficult to teach is because they are still very much alive. For instance, it's hard not to interpret the presidency of Bill Clinton as a referendum on the period. Did he or did he not inhale (of course he did).

To get past all this, there is the vomit approach--let's spill out everything and show them. A useful website that takes this approach is too monstrous to be useful to the student, but might be useful to the professor looking for lecture material or the advanced undergraduate looking for a research topic.

On the other hand, I've come to see the 1960s as a debate about the meaning and limits of freedom that takes the same narrative form of the 1920s. Lots of cultural change going on with Nixon and "law and order" as the response, a la the Immigration Act of 1924 and the Second Ku Klux Klan. Every parallel has its limits, of course, but teaching "the Sixties" this way repeats a narrative they've already encountered and keeps the larger story intact.

Vietnam comes next. How do you do it?

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Civil Rights and the Sixties

Where Local Meets Global

I like Kevin’s idea of centering on a few stories – to show the different faces and feelings of the spirit of the sixties and the civil rights revolution. I wonder, too, if touchstone events could draw out some of the gripping storylines. I’ve also used music to tell the stories, with “We Shall Overcome” followed by “People Get Ready” and then onto “Mississippi Goddamn.” (quick mention here of an amazing book on civil rights music and local politics: check out Suzanne Smith's Dancing in the Streets on Motown and the cultural politics of Detroit). One that students may be familiar with (but probably don’t know that much about) is the September 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama. As an event, it hits on so many points and it links to a bunch of themes in the Major Problems readings. I’ll mention a few of the themes and connections here.

Church after bombing
1: Violence. We know the fire-hoses, and we know the assassinations. We can read about them in documents from Robert Williams, as he defends “self defense” in 1962 or in the short essay from Tim Tyson. But at Birmingham, we see militancy moved to sacred places – a church bombed on a Sunday morning.
2: Highs and lows, gains and setbacks. Coming only three weeks after the excitement of the March on Washington, the church bombing brings us back down to the sad realities of racial discrimination. MLK was prominent at both, and students could compare and contrast his “I have a dream” speech with his eulogy at Birmingham. I think the next edition of Major Problems probably needs a document showing the sadness of civil rights gains and multiracialism under assault so that we can understand the ups and downs of movement people.
3: Media technology transformed local events into national ones. This is evident in the marvelous essay by Henry Louis Gates Jr., discussing civil rights moments on television, and for Birmingham, it can be connected to Anne Moody. She heard the story on the radio, and her response was visceral (all of which she details in her memoir, and I would nominate her for one of the stories that Kevin could narrate; and maybe her response to Birmingham can get a place in the next Major Problems edition).
Wales Window for Birmingham
4: International interest: we know King won the Nobel Peace Prize, and we know events in India and Africa were crucial to the storyline of the age. The Birmingham bombing story traveled throughout the world and a group in Great Britain commissioned a new piece of stained-glass to repair a window destroyed by the bombing. The new sacred symbol, the “Wales Window for Birmingham” connected the violence in Alabama with apartheid in South Africa as part of an overall sacred challenge to any form of racial colonialism.

What other touchstone events would folks use?

Monday, November 7, 2011

Frustrations from teaching civil rights...

The civil rights movement is filled with so many great stories, and it's perhaps one of the few things we can be certain our students have some basic understanding of: it's got to be easy to teach, right? And yet, and yet...every time I finish my lecture on the subject I feel I've let my students down.

Before I know it, it has turned into a litany of one damned thing after another. How boring!

It starts off well. I try to convince them that any notion of there being a single "civil rights movement" is highly questionable, and that they are better served by thinking of at least two civil rights movements (at the least), one about ending segregation in the South (that's the story they know from high school), the second about advancing racially defined economic, residential, professional, and social equality (that's the one they know from their daily lives, even if they don't think of it in historical context yet). Getting them to look at civil rights that way forces them to recognize that the narrative from 1954 to 1965 doesn't get at nearly all the momentous challenges of the color line in American life. The civil rights movement as they have thought of it just gets at a small part of it.

It continues strong too, I think. I then tell the inspiring story of the Greensboro Four. Not only is it a great story, but also the key players are four college freshmen who cobbled together their plan in their dorm room after being snubbed upon returning from winter break. Hey students in those bolted down seats, don't think you have a role to play in history? Neither did they.

But after that, I'm not happy with the lecture. I recap civil rights to the 60s, then plod along with the story. One damned thing after another.

My plan next time is perhaps something like this: teach the civil rights movement in three (or four) stories. Let the students get the narrative from HIST; let me tell great stories. My students are very interested in the Greensboro Four. What if I just tell the story of Linda Brown (Brown v. Board), of Rosa Parks, of the Greensboro Four, and of the March on Washington, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and then the Watts Riots? Four big stories they can sink their teeth into (and remember!) and less plodding along.

Uncovered here I come!

Can anyone out there help with suggestion from their own experience, as a teacher or student? What's worked for you?

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Brief Personal Note

Elijah James Blum Memorial Fund

Sorry to post this personal note on our blog, but I wanted to let people know about a new memorial fund being put together by San Diego State University. It is to honor my son Elijah James Blum. Here is a link to more information and ways to donate if you feel led.

The History Department at San Diego State University would like to announce its fundraising efforts to create the “Elijah James Blum Memorial Fund." Elijah, son of Associate Professor Edward J. Blum and Jennifer Blum, passed away on August 31, 2011, from complications related to a mitochondrial disorder. After developing cataracts in his eyes and degenerating muscularly such that his eating and breathing were impaired, Elijah died peacefully at home with his family. His favorite game was peek-a-boo and he laughed far more in life than he cried. He was just over eight months old.

The “Elijah James Blum Memorial Fund” will be used to support teaching and learning in the History Department at San Diego State University. Tax-deductible contributions to the fund may be made by writing a check to “The Campanile Foundation,” referencing the Elijah James Blum Memorial Fund on the memo line and sending it to Bonnie Akashian, SDSU Dept. of History, 5500 Campanile Dr., San Diego, CA 92182-6050. Please contact Beth Pollard (Associate Prof. of History, or Nancy Lemkie (Senior Director of Development in CAL at SDSU, or 619-594-8569), if you have any questions.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Wither McCarthyism?

Every time I lecture on "Cold War Culture" I realize I've done almost the entire lecture without referring once to Joseph McCarthy. This can't be right. His polarizing presence animated much of the possibilities of politics of the 1950s. Some have even called it the Age of McCarthy.

But still, was McCarthy more important than the development of suburbia? How about the reversion of gender roles? How about the hardened lines of racial segregation? The crisis of conformity? The development of extreme consumer culture? The military-industrial complex? Brown v. Board? Where do the Hollywood Ten fit into that spectrum?

There are a whole panoply of pattern-setting events in the 1950s. It has got to be the new "First Years of Our Time" (or is that the 1970s?). At any rate, it's no wonder David Halberstam's big book on "The Fifties" argues that "the Fifties" were really a precursor to "the Sixties" and all that followed.

It's also no wonder, then, that McCarthy hardly appeared in my initial lectures on the subject. There was too much else going on. To remedy this, I make a big deal about McCarthy in my introductory comments, to show that there was a dark shadow over the entire era. Then I conclude with a brief return to the man, to explain how he, and others, used the Cold War and the Long Telegram and Containment to great political effect. The atmosphere of fear seems most important to me.

Nevertheless, it seems like McCarthyism is slipping as a quintessential topic of the 1950s. Other things have emerged as more important, and more interesting.

Rebel with an Equal Protection Clause

Documents and Discussions, 1945-1965

The class was all set up. I had asked them to imagine life when they were in fifth grade. “Who was your teacher?” “Mrs. Anderson,” one responded. “Who was your best friend?” A host of names were mumbled. What did your desk look like? When was recess? And then, I put Bert the Turtle on the screen, preparing to smile and then shudder as we watched him teach children of the 1950s how to “duck and cover.” But it didn’t work. No sound was coming from the speaker. I fiddled with it for a second, and then Becca (who had earlier showed us her new tattoo on her hand) blurted out, “Well that’s disappointing.” “Yeah it is,” I sighed.

So it would have to be Thursday that I would show Bert the Turtle, along with several other short videos from the 1950s. What I gained from that little moment, though, was how powerful setting up the stage was for the film. The little questions about life as a child seemed to prepare the mood of the classroom to watch the video not as a joke, but as a real gesture of how it must have felt to watch a video that explained what to do if mommy, daddy, and teachers weren’t around.

Today, we’re going to discuss a few videos from the 1950s and some of the documents in Major Problems. I may even through in some comics, a la Hist and its inclusion of Captain America in these years. My favorite video – beyond Bert the Turtle – is the trailer for Rebel Without a Cause. Movie trailers are great: they provide a lead in for discussing an entire film (and I’ve tried showing entire movies before, but they eat up so much time) and the marketing of the trailer may give us some historical insight. For instance, for Rebel Without a Cause claims that its story “daringly meets the challenge of today’s most vital controversy!” Rebel without a Cause was released in 1955. Umm … the most vital controversy?!? Wouldn’t Brown v. the Board of Education and the NAACP's challenge that school segregation violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment be more explosive? What about the possibilities of the USSR and the USA annihilating themselves and the world with atomic weaponry? But then again, as the trailer continues, the film is “sensitive … so sensitive.” It’s hard to not roll with laughter. So I ask my students to try and explain how this movie could be considered for many Americans to speak to their deepest problems. Then we compare it with what the national news today may say is most important versus what those in the class worry and fret about on a daily basis.

Major Problems has three chapters that deal with the span from 1945 to 1965. One is on the Cold War and nuclear weapons; another is on affluence and anxiety; and the third is on civil rights. Together, they approach the two decades from a variety of interesting and provocative angles. There are images of destruction – whether a cake shaped like an atomic mushroom cloud or Godzilla destroying a city; there’s Senator Joseph McCarthy spewing about the internal communist menace, and then Life reasoning that “We Won’t All be Dead” in the event of a nuclear war (which was about as reassuring as Bert the Turtle!). A newspaper survey from 1959 evaluates whether you are a “conformist or a rebel” and a photograph from a Star Trek episode offers a glimpse of multiracial America.
The South Park goth
kids hate "conformists"

In class today, I’m going to highlight documents on a postal clerk who lost his job, the newspaper survey on conformity, and the Supreme Court ruling on Brown v. the Board of Education. Each of these documents engages my students with where they are: they’re students who deal with issues of individuality versus conformity, and they’re all terrified of employment issues (not so much losing a job as getting one). It’s all well and good to be a rebel when you don’t have to worry about employment; and it’s all well and good to be in favor of desegregation when you put the burden onto children. We’ll see how it goes!