Friday, July 14, 2017

The Dangers of Living in an Arrogant Age

 by Nomad

David Hockney

The artist David Hockney once said:
We seem to live in an arrogant age; in fact, the idea that there's not much to learn from the past is rather disturbing. In some ways, we might say we do know more but we seem to have forgotten some things they knew in the past.   
It's an excellent observation, I think. I have no idea what the context of that remark actually was - most likely art- but it got me a bit nostalgic.

1960s America

The Shame of Thrift in Prosperous Times

I remember the frustration of seeing my father always worrying about the future and the economic security of the family, each week wondering how we could save a few dimes here and there. Where was the cheapest place to shop for groceries and would they accept our coupons?
For major purchases, it was all about the layaway plan and cash on the spot. My father has an absolute dread of buying anything on credit.

Although he mellowed out in his later years, in my childhood, he carried thrift into uncharted realms. He always seemed preoccupied with trying to find a way to squeeze his salary a little further, no matter how ridiculous or painful the results. Shaving our heads would last us all summer, my brother and I were told. We looked like Hell's Island convicts.
"You think this world owes you a living? Well, it doesn't."
Oh, the humiliation I endured having to wear straight legged pants when the rest of my friends were wearing bell-bottoms. (Or was it the other way around?) Iron-on patches on the knees would make those jeans last twice as long. I never thought I could recover.

Those accursed white socks my mother insisted I wear would soon become the object of ridicule in Mrs. Peabody's' third-grade class. White socks and Brylcreem ("a little dab'll do ya'") was enough to earn me the label of "greaser."

Much to my horror, I became an exhibition of my parents' frugality- not the image I had been going for.
"You should thank your lucky stars you've got shoes on your feet and a roof over your head."
We weren't poor so why did my parents have to costume me like a waif? I wondered. I wanted a swimming pool in the backyard. My dad wanted tomatoes. eggplant and green beans.

By the time I became a teenager, I was pretty thoroughly disgusted (in a way only a teenager can be) about his constant fretting about the future; his constant nagging about each and every detail, his unlikely preparing for dreadful scenarios, but most of all, his inability to actually enjoy life. I vowed that I would never ever grow up to be like that.

It took me a long time to understand- lots of growing up- why my father behaved the way he did.
Over time, it gradually dawned on me that my father was- really was- a product of his times. And those times just happened to coincide with one of the worst economic crisis in US history.


Our Darkest Days

In 1933, my father was four years old, and that was also when the Great Depression reached its nadir. Some 13 to 15 million Americans were unemployed, going from 3% to 25% of the nation’s workforce.
Even for those who had jobs, the news was bad. By that year, wages had fallen 42%, Nearly half of the country’s banks had failed and when they closed, your savings evaporated. Economic output, as measured by GDP, was cut in half, from $103 to a mere $55 billion.
In 1933, the average family income had dropped to $1,500, 40 percent less than the 1929 average family income of $2,300. Millions of families lost their savings as numerous banks collapsed in the early 1930s. Unable to make mortgage or rent payments, many were deprived of their homes or were evicted from their apartments. Both working-class and middle-class families were drastically affected by the Depression.
If you've never heard Studs Terkel interviewing Peggy Terry, you should spare a few minutes of your time. There's something touching about her naive discoveries that came about from the hard times she faced.
Part One begins with Terry's personal ideas about Jesus, Christians and how it related to her experiences during the Great Depression.

In another part of the interview, Terry offered this glimpse of a moment in her childhood.
I first noticed the difference when we'd come home from school in the evening. My mother'd send us to the soup line. And we were never allowed to cuss. If you happened to be one of the first ones in line, you didn't get anything but water that was on top.

So we'd ask the guy that was ladling out the soup into buckets- everybody had to bring their own bucket to get the soup- he'd dip the greasy watery stuff on the top. So we'd ask him to please dip down to get some meat and potatoes from the bottom of the kettle. But he wouldn't do it. So we learned to cuss. We'd say "Dip down, God damn it!"
For many who survived the Depression, there was a feeling of guilt. Many who lost everything and who could only make ends meet by relying on handouts from the government blamed themselves, not the capitalist system, not the greedy corporations or the arrogant wealthy class. That was probably the most bitter pill to swallow. They felt that misery they faced was their own fault. 

Men were expected to be the breadwinners and when the system failed, the unemployed workers quickly exhausted whatever savings they had had. They were forced to endure the humiliating experience of applying for relief. One source notes:
At times, men withdrew emotionally and even physically from their families and friends. Children of impoverished families, recalling memories of family life during the 1930s, often remembered their fathers as emotionally distant and indifferent. Some unemployed men took up drinking. Others went off on long trips, looking for employment in other cities. Some deserted their wives and families altogether.
Another touching interview was that of a government relief worker, Eileen Barthe, in which she discusses with Terkel the shame of the proud but desperate poor.
As a caseworker, it was her job to process claims for assistance. That meant going to homes and seeing first hand the actual depths of poverty. (Apologies for the poor audio quality.)

Despite the passage of some 40 years, Barthe was still deeply affected by the experience.
I could see he was very proud. He was deeply humiliated, and I was too.
(To listen to more of Terkel's interviews, click here.)

The Long-Passed Storm

It's no surprise then that people of my generation have always underrated the psychological impact that the Depression had on so many people. It was impossible to imagine. It was like fairy tales.
By the time I was born in cookie-cutter suburbia, with pristine lawns and backyards, picture windows and wall-to-wall carpet, that storm had passed. The nation had fully recovered and that recovery led the nation into a new age of prosperity.

High hopes were never high enough when dreams all came true. The American standard of living was always improving. All you had to do is work hard, save your money and buy what you wanted.
And if it was rather expensive, Madison Avenue had a ready response: don't deny yourself. Put it on credit. Tomorrow will be just a fruitful as today so what's the harm of borrowing on a better day?

We, as a nation, had all survived the worst thing that economics could throw at you and there was no way we were ever going back.


The effects of the The Depression carried on to the next generation in different ways.
For instance, Canadian academic, science broadcaster and environmental activist, David Suzuki described it this way:
My parents survived the Great Depression and brought me up to live within my means, save some for tomorrow, share and don't be greedy, work hard for the necessities in life knowing that money does not make you better or more important than anyone else. So, extravagance has been bred out of my DNA.
In 1929, my father's father, a fit young man of 35, died suddenly and tragically. Having gone out in an icy rain to fetch a doctor when his wife was in labor, he was struck down and died of pneumonia. That was only three days after my father was born.
As the sole breadwinner of his family, he left behind five children, a widow and no savings.

This was before the hard times had even commenced. Had they not been able to live off the land, my father more than once said, his family would probably have starved.
The land was their resource and their refuge. It was the thing you could trust when all else failed.

Spoiled Child

The painting by David Hockney above reminds me of the road that led to my father's older sister's house. As a child of the 1960s, trips to my aunt's house was very much like traveling back in time. Back to the days of the pioneers or at least, back to the days when people lived on much less.

I never quite thought of my aunt (my father's old sister) and uncle as poor, but I did see them as uniquely primitive. A few days with them was like visiting exhibits in an American history museum.
Modernity had somehow passed them by. (Their lives really didn't change much until Lyndon Johnson's Great Society reforms kicked in.)

But at the time I am speaking of- the mid-1960s- my aunt and uncle lived in what they called a "shotgun house." Their house had the peculiar odor of something cooking and dried sweat. Floors bounced when you walked on them!

There were all kinds odd and fascinating novelties like a hand pump in the sink and  thread spools for door knobs. There were always hungry chickens right outside the back door. These were people who seemed to be camping all the time and "did their business" in creepy outhouses.
It was as if they didn't like or didn't trust civilized modern living.

There were plenty of culinary delights. Peanut brittle, dewberry pie, pecan pie. and catfish and squirrel. On the other side of the down-home charm, I once witnessed my aunt and uncle butcher their own deer. (Not a pleasant thing for a sensitive child to witness.)

They usually ate whatever their garden could produce. If they couldn't grow or barter for it, they usually didn't eat it. The 45 minute trip to Piggly-Wiggly was only for things that they couldn't do without.
And that wasn't much.
My aunt was an expert at food preservation because the greatest joy was having something and the second greatest joy was keeping it.

In my mind, as a child of the suburbs, I just saw a dreary sort of life without any of luxuries (which I, of course, considered necessities). The television, for example, showed only one channel (back home we had 5!) and even then, it was like watching a snowstorm. So, forget Gilligan's Island, , F-Troop, Bewitched and  the Wonderful World of Disney. For a short time, we were like hostages in a less than wonderful world.

Instead of television, we all sat around a stove while the adults traded stories about people we had never met and would never know. At night, with the conversations still carrying on in the dark, we slept in feather bed that made you  feel  as though you were sinking in a pile of freshly risen dough.
One by one, their voices would fade into the night until there was nobody left to answer questions or say goodnight to.

To relieve my boredom during the day, I would go for walks and travel down a road very much like the one in that Hockney painting.
I spent most of my time asking my aunt questions about the past. Did she remember my great-grandfather? Where was he from? What is your earliest memory, I'd ask. What was it like to live back then? It was so hard to imagine.
I recall one time asking her what my dad was like as a child. She looked around to see if anybody could hear her and she then whispered a single, astonishing word:

*   *   *
At no time in American history have we come so far and yet, it sometimes seems it is all been an immense circle of "unlearning."
For the last 80 years, we as a nation have been learning to forget that past and we have been unbelievably successful.

As the Baby-boom generation fades, so many Americans do not have the slightest clue what our grandparents and parents went through and and how they survived. So many of us think we don't have anything to learn from the past and the troubles and triumphs of the people who came before us.

We have come to expect nearly everything as our right, with no difference at all between what we want and what we need. We mistakenly assume these things cannot be taken away from us and that hard times will never return.

That's the real danger of living in an arrogant age.

Trump vs. Our True Destiny

Back in 1933, the newly-elected president, Franklin Roosevelt offered his sympathy to the American people and promised a brighter future.
These dark days will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves and to our fellow men.
Those lessons came at such a great expense to families and to the psyche of the nation. A lot of children- like my own father- grew up traumatized by their experiences.
After so much hardship and misery, is it really possible that we could have forgotten "our true destiny" once again?
It would seem so.

How else can you explain electing president a man like Donald J. Trump? In February 2014, well before he announced that he be would be running for president in the 2016 election, he told a Fox News audience that a new Great Depression to be the solution to what ailed America:
“When the economy crashes, when the country goes to total hell and everything is a disaster. Then you’ll have a [chuckles], you know, you’ll have riots to go back to where we used to be when we were great.”
How much more arrogant and ignorant can a person be than that? And this is the very man the country now depends on to lead us to a brighter future.