Saturday, January 22, 2005

Modernism Part 7: Post WWII Caution/Confidence

I am grateful to those of you who sent words of encouragement.



In a rich irony, America came out of WWII both chastened by the terrors of technology and filled with can-do spirit. Never before had a nation taken on so many challenges successfully. And never before did a generation find itself rocked by the very image of oblivion - in the terrifying mushroom cloud of an atom bomb.

Now, doomsday was no longer a Sunday sermon. It lay within the grasp of human hands.

And yet, the war’s toll in actual human suffering and loss had been minimal to most Americans. The machine gun had done more to the psyche and confidence of their parents, after WWI, than the abstract terror of Hiroshima and Bikini did to US citizens in the fifties. Despite brushes with McCarthyism and Cold War paranoia, the nation seemed willing to take on challenges as never before. And not only challenges of industrial technology - like providing a fully functioning house to every family in the middle class - but also much harder tasks in the social arena. For example, shattering class boundaries with measures like the GI Bill. And then, ambitiously, confronting demons that had benighted countless generations, like racism.

I perceive the high point of Fourth Age Modernism in the can-do Congress of 1964 - swept to office in the emotional outpouring that followed the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Spurred by newly re-elected President Lyndon Johnson, it passed the Civil Rights Act and War on Poverty, put environmental laws into motion, and boosted the NASA budget on trajectory toward landings on the Moon. Nor were Republicans wholly out of the picture. While Barry Goldwater expressed the skepticism of classic conservatives, Nelson Rockefeller led a large wing of the GOP that was just as gung-ho on progressive reform and Big Projects as Johnson.

University-building and scholarships got their biggest boost since the GI Bill. Post Sputnik endeavors in science education were kicked into high gear. Whole swathes of New York and other cities were bulldozed in grand Urban Renewal experiments. Throw in nuclear power plants, bikinis, transistor radios, early internet experiments, the Peace Corps and the happiest days of rock n’ roll. Wowzer.

And yes, this list of ambitious endeavors would seem to overlap with another word that's now in disrepute -- “liberalism.” At the time, there wouldn't have been a razor’s width of difference between liberal and modernist viewpoints. One word stood for an acute sensitivity to injustice and social need. The other denoted a can do willingness to take on any challenge.

...on to part 8...

No comments: