My Turn: Joy and optimism were elusive in the 1950s – as they are now

  • U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy consults two of his aides, Roy Cohn (left) and Don Surine (right), during the afternoon session of the Army-McCarthy hearing in Washington, D.C., on April 26, 1954. AP

For the Monitor
Published: 7/18/2019 9:44:21 AM

In our troubled world, there is little to be joyous about. Global warming, droughts, famines, diseases, wars, corrupt leaders, population explosions, social and justice inequities, illiteracy, and the use of crude and vulgar discourse all conspire to degrade the human spirit and make a mockery of any illusions of mankind being a noble species.

The subject of joy has been a topic of discussion for scholars, poets, musicians, politicians and philosophers for as long as anyone can remember.

Joy is elusive. What is joyous to some may be whimsical to others. Some people conflate joy with happiness. They can be mutually exclusive.

Joy can be spontaneous or deliberate.

The joy expressed in Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” in his Symphony No. 9 in D Minor is deliberate. He used the text from Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” in the chorale finale. It incorporates the joy and the plangent celebration of a Creator, brotherhood, marriage and friendship. Referring to it as a “happy” symphony would be a desecration of Beethoven’s musical intentions.

New Hampshire Shakers’ approach to joy was unique. It was more spontaneous. To be joyous was to celebrate the simple gifts in life.

Aaron Copland, a mid-20th-century American composer, incorporated the Shaker “Simple Gifts” tune in his Appalachian Spring suite. It earned Copland a Pulitzer Prize.

Growing up in New Hampshire in the 1950s was an exceptional, almost joyous, experience. I was young, innocent and impressionable. The state was magnificently verdant and largely unspoiled. We still had the iconic “Old Man of the Mountain” to offer us confidence and inspiration. There were only 750,000 people living in the state. Our politics were conservative. We had a two-party political system: Republican and Republican. The governor of New Hampshire was not the chief executive officer; a publisher was.

The 1950s began with hope and optimism. Hope that with President Dwight Eisenhower at the helm of the ship of state, the promises of world peace, prosperity and joy were possible.

The U.S. economy in the 1950s was vibrant, even with a federal marginal income tax rate of 91%.

Our national debt relative to the GDP (Gross Domestic Product) in 1955 was 70%. Today it is 106%.

Consumer confidence was strong. Detroit was producing vehicles as fast as they could make them.

What should have been a decade of joy, unity and consensus turned out to be something very different.

The Soviet Union and Communist Red China and their client states had different plans. The Cold War got colder – the Red Scare.

In addition to the Korean War, the anti-communist hysteria of the 1950s brought us the Army- McCarthy hearings, the House Un-American Activities Committee and the John Birch Society. They were all looking for commies under every bed. In their zeal to expose suspected communists in government, they also contributed to ruining the reputations of many innocent and decent people. None of them ever apologized. It was a dark, joyless and shameful period in American history, filled with smug and insincere patriotic platitudes.

It wasn’t over yet. The Grim Reapers were busy cooking up another war in Southeast Asia. Joy became unfashionable.

The 1950s and 1960s did hold some good, if not joyous, news. The prolific Federal Interstate Highway System was begun, Disneyland opened, we sent men to the moon and back, and we passed major civil rights legislation.

Jonas Salk, Dr. Seuss, Lucille Ball, Steve Allen, Jack Kerouac, Carroll Shelby, Ray Kroc, Lenny Bruce, Edwin Land, Dave Brubeck, Elvis Presley, Charlie Brown and Marilyn Monroe were included in that good news.

There is a parallel between those tumultuous years and the current decade. History does tend to repeat itself.

There is little joy or propitious optimism in much of America today. What began as a joyous and hopeful decade has deteriorated into a fractious and divisive society.

The economy and consumer confidence are slowing down and an economic recession may be in the offing. Major retailers are closing up shops all over the country. The price of gasoline at the pump is rising because of war mongering. Questionable tariffs make everything more expensive. Wage growth is reported to be stagnant. Job growth is disappointing, with the exception of people in high-skilled jobs, such as health services, government and education. Jobs in lodging, retail and wholesale services, important sectors in the New Hampshire economy, show little or no signs of job growth.

If consumer spending drops, the New Hampshire economy is in big trouble. What goes up must come down.

We follow false idols whose mendacity seduces some people into believing that we cannot be happy and joyous until we get rid of people who do not look, speak or worship like us.

The news from Foggy Bottom is never joyous. Congress is held in ill repute. The House offers timidity in place of action and the Senate functions like a personal fiefdom. Little wonder the country is in such a sad state of affairs.

A recent Gallup Poll reports that only 45% of our countrymen claim to be “extremely proud” to be an American. The White House is not joyous in receiving that data. More “fake news.”

The current divorce rates in the United States are 42% to 45% for first marriages and 67% for second marriages. Those numbers would indicate to me that a lot of people are not happy or joyous.

Wages in many blue-collar, working-class families across New Hampshire are anemic. Ten dollars an hour is not a living wage unless you work a hundred hours a week. That is indentured servitude. Not a joyous prospect.

The wealthiest 7.6% of our population in New Hampshire are very joyous. They are the top recipients of generous federal tax cuts. The gifts that keep on giving. The remaining 92.4% of us can take solace, knowing that trickle-down economics will lift all boats. Be joyous and grateful.

The only joy for many people today is the generous availability of opioids, alcohol and smartphones. They are all addictive and offer false promises to dull the pain of the current political and cultural issues in American life.

We should gather in the fields once a week in joyous celebration, hold hands, and sing old Peter, Paul and Mary Kumbaya songs.

As dusk envelopes us in reverent vespers, we light a campfire, spread our blankets, toast marshmallows and muse about what life was like when we were young and innocent – and then drift off into the arms of Morpheus.

(Jim Baer lives in Concord.)

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