11/22/1963: America at Its Civilizational Peak

mass_ave2

Patulcius:

As President Kennedy rode through Dallas, Texas in his black* limousine on November 22, 1963, the United States towered at the zenith of its cultural history, the peak of American civilization.

The economy roared while the United States produced just about everything for a world still recovering from the Second World War.  Crime and civil strife were still rare and had little effect on the average citizen.  Families were strong, typically with mothers staying at home to care for the family while fathers worked at regular jobs nearby. Children could count on safe schools where the Christian moral code was understood as the unquestionable norm.

After the civilizational winter of the Great Depression and World War II, the USA enjoyed a post-war springtime of peace and prosperity, a respect for law and order that arose from the people themselves rather than from brute police force, and where only a few people on the fringes of society questioned its rules and values.  By 1963, poverty in the United States was almost eliminated, murder rates had sunk to their lowest recorded levels, and once-prevalent diseases such as smallpox and cholera were unheard of while pests such as bedbugs had become rare.  It seemed like nothing could damper this optimism and prosperity.

youth-tv-s

A typified family from about 1960 staring into the infernal television set.

But that springtime ceased as those bullets put an end to Jack Kennedy’s life.  And the culture of the United States, if not necessarily its economic and military might, has declined rapidly ever since.

The 1950’s Zeitgeist, with its happy conformity, transformed into the Vietnam War, peace protests, free love, the drug culture, open-door immigration, race riots, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and RFK, the end of Hollywood’s production code, rampant pornography, militant feminism, and no-fault divorce.  Unquestioned assumptions of the past, many of the fundamental principles of American civilization, were analyzed and rejected, or perverted beyond recognition.

To be sure, the winds of change had already started to blow.  Civil rights marches and desegregation in the 1950’s marked the beginning of racial tensions.  Divorce rates had slowly but steadily risen at least since 1900, and by the 1950’s divorces had climbed to about half of today’s rate and were still largely stigmatized for the average American.  Television, while showing mostly innocent programming, transfixed the minds of a generation of children.  Rock and Roll music, with its rebel culture, started in the fifties.  Outlaw motorcycle gangs began to form shortly after World War II; as did the Beat Generation, with its widespread homosexuality, flamboyant non-conformity, and drug abuse.  Pornography, always present to some extent in the US, moved into the mainstream with the 1953 introduction of Playboy magazine and the redefinition of obscenity in the 1957 Supreme Court decision Roth vs. the United States.  As Joe McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee so infamously asserted and ineptly resisted, Communist spies and activists of various flavors really had started to take over parts of the government, the entertainment industry, and college campuses during the fifties, and these subversive groups fanned the counter-cultural flames that led to the strife of the generation to come.   All of these problems (and others) accelerated and grew worse following JFK’s assassination.

Today’s supporters of this sixties counter-cultural movement despise and ridicule the America of the 1950’s.  Hollywood depictions of those years hammer again and again an over-simplified image of the 1950’s as chronically racist, violently sexist, robotically conformist and lame, sexually repressed, and always secretly hypocritical of its values.  To today’s Americans, the 1950’s America is more foreign than present-day Bangkok or Nairobi, and the border between those worlds can clearly be defined as that November day in 1963.

pleasantville

The movie Pleasantville is a fine example of present-day Hollywood’s hatred of the 1950’s world.

Of course, the hot civilizational summer of civil strife and moral revolution of the 1960’s and 70’s would have occurred anyway even if President Kennedy had survived.  But the 1960’s might have taken a different turn, possibly a gentler one, had Kennedy lived, and maybe the moral order of the United States could have survived with less damage.

Certainly someone wanted to stop what Kennedy was doing, and that someone sure as hell wasn’t Oswald.  Kennedy and his brother had made quite a few enemies over the years, and presumably he was taking the country in a direction that one or all of them didn’t like.  His death must have prevented those changes.

But there is little use in speculating on what-if’s.  Kennedy was killed, and those who lived through that time will always remember where they were on November 22, 1963 and consider that awful day as the turning point between the old, traditional America and the crippled America that we have today.

* Actually blue. My mistake.

Advertisements
Leave a comment

5 Comments

  1. My opinion: Western culture peaked in the mid 18th century. You can see a cultural decline beginning in the later 18th and excelerating through 19th to now. Art and architecture declined, music began to emphasise emotion over form in the 19th begatting jazz, big band, the crooners os the 40s and 50s and culminating in hip hop and throw away boy bands today, language degraded in general. You can take any cultural item and chart this decline.
    The difference, as I see it, is a shift in perspective from society to economics. The two are intertwined, but when you try to cram a society into an economic model you get strife, whereas when you focus on building a healthy society and then let the society build an economy that reflects it’s values organically, you get a functional system. Interestingly, I seem to be in agreement with Gramsci on this.
    Back on topic, the US was born at the beginning of this decline and has functioned mostly through improvising a culture cobbled together from enlightenment ideas and the traditional cultures of the various nations that settled/immigrated here. We have largely been held together by constantly increasing wealth, nobody wants to end the thing that is making them rich.
    The 1960s was when the momentum ran out. If WWII hadn’t happened, the momentum probably would have ran out in the 40s and we might be better off today. If the US had not been settled by conservative British, we would probably not have lasted this long.

    I just woke up, I have a cold and this is all pure opinion. I should probably have waited until later to write a better comment, but patience patience isn’t my style!

    Like

    Reply
    • Thanks, Roger, for taking the time to comment in such detail when you are sick. I hope that the cold passes quickly and doesn’t spread to friends and family.

      I’m more inclined to say that Western Civilization as a whole reached a cultural peak in the late 19th century, though I do agree that its driving moral engine began to decline since at the latest the late 18th century before the French Revolution. The forces that eat away at civilization take a while to reach a point where civilization stops rising and begins to decline. Western Civilization continued to rise in cultural achievement to perhaps that late 19th century, while its power and influence continued to rise at least to the eve of the First World War, and possibly to the Second.

      In the stages of civilization, shortly after a civilization begins moving away from its founding and uniting religion the forces of decline set it. Western Civilization began to move away from Christianity with the Enlightenment that began in the late 17th century. Centuries can take place where one generation is less religious than the previous one until its moral fabric is dismally weak and society collapses back into barbarism or is absorbed by another, more vital civilization. While I doubt there has to be a specific timeframe for this cycle, it seems to last about 1,000 years for a civilization as a whole. If the West started to rise with the reign of Charlemagne in 800 AD, then we are overdue for our collapse into barbarism, which may have been delayed because of overwhelming advances in technology compared to other nations in the 19th Century.

      Within Western Civilization, there have been many sub-civilizational nations that have risen and declined. Portugal peaked around 1450. Venice reached its cultural peak probably some time in the 16th century (I should learn more about Venice to get a better idea). France rose and fell at least a couple of times (there’s a reason the Chinese still call us “Franks”. The Netherlands, English, and Germans, among others, all had their time in the sun. The United States would seem to be the final nation to rise to prominence, peaking in my opinion in 1963.

      I think the world wars actually sped up the decline of the West, weakening its power and further weakening traditional institutions. But you’re probably right about the momentum, that Western Civilization coasted on the moral fabric of the 15th to 17th centuries.

      Like

      Reply
  2. Its hard to put a finger on exactly when western civ peaked,and, as I said, its more opinion than research that makes me think it was mid 18th. There were areas of culture that resisted the trend longer, architecture being one obvious example, but we both agree that the peak is in the past.

    Like

    Reply
  3. I think Roger makes an interesting point. During the 18th century, western civilization was Christian in spirit and one could see that in classical music.

    I think the seeds of US materialism were sowed in the 1920s and it is here that society started becoming less Christian in spirit. The flapper lifestyle, once a disreputable subculture, has now become normalized within the anglosphere thanks largely to gender feminism.

    whereas when you focus on building a healthy society and then let the society build an economy that reflects it’s values organically, you get a functional system.

    True. I believe Capitalism didn’t define American culture, but was rather shaped by it. The obsession with Capitalism stems from the US’s puritanical/Calvinist roots plus John Locke’s classical liberalism (which partly influenced Jefferson). Smith’s wealth of nations philosophy was essentially an economic extension of classical liberalism with its emphasis on the individual’s autonomy (in this case entrepreneur). The puritans/calvanists interpreted material prosperity as a sign of divine favour possibly due to a literal reading of the Old testament coupled with an agrarian worldview.

    Like

    Reply
    • The seeds of a civilization’s decline are planted long before the fall, and they can take years to set in. Like you say, the flapper culture of the 1920’s was an early sign of decline, but it remained a small sub-culture. The question is, when does the sub-culture become the popular culture, affecting nearly everyone? In the United States, that started to happen in the 1960’s and really set in by the 70’s.

      The peak of the United States as a civilization is hard to determine, subjective as it is to define. I chose the Kennedy assassination because that is the moment that the US seemed to change course. It marked the beginning of a series of events that led to the popularization of hedonistic sub-cultures.

      whereas when you focus on building a healthy society and then let the society build an economy that reflects it’s values organically, you get a functional system.

      That works in theory, but I don’t think any society can long do this competently. The rot sets in eventually no matter what we try to do.

      Like

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: