In the popular imagination, the 1950s were the United States’ paradigmatic Age of Conformity. Irving Howe introduced the term into the national lexicon in his January 1954 article for Dissent, “This Age of Conformity,” which described a contemporary intellectual milieu lacking in oppositional qualities. He described an intellectual class that had previously inhabited self-defined bohemias being co-opted into academia, the mass culture industries, and governmental bureaucracies—a process whose deadening effect could be felt throughout American culture.
The pursuit of “middlebrow culture,” defined by critic Dwight MacDonald in his 1960 essay “Masscult and Midcult” as easily digestible but prestigious cultural products that middle-class strivers could consume in a quest for “classiness,” became an obsession that resulted in record attendance at symphonies and ballets and widespread membership in the Book of the Month Club. Economic prosperity was reflected in the family lives portrayed in TV sitcoms such as Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best. Underlying that prosperity was an almost universal anti-communism, widespread reverence for what was considered the “American Creed” of freedom, democracy, and free markets, and high levels of attendance at churches and synagogues. The emblematic figure of the decade was the protagonist of Sloan Wilson’s best-selling 1955 novel and 1956 film The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, a mid-level manager trapped in an unsatisfying but remunerative public relations job for a broadcasting company.
This Eisenhowerian Age of Conformity did not exclude all expressions of nonconformity, however; it also encompassed trends whose importance would not become fully apparent until the following two decades. A rising tide of rebellious youth culture was heralded by innovative forms of jazz music and the explosive popularity of rock ‘n’ roll. The 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education delegitimized as unconstitutional the concept of “separate but equal” and set events in motion that resulted in the civil rights movement. The writers and artists of the Beat Generation foreshadowed the drug culture, sexual libertinism, and iconoclasm of the following decades. In 1957, Betty Friedan began the series of interviews and surveys of women that led to her landmark 1963 book, The Feminine Mystique, the work that launched Second Wave Feminism.
Seven decades on from the Eisenhowerian Age of Conformity, the United States’ burgeoning New Age of Conformity turns the first on its head in many ways. The mutated offspring of the ideological and countercultural subcurrents of the 1950s have jumped from the back of the line to the front; they now form the default positions of the social and economic establishment. Today’s Man or Woman or Gender-Fluid Person in the Gray Flannel Suit, a mid-level manager in a news media, sports, entertainment, or high-profile consumer goods corporation, is more likely than not to vocally support the Black Lives Matter movement, fiercely oppose any restrictions on abortion rights, celebrate Gay Pride, and support economic boycotts of states that ban the inclusion of transwomen in biological women’s sports competitions. Today’s versions of Howe’s conformist intellectuals, ensconced in their burrows in academia, media, and government bureaucracies, want to “decolonize” the curricula offered to the United States’ students by dropping long-established works of the traditional intellectual and artistic canon and replacing them with works by BIPOC authors and creators; they demand adherence to a vacuous, shifting ideology of diversity, which at many universities is a de facto condition of employment; even the mildest dissenters from the new conformism are shunned or worse.
Producers of today’s exemplars of MacDonald’s “midcult” cultural products, first among them long-form video streaming series, fall over themselves to ensure inclusion of at least one LGBTQIA+ character in their shows. Rather than blacklisting suspected Communists, Hollywood instead blacklists men on accusations ranging from credible charges of rape to interpersonal behavior that was once considered simply rude or socially inept, as if it’s all a single continuum of offense.
This positional flip-flopping also applies to today’s oppositional culture, whose members are, in the main, persons whose views and customs would have placed them among the mainstream establishment of the 1950s. They include practitioners of traditional forms of Christianity, believers in American exceptionalism, supporters of the police and military, advocates for free markets, proponents of immigrants’ assimilation to the American melting pot, and champions of the nuclear family.
Categories: Culture Wars/Current Controversies