I finally caught Mad Men the other night, the AMC series on ad men in the early ’60s. It’s as good as hyped, with enigmatic characters and smoldering atmosphere. But what’s astonishing about it is its unflinching portrayal of the easy, unquestioned sexism, anti-Semitism, racism, and homophobia of the time. In the good ole golden days of American life, white men were a collection of jerks, cads, and bigots.
Via unintended synchronicity, this theme was further developed in my other entertainment choices last week. I saw a segment of Eyes on the Prize, the classic civil rights documentary, complete with white men hosing down black people. I also caught Gran Torino, with Clint Eastwood transforming from bigot to saint in a way that so few of his Greatest Generation brethren did. Finally, there’s Milk, showing how far homosexuals have come since the ’70s in their persecution from white men in power (plus Anita Bryant). We’ve come a long way, baby.
You are probably thinking one of two things right now. First, “Come on, just because white men don’t hose down black people or force women to spend their lives in shallow suburbia, doesn’t mean they aren’t still self-entitled jerks.” Or, alternatively, “Come on, enough already with the white male bashing. We’ve just given up the presidency itself, for crying out loud. What else do you want?”
The thing is, we have made progress. Educated, successful white men really don’t want to be sexist or racist anymore. We are embarrassed by it. And we don’t have the same sense of entitlement that we used to, even if we continue to maintain privilege as a group. We’ve gone from being a generation of Don Drapers to a generation of Michael Scotts. (Although Don Draper would be cool in any era compared to Michael Scott’s buffoon. Still.)
As is probably typical of many white, male Americans, I have an enduring optimism about the inevitability of progress. It’s taken a few generations to make progress on sexism and racism, but we are definitely in a better place now than we were. The problem is that what can be given over the course of a few generations can be taken away just as quickly. All it took was a single terrorist attack for Americans to be terrified of certain people with brown skin. Progress will always depend on social stability and a passing knowledge of the excesses of history, which are not terribly reliable things to count on.
But one thing we should be careful not to do is inject our own cultural sensibilities too far back into history. It’s all too easy to condemn the sins of previous generations. They may have behaved badly, but they were simply breathing the air of their culture. There’s a temptation for us to feel self-righteous, but let’s face it, the vast majority of us would have acted the same way under the same circumstances. Look no further than the invasion of Iraq for how this generation marched forward as sheep and temporarily lost its collective mind and soul.
The lesson we should not learn from history is the simplistic notion that people used to be bigots. Instead, we should look at past generations acting badly and realize that we need greater vigilance about our own culture. What is the unnoticed smoke swirling around in our own air that makes us blind to simple but hard truths?
There are already some easy targets. Gay marriage bans? Guilty. Gobbling up all the oil and other earthly resources? Guilty. Raising the temperature of the earth beyond sustainability? We’ll see. Yes, we did just elect Obama as president, but we need to balance that against electing Bush twice.
Almost certainly our grandchildren will look back at us and be embarrassed by many of the choices we have made, and continue to make. Although, who knows. Maybe we’ll escape what every other generation has had to endure from their grandchildren, and we’ll all look back on this time as the golden age before the robots and zombies took over. I’m an optimist, after all.