50s Americana: A Contemporary Idol

50s Americana: A Contemporary Idol May 23, 2016

(A Depiction of a 50s housewife. Source: Pixabay.com, Public Domain).
(A depiction of a 50s housewife. Source: Pixabay.com, Public Domain).

In good Christian fashion, I’ve often tried to take my cue from Nietzsche and philosophize with a hammer. Even if the idols do not shatter, a chink in a previously-solid veneer means a hard-won skirmish. Though, the very work of such destruction always leaves one vulnerable to idolatry in another form. Some traditionalists smash the dreams of “Modernists,” but fall into a web of pseudo-history. And many a “liberal” sees history so clearly as to turn ressourcement into license for projection. Still, it is necessary work dating back to the golden calf and the money changers. The Lord himself is insistent that nothing we fashion should separate us from His love:

Pay attention! I am bringing a sword against you, and I will destroy your high places. Your altars shall be laid waste, your incense stands smashed, and I will throw your slain down in front of your idols. Yes, I will lay the corpses of the Israelites in front of their idols, and scatter your bones around your altars. Wherever you live, cities shall be ruined and high places laid waste, in order that your altars be laid waste and devastated, your idols broken and smashed, your incense altars hacked to pieces, and whatever you have made wiped out. The slain shall fall in your midst, and you shall know that I am the LORD. (Ezekiel 6:3-7)

One such idol of the American Church I notice time and again is the 1950s. The danger of nostalgia lurks behind a seemingly holy yearning, and so we are reminded of the days before legalized abortion, when women were women and men were men, when innocent teenagers dated innocently, and America prospered after its defeat of the Axis Powers. In this view, 50s men and women represent the heights of masculinity and femininity—likely churchgoers, happy at Masses before the ill-advised (though perhaps valid) reforms of the Second Vatican Council.

This narrative, however, relies on a Whig view of history. Material and spiritual progress continued unabated (or relatively so) for hundreds of years, upset only by the eventual capitulations of the 60s. This is a profoundly undialectical view of history. It lends itself to self-deception, and has more in common with those who utter ‘the wrong side of history’ than it does with the pilgrim church of Catholicism.

In reality, the Victorians were more sexually controlling than Americans in the 1920s, who themselves were more sexually permissive than those in the 50s. The 19th-century British invented our contemporary sexual dichotomies (e.g. heterosexual-homosexual), distinctions left unmade by our borderline-salacious medieval brethren. The modern housewife, as we understand her, is a post-agricultural way of seeing femininity. And who could forget that as little as 100 years ago we reached the heights of a eugenicist racism our ancient and medieval forebears couldn’t begin to imagine?

So, if history was not a difficult slog of progress until the 50s, then how should Catholics view the period? For one, we can never cease repeating that the values of those days are not the values of Catholicism. Women were not always just housewives; in fact, the new expectations of the 50s even meant drug abuse among wives and mothers. Consumerism, perhaps better known as the “throwaway culture,” hit an acme. The morality so beloved by many was in fact artifice, a device of what Nietzsche called “the Last Man.” Anti-Communism hit its full stride, beginning the failed Catholic-GOP alliance, only recently put on life support. Sexual mismanagement (again, more extreme than that of previous generations) boiled over, and so the dreaded 60s exploded onto the scene. Such is the fruit of un-dialectical living, once again un-dialectically appreciated.

Catholicism, on the other hand, demands radical living: poverty, self-effacement, and discomfort—the opposite of 50s moralia. It also demands a flexibility not often enough evinced by those prone to idolizing this period. Above all, it demands that we shatter anything, no matter how seemingly good, that stands between us and holiness.

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