Harry Stein writes about the popular television series Mad Men in City Journal. Stein notes how things have changed since the 1950s setting of the series:
Start with family life. Back then, under 8 percent of American children were born out of wedlock annually. Today, that figure is close to 40 percent overall and fully 70 percent in the black community—which, for all the other hardships it faced 50 years ago, saw only 20 percent of black kids born to a single mother. Then, too, the divorce rate has more than quadrupled since 1960, today standing in the vicinity of 50 percent.
Of course, for many liberals, the low divorce rates of old are just more evidence of that era’s hypocrisy. One iconic scene in Mad Men has serial adulterer Draper watching Leave It to Beaver with the kids while his wife gets some payback with a pickup in a bar bathroom. But the Girl Watchers, all of them long married, would tell you that sticking through the tough times wasn’t just what you did back then; it was the essence of the thing, what made it work. And, yes, if it came to that, people often did stay together for the children, and there was honor in that also. It’s no accident that the term “latchkey kid” was not coined until decades later.
I think it is easy to exaggerate how blissful and wonderful family life was in the 1950s. Man did not suddenly become fallen when Kennedy was elected or the Beatles released their first album. Father Knows Best and Leave it to Beaverwere not documentaries and did not capture the totality of family life. There were problems including marital infidelity and child and spousal abuse, but those don’t make good subjects for sitcoms. Nor were they discussed in the popular media; it wasn’t quite the Age of Oprah and the public confession. As François de La Rochefoucauld said,hypocrisy is the tribute vice gives to virtue. It is better to have ideals that people fall short of than not have ideals at all. When people complain about the immorality today, it is not just the behaviour that outrages but the zeitgeist which excuses it.
I’d also add that the seeds of the radical ’60s culture were sown in the post-WW II period. In his otherwise banal book The Greatest Generation, Tom Brokaw wondered whether the men who returned from war were soft on their children because of what they went through in Europe and the Pacific. They spoiled their children, did not expect as much from them, did not discipline them the way they themselves were disciplined, and the end result was a generation that was more likely to not buy into existing prejudices and prescriptions to use Russell Kirk’s phraseology. In other words, the tidy delineation between the perfect and calm 1950s and decadent and turbulent 1960s skews reality.
In September, Interim“Amusements” columnist Rick McGinnis wrote about Mad Men. McGinnis concludes his column:
For the viewer, one of the show’s great dramatic undercurrents is implicit in its setting. The 50s began within a year or two of VJ Day and lasted pretty much until the Beatles landed at Idlewild Airport and, while most of the characters seem to bask in the long cultural interregnum between social upheavals, we all know what’s coming. Indeed, some of the show’s fans even hope that Mad Men gets cancelled before Don Draper is obliged to grow sideburns and wear Nehru jackets.
Among Fr. Gill’s better scenes is the almost wordless one that concludes an episode, where we see him in his austere little room, removing his coat and collar, then pulling a guitar from under his bed and launching into Peter, Paul and Mary’s “Early In The Morning.” It’s a premonition of Vatican II’s colloquial effect on the church; you can almost hear the burlap vestments and felt banners being sewn and you’ll forgive me if I betray a shudder.
It might not be accurate to describe the 1950s as a Golden Age of Morality, but the nostalgia for that decade represents, at least in part, an embrace of the time’s ideals, even if not everyone lived up to them.