Learning from the Fifties

By Ehrenhalt, Alan | The Wilson Quarterly, Summer 1995 | Go to article overview

Learning from the Fifties


Ehrenhalt, Alan, The Wilson Quarterly


Contemplating the turmoil and stress of the last three-and-a-half decades, many Americans idealize the easeful golden days of the 1950s. But as our author shows, the price of security and community may be higher than most Americans are now willing to pay.

Most of us in America believe a few simple propositions that seem so clear and self-evident they scarcely need to be said. Choice is a good thing in life, and the more of it we have, the happier we are. Authority is inherently suspect; nobody should have the right to tell others what to think or how to behave. Sin isn't personal, it's social; individual human beings are creatures of the society they live in.

Those ideas are the manifesto of an entire generation in America, the generation born in the baby boom years and now in its thirties and forties. They are powerful ideas. They all have the ring of truth. But in the past quarter-century, taken to excess, they have landed us in a great deal of trouble.

The worship of choice has brought us a world in which nothing we choose seems good enough to be permanent, and we are unable to resist the endless pursuit of new selections--in work, in marriage, in front of the television set. The suspicion of authority has meant the erosion of standards of conduct and civility, visible most clearly in schools where teachers who dare to discipline pupils risk a profane response. The repudiation of sin has given us a collection of wrongdoers who insist that they are not responsible for their actions because they have been dealt bad cards in life. When we declare that there are no sinners, we are a step away from deciding that there is no such thing as right and wrong.

We have grown fond of the saying that there is no free lunch, but we forget that it applies to moral as well as economic matters. Stable relationships, civil classrooms, safe streets--the ingredients of what we call community--all come at a price. The price is rules, and people who can enforce them; limits on the choices we can make as individuals; and a willingness to accept the fact that there are bad people in the world, and sin in even the best of us. The price is not low, but the life it makes possible is no small achievement.

Not all that long ago in America, we understood the implicit bargain, and most of us were willing to pay the price. What was it really like to live under the terms of that bargain? Would we ever want to do so again?

In 1975, after a long but singularly uneventful career in Illinois politics, a round-faced Chicago tavern owner named John G. Fary was rewarded with a promotion to Congress. On the night of his election, at age 64, he announced his agenda for everyone to hear. "I will go to Washington to help represent Mayor Daley," he declared. "For 21 years, I represented the mayor in the legislature, and he was always right."

Richard J. Daley died the next year, but Fary soon discovered the same qualities of infallibility in Tip O'Neill, the Speaker of the House under whom he served. Over four congressional terms, Fary never cast a single vote against the Speaker's position on any issue of significance. From the leadership's point of view, he was an automatic yes.

And that, in a sense, was his undoing. Faced with a difficult primary challenge from an aggressive Chicago alderman, Fary had little to talk about other than his legendary willingness to do whatever he was told. The Chicago newspapers made sport of him. "Fary's lackluster record," one of them said, "forfeits his claim to a House seat." He was beaten badly and sent home to his tavern on the Southwest Side to ponder the troubling changes in modern political life.

It was not an easy thing for him to understand. The one principle John Fary had stood for during 30 years in politics--obedience--had come into obvious disrepute. The legislator who simply followed the rules as they came down to him invited open ridicule as a mindless hack. …

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