Sometimes I wonder what people are seeing. I also wonder why they are so ignorant of history.
Various groups rely upon a tried-and-true method to make their case and gain adherents and power. It’s called playing the “decline narrative” card.
The decline narrative follows a simple formula:
- First, things used to be so much better. There was a “good old days” in which the world was better off.
- Second, we’ve been on a downhill slide ever since those halcyon days.
- Third, certain people/groups came along and introduced things contrary to what those good old days were about. The world has never been the same, things are getting worse and worse, and those people/groups are at fault.
- Fourth, we are now at a moment of crisis. Unless we do something to “take back” what was ours and recapture the glory of days past from those who have stolen it from us, it will be the end of the world.
The decline narrative is essentially the “soterian gospel” of revivalism writ large. It’s Eden and exile, “the world” and Armageddon and the one true way out. It seems to be the way many Americans are programmed to think.
This decline seems particularly incongruous to me here in 2017, although it has been embraced by a large number of people and has, at times, yielded dramatic results. Just ask the current resident at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
In contrast to this decline narrative, I was planning to write a post showing how, over the course of my lifetime, there have been so many crazy, dangerous, and disturbing events and swings that we can not, in any way, honestly speak of a decline narrative. However, as I began to write, I realized I could not even get past my first year of life — 1956.
In many minds, “1956” sounds like it would fall smack within the boundaries of “the good old days.” And it was indeed, perhaps the pinnacle of the “classic 1950’s” in WASP culture, with soaring birth rates, economic good times, a focus on normalcy and family, and a religious boom. However, when I read about the events that took place in 1956, I realize, in many ways, that time was every bit as fraught with danger and dysfunction as our own time. Indeed, if I had to set forth a theory of progress/decline, I would have to say that we have made a great deal of real, substantial progress in our lives, our culture, and our world since 1956.
In 1956, the year I was born, there was continuous conflict in the Middle East. Egypt pledged to recapture Palestine. The UN censured Israel for attacking Syria, violating the Palestine Armistice. There were dangerous tensions over the Suez Canal throughout the year, first occupied by the British, then taken over by Egypt. Later in the year, during the so-called Suez Canal Crisis, Israel launched an invasion of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, and later, Great Britain and France sent troops once again in an attempt to take over. Egyptian airfields were bombed. The conflict ended when the U.N. sent in its first-ever peacekeepers. Gaza was occupied by the Israeli army. The Israeli flag was hoisted on Mt. Sinai.
In 1956 the first Islamic republic, Pakistan, was born. The French invaded Algeria. Ongoing anti-colonial movements from Britain and France caused persistent tensions throughout Africa. In South Africa the government ordered over 100,000 non-whites to leave their homes in Johannesburg in order to make room for whites. Later, Nelson Mandela and more than 150 others were arrested in South Africa for treason in opposing apartheid.
In South America, seven Army trucks loaded with dynamite exploded in middle of Cali, Columbia killing more than a thousand and destroying 2,000 buildings
The fight for civil rights by blacks in the U.S. was getting more contentious. Someone exploded a stick of dynamite on Martin Luther King’s front porch. The first black student admitted to University of Alabama was expelled In Montgomery, where there were tumultuous bus boycotts in 1956. The Supreme Court affirmed Brown vs. Board of Education. The Court also ended busing segregation. The United Methodist Church outlawed race segregation. Mobs in Texas prevented black high school students from enrolling, and in Tennessee the National Guard was called out to prevent similar conflicts. Various cities desegregated their schools. Singer Nat King Cole was attacked at a Birmingham concert. There were bus boycotts in Florida. W.A. Criswell, the leading preacher in the Southern Baptist Convention, addressed an evangelism conference and proclaimed that true ministers of the gospel must passionately resist government mandated desegregation because it is “a denial of all that we believe in.”
The Cold War between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. was escalating. While the U.S. was conducting nuclear and hydrogen bomb tests in the South Pacific, the Kremlin announced that they were developing a ballistic missile to deliver an H-bomb. The U.S. government seized and shut down a U.S. Communist newspaper, The Daily Worker. There was a failed coup in Cuba, but later in the year Fidel Castro left Mexico in his quest to liberate the country. The Soviets invaded Hungary and violently put down an uprising; 200,000 refugees fled.
As the French withdrew, the first American soldier died in Viet Nam. Cambodia elected a Communist president and the U.S.S.R. officially recognized Laos.
There were terrible transportation accidents, including a train crash in Los Angeles that killed 30, one in which two passenger jets collided over the Grand Canyon, killing 128, and the sinking of the ocean liner Andrea Doria.
Americans were blocked by a travel ban from going to China. Sixteen U.S. Naval airmen were shot down and killed by Chinese jet fighters over the East China Sea as they engaged in an espionage mission.
The U.S. economy was strong in 1956. Main concerns involved declining farm income and an alarming shortage of public schools and classrooms for the rapidly increasing population, which both the federal and state governments worked to address. That year saw the beginning of the largest public works program in U.S. history to that point: the construction of the interstate highway system. It was not all smooth sailing, for example in the summer 650,000 steel workers went on strike during a month-long work action.
President Eisenhower was re-elected as POTUS by a landslide. To many, he was the face of peace and prosperity. However, increasingly volatile issues such as civil rights were largely ignored in the presidential campaign.
The Melbourne Olympics took place despite boycotts and withdrawals by many nations, protesting the Soviet invasion of Hungary, the Suez crisis, and the inclusion of Taiwan in the Games.
In religion, Catholic-Protestant relations were strained by bitter altercations on issues such as parochial schools and public funding, and birth control.
On the cultural front in the U.S., Elvis Presley had a break-out year, with his first recording session for RCA, three appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show, during which he was filmed from the waist up because of moral concerns. On Sunday, December 2, 1956, The Rev. Carl Elgena told his Des Moines, Iowa, congregation that “Elvis Presley is morally insane” and “by his actions he’s leading other young people to the same end.” He warned the over 800 members in the pews of the Grand View Park Baptist Church that “the belief of unholy pleasure has sent the morals of our nation down to rock bottom and the crowning addition to this day’s corruption is Elvis Presleyism.” Other preachers condemned rock-n-roll music as “a musical fad which is leading its young devotees back to the jungle and animalism.” “Beatniks” such as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac were advocating freedom and hedonism, sexual freedom and homo/bisexuality. The Catholic Church banned its people from viewing films they considered immoral, such as And God Created Woman and Baby Doll.
In November 1956, Dr. Martin Luther King delivered a sermon called, “Paul’s Letter to American Christians.” Way back then, he questioned whether America was truly making progress or declining.
But America, as I look at you from afar, I wonder whether your moral and spiritual progress has been commensurate with your scientific progress. It seems to me that your moral progress lags behind your scientific progress. Your poet Thoreau used to talk about “improved means to an unimproved end.” How often this is true. You have allowed the material means by which you live to outdistance the spiritual ends for which you live. You have allowed your mentality to outrun your morality. You have allowed your civilization to outdistance your culture. Through your scientific genius you have made of the world a neighborhood, but through your moral and spiritual genius you have failed to make of it a brotherhood. So America, I would urge you to keep your moral advances abreast with your scientific advances.
Concerns about the vulnerability of the U.S. and the Soviet threat in 1956 were so acute that Congress adopted “In God We Trust” as the official motto for the nation. Representative Charles Edward Bennett of Florida cited the Cold War when he introduced the bill in the House, saying “In these days when imperialistic and materialistic communism seeks to attack and destroy freedom, we should continually look for ways to strengthen the foundations of our freedom.”
It was a dangerous, volatile world. Some things were better, some worse. Many folks were satisfied with life as it was, others were raising alarms.
The more things change…