Characteristics of Civilized People
While the possiblity of civilization can be curtailed by a political system, it is not ultimately a society's politics, or its economy, or the artifacts of its culture that determines the degree of its civilization. Whether a society is civilized or not is determined by the kind of people that comprise it. American society of the fifties was dominated by young and middle-aged people who were the most civilized of the entire 20th century. The clearest picture of the fifties can be formed by examining the characteristics of the people who dominated it. To do that, I'm going to use some words that are seldom used these days, words like courtesy, decency, respect, reverance, and dignity.
The word polite has the same root as polished and one definition of polite is civilized. "Please," "Thank you," and "excuse me," salt and peppered everyone's conversation in the 50s. Children were taught, "manners," and were required to be courteous, which included never addressing an adult by their first name, saying "yes, Sir," and "no, Ma'am," and making requests in the form, "may I please ...?"
Courtesy is not conforming to social convention and not a limit to free speech.
It is the conscious recognition of the dignity and privacy of others, an affirmation of their personhood and their value as individual human beings. Those who have not lived in a courteous age seem to have the impression it was stiff and formal and in some way restricting, but in fact, it was the opposite. Common courteousy made social relationships much easier because people knew the appropriate way to interact and deal with one another and the words appropriate to polite conversation came to the lips of the well-mannered with all the ease and naturalness with which the vilest profanities fill the mouths of today's ill-mannered louts.
It's not that one never heard profanities in the fifties, although it was rare, and many, if not most adults, never used profanity, simply because decent people did not use it.
That nowadays rare word, "decency," is often associated with sexual behavior or dress, but its meaning, as applied to the people of the fifties, is much broader than that. It's meaning has to do with another word rarely used these days, "propriety," which, like courtesy, is mistaken for some kind of social conformity, but in fact means that which is appropriate to human beings, that is, to civilized human beings. Civilized human beings do not eat with their hands or perform certain bodily functions in public, for example.
It was people's sense of decency that made profanity in the 50s so rare, it's use was almost always shocking, and almost always offensive to others. Even those who used it were careful to avoid it around those they thought would be offended (because even the crudest maintained a sense of respect for the dignity of others), and a man never use it in the presence of a woman.
The decency of the fifties came from a sense, if not explicitly than implicitly, of what was proper to beings who have grasped the importance and necessity of principles and values—principles by which one understands the purpose and meaning of life; values by which one descerns the difference between the vices that are a waste of that life and the virtues by which it is lived successfully and happily. This was the source of the vitality that dominated the fifties, the belief that life is worth living because there are things worth living for, things with real meaning and importance, things one can love and give themselves to totally, things one can hold sacred and revere. The view of life in the 50s was one of infinite possibilities in a world where anything could be achieved by anyone willing to make the effort, and the certainty that a life of such potential was worth taking seriously.
This spirit had not been seen in America since the end of the 1900s. The post First World War 20s was an age of frivolity, nothing was taken seriously, and as though to prove that attitude correct, the 20s were followed by the depression of the 30s, and the second world war. Ayn Rand describes that uncivilized spirit of the 20s:
"Most people lack [the capacity for] reverence and "taking things seriously. "They do not hold anything to be very serious or profound. ... Anything strong and intense, passionate and absolute, anything that can't be taken with a snickering little "sense of humor"—is too big, too hard, too uncomfortable for them. They are too small and weak to feel with all their soul—and they disapprove of such feelings. They are too small and low for a loyal, profound reverence—and they disapprove of all such reverence. They are too small and profane themselves to know what sacredness is—and they disapprove of anything being too sacred."
[Journals - Part 1: Early Projects, "The Hollywood Years," circa February 1928]
If this description sounds like today's society and culture it is because the spirit of the fifties is now lost forever. We are again in an age where nothing is revered and the utmost contempt is poured on anyone who holds anything sacred. It is why it is almost impossible for anyone today to understand the spirit of the 50s.
People not only held things sacred themselves, but had respect for the things others held sacred—not because they necessarily agreed with the sacredness of those things, but because they respected the fact others held something sacred. When one respects what others hold sacred, it is not respect for the object of their reverance, it is respect for the dignity of the individual who has values and honestly pursues them. Tolerance is not agreeing that all beliefs are equally valid. One may violently disagree with another's beliefs and stronly argue against them but to discourage anyone from having beliefs, holding them profoundly, or from giving themselves wholly to them, is not only intolerant, it is the road to nihilism. Respect for other's beliefs is respect for other's as individuals and as human beings.
Privacy is the hallmark of a civilized society. One gauge of the level of civilization in any society is the degree of individual privacy chosen and enjoyed by it's citizens.
"Civilization is the progress toward a society of privacy. The savage's whole existence is public, ruled by the laws of his tribe. Civilization is the process of setting man free from men," Ayn Rand wrote.
[For The New Intellectual—from The Fountainhead,
"The Soul Of An Individualist"]
It is difficult to imagine, if one has not experienced it, what that sense of privacy that dominated the 50s was like. People were jealous of their privacy which they regarded a recognition of one's own being as an independent individual. To have one's own privacy violated or to violate another's was tantamount to physical assault. One's thoughts, one's body, one's business were their own, to be shared or not by their own choice. People minded their own business, and expected others to mind theirs—it was part of their decency. A person's private affairs were just that; intimacy had a real meaning and had to be earned; one only shared the most private aspects of their life with those whom they loved and who had earned it.
The regard people had for other's privacy came from a profound respect for other's integrity and individuality, the unquestioned sense that others owned their lives, as one owned their own.
I laugh when I read those who describe the 50s as an age of conformity. If there was one characteristic that distinguished people of the fifties from people of today, it was their independence. Self-sufficiency, self-reliance, and competence were virtues individuals pursued in their own lives and admired in others. It came from their sense of individualism that not only recognized a person's life is their own to be lived as they chose, but that the individual was responsible for that life, both to support and to bear the consequences of how it was lived.
Not being able to "stand on one's own two feet" and to support one's self and one's family was considered a disgrace. Though people in the 50s were indredibly generous and would leap to help someone whom circumstances had knocked down through no fault of their own, most would do anything rather than take someone else's help, and would work to get themselves back on their own feet and to repay anyone who had helped them.
These attitudes were not "taught" and "forced" on them by society, they came form from people's own sense of integrity and self-worth. They did not want what they had not earned, and while they did not much concern themselves with what others had, there was true admiration for those who had achieved or accomplished more and unabashedly enjoyed it. They did not seek the approval or praise of others, but knew whatever recognition others gave them, it was for their virtues and that they had earned it.
Besides the almost universal sense of goodwill that prevailed in relationships between people of the 50s, there was one characteristic that today is, with rare exception, entirely missing: respect.
I've already mentioned the profound respect people held for other's privacy; this same respect, and much for the same reason, extended to other's property. This was in part because of the basic honesty and decency of people but, more importantly, since welfare was rare and most people worked and supported themselves by their own effort, one understood the true worth of things, and what it had cost others to acquire the things they owned.
That respectful display of deference and recognition of the value of others, as befitted civilized people was, like courtesy, common in all relationships between people. Men had a profound respect for women in the 50s, a repect for their decency and character, a respect women knew they deserved and decent women were careful to insure they were worthy of that respect. Children had respect for adults, especially their parents, because the relationship between them was clear—children were dependent and needed teaching, guidance and support; parents were adults, a status that, in those days, had to be earned, and was not conferred simply because someone had lived a certain number of years.
Most importantly, they had something unheard of today, something called self-repect, without which true respect for others is impossible. Self-repect was a recognition of one's own value, integrity, and virtue, and was the hardest respect of all to earn.
How We Lived
I've tried to give a picture of what the 50s were like in more-or-less abstract terms and generalities. Those who lived in the 50s would not have described their day as I just have because the values they held and the lives they lived were not analyzed, but taken for granted. The people living in the 50s did not think there was anything unique about those years, they only knew that life was very good and that it was the way to live. Some examples of how they lived might help complete the picture.
In 1950 I was 10 years old. At that time, I lived in a city that was once the largest leather manufacturing city in the world, and was still one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the country. I lived on a corner of in intersection of two residential streets. Practically every house on both those streets had a family of a different nationality, Irish, Jewish, Polish, Finish, German, Yankee, French, Greek, Portugese, Black, and Chinese immediately come to mind as I recall my neighbors and childhood friends. Many were first generation Americans—they all considered themselves Americans, because they were.
In that neighborhood, people did not lock their doors. The respect for other's property and privacy was so profound, except in the case of very close relatives or friends, one did not dream of entering someone else's house. Except on the rare occassion when old-man Boyle had a little too much to drink and got the wrong house coming home in the evening, no one entered our house univited; there were no burglaries, no breaking and enterings.
There was no need to lock doors, not even car doors. Most people not only did not lock their cars, they left their keys in them, or even left them running if they were making very short visits. There were no cars stolen.
It was, admittedly, a dangerous world, in the 50s.
There were no warnings on medicine bottles, step ladders, gas cans, or sharp instruments, yet people poisoning themselves, falling off ladders, blowing themselves up, or bleeding to death from accidentally cutting themselves was increibly rare. Speaking of medicine bottles, opening them did not involve solving a chinese puzzle; you just took the cover off, a child could do it, but didn't uless he was told to. Life is simpler, and safer, when children behave—and they do behave, when it's, "behave or else"—in those days they knew what, "or else," meant.
Children did not have to wear eighty pounds of protection and padding to ride a bike, roller skate, or play sports (which were mostly rough—and fun). The occasional goose egg, bloody knee, raspberry, or having the wind knocked out, simply taught us, the world is a dangerous place, and some things hurt--it didn't kill us, it prepared us for real life.
Nobody had ever heard of a seat-belt, or motocycle helmet. Not even the motocycle cops wore helmets. That world was filled with "dangerous" things; mercury themometers, DDT, and iodine, as well as guns, could be found in every home. There were guns in virtually every house in my neighborhood, not locked up and hidden, but proudly displayed in gun cabinets and racks. Frequently, horror of horrors, they were loaded. I cannot recall a single accidental shooting, or any other kind of shooting in the 12 years I lived in that neighborhood.
Boys didn't have guns, at least until 10 or 12, but just about every boy I knew had a jacknife in his pocket at all times, including, in school. On more than one occassion a teacher might ask if anyone had a jacknife, because she wanted to borrow it to cut something. Most of us managed to cut ourselves once or twice in leaning to use those knives—no harm done, a little iodine and an opportunity to show how brave we were to not cry fixed it up.
Was that world dangerous? Oh yes, it's a feature of freedom, and reality too, by the way. The world is a very dangerous place and discovering how to survive and enjoy that world is what growing up is all about. Odd, isn't it, while kids are kids, and there is always the odd bully, or one that does really dumb things, in those savagely dangerous days, no one in school was beat up, there were no school shootings, and no children were sexually assaulted by their teachers.
An Adult World, a Children's Paradise, a Woman's Too
The adults of those days were serious, not because they did not know how to enjoy life, but because they did, and knew the difference between real enjoyment and frivolity. Life was worth taking seriously because they understood its potential. As serious as that day was, for children, it was a virtual paradise.
Children could go anywhere, and most of us did, walking or riding bikes all over that cosmopolitan city: spending whole days in the woods, riding our bikes down the back allies between leather factories, even hitching rides on the freight trains that were always lumbering into or out of the city. All of those dangerous things and I do not recall a single really bad thing happening, except for the inevitable bangs, cuts, scabby knees and elbows, and the occasional broken bone, which were just considered part of growing up (and which we wore as badges of honor).
We were taught as children not to go with strangers who enticed us (something I never heard of occurring), but were also taught, if we felt uncomfortable about something to just find another adult and tell them; we were never afraid of adults, because none of them were a threat to us. We spent time in the town stores by ourselves or with other children, and spent frequent Saturday afternoons in the local movie theatre. We had no adult supervision, or protection, but needed neither, because we had been taught how to behave, and most of the time, most of us did. No one worried about what was playing, all the movies were rated "D," for decent. They were decent, because a movie that today could gain a PG rating would have thoroughly revolted and scandalized the decent people of those days, and nobody would have watched it.
And it was not only children who were safe from the kinds of dangers that prevail today, all adults were. My grandfather was a Barber. Saturday night was a big night at the barbershop in those days. It would be full all evening until closing late with men getting their shaves and haircuts for Sunday. Every Saturday night, my grandfather walked the mile and half to his home carrying the weeks receipts in a leather bag. Everyone knew he did that. The streets were dark and desserted at that time of night but he was never in any danger. Though few would be in those days, even women who found it necessary to be out on those same city streets at night were in no danger. I do not remember a single assault or rape in those twelve years. It was the same in many cities and towns all across the country.
If you are thinking that police protection must have been much better then, understand, there were no policemen on the streets at night either. There was no need for them to be. It was not the police, it was the kind of people that city was comprised of, civilized people.
Were things truly better in the 50s, were people really so much more decent, honest, and wholesome? Decide for youself. The statistics don't prove anything, of course, but there must be reason for the differences.
I laugh whenever I read that the 50s were sexually repressed. While the boomer years generally refer to the 40s, the number of births per year throughout the 40s and 50s were between 600 and 700 thousand per year. After the two years with the largest number of births, 820 thousand in 1946 and 881 thousand in 1947, the next largest number of births was 748 thousand in 1959. It was hardly a sexually repressed age.
It was, however, a sexually responsible age. In 1950, only 4 percent of births were to out-of-wedlock mothers. In 2005, 37 percent of births were to out-of-wedlock mothers.
Though the population had less than doubled between 1960 and 2005, the rates for crime and violence increased three, four, and sometimes five times in that same time span. Violent crimes, for example increased from less than 400 thousand in 1960 to nearly 1400 thousand in 2005. Property thefts increased from 3 million to 10 million in the same period. The number of rapes went from 17 thousand to nealy 100 thousand, while aggravated assualts went from 154 thousand to 862 thousand between 1960 and 2005.
Between 1950 and 1959, the prison population in America averaged 523,000. In 2004 the prison population was 2,193,798.
Statics and graphs cannot begin to give a complete the picture of the total cultural and social transformation that has taken place in this country, but I did find one amazing graph which provides a picture that perfectly traces the rapid cultural and social decline in civilization after the end of the 1900s through the end of the 30s, the rapid return to civilized values through the forties, the highest level of civilization in this century through the fifties, and the final decline in that civilization through the 60s to the lowest period in the history of this country from the end of the 60's to today.
In the next article, it is that period, the current age, and those who people it that will be examined. Those living in today's society who have never experience the hights of a civilized culture, and have no way to gauge the depths of decay and corruption that prevail today.