Socially Produced

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Archive for the ‘The 50s and 60s’ Category

Nostalgia, American Childhood and the “Loss” of Freedom

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A profile of Paul Krugman hit the stands last week in New York Magazine, where the iconoclast is compared to many of his contemporaries and we get a glimpse into what makes Krugman tick. Towards the end, Wells describes Krugman’s formulation of his political Eden, a nostalgic account of the 50s and 60s:

And so Krugman began writing with an almost choking nostalgia, the sort of feeling that he usually despises: “The political and economic environment of my youth stands revealed as a paradise lost, an exceptional moment in our nation’s history ….

Krugman remembers Merrick in these terms, as a place that provoked in him “amazingly little alienation.” “All the mothers waiting to pick up the fathers at the train station in the evening,” he says, remembering. “You were in an area where there were a lot of quiet streets, and it was possible to take bike rides all over Long Island. We used to ride up to Sagamore Hill, the old Teddy Roosevelt estate.” The Krugmans lived in a less lush part of Merrick, full of small ranch ­houses each containing the promise of social ascent. “I remember there was often a typical conversational thing about how well the plumbers—basically the unionized blue-collar occupations—were doing, as opposed to white-collar middle managers like my father.”

Naturally, nostalgia for the 50s and 60s is a shark bait on the internet. There was a back and forth which was productive, if limited in its discussion, sticking largely to systemic societal and economic trends to either defend or attack this vision. The most interesting response was from Alex Tabarrok, who counters Jim Manzi’s warm defense of the 50s and 60s nostalgia. Manzi’s nostalgia is largely focused on the freedom of children to play and on the grand sense of equality amidst neighborhoods.  Tabarrok responds:

Who doesn’t look upon their childhood with wistfulness for what has been lost?  Exile from Eden is one of the oldest stories on record. But don’t mistake personal narrative for reality.


Has childhood freedom been lost?  No. Childhood freedom hasn’t been “lost,” it has been taken away by parents. As a child, I too was free to play in the woods but then again my parents didn’t buckle me up in the car, either.

The response is backed by a series of statistics, pointing to a general decline in harm to children. However, I think Tabarrok sort of does the obvious: he defends the “loss of freedom” by focusing on the numbers, without consideration that perhaps there are other metrics to measure freedom in.

Freedom is a frustrating concept to engage in any discourse with. It means terribly different things in a variety of context and generally leads us t0 wistful conclusions. What’s upsetting about the discourse of childhood is how terribly it demeans the experience of children today, particularly in the aftermath of the technological revolution presented to the internet.

Is the non-gender normative child more free in today’s world? Let’s compare: a boy that’s interested in musicals or fashion most definitely has a variety of different avenues to engage in his interests in today’s world: the internet has expanded the realm of modalities for human expression. I’m certain the boy wouldn’t have been happier being forced to hang outside while the other boys  bullied him for not wanting to play football. There are many of the examples one could use: the internet, as a lonely kid who had a lot of problems making friends, was vital to my personal and intellectual growth and in many ways, allowed me to develop human feelings besides anger at those physically around me. The amount of agency I gained by tapping into a worldwide community was stunning. The “It Gets Better” project is an example of sometime that is a product of the modern era and I cannot think of a better example of freedom than that: the ability to learn that there is hope for someone that feels maligned and oppressed at every instance.

There are certainly trade-offs here, but I think the nostalgia is not simply harmless fluff, but somewhat harmful. It demeans the lived experience of many children and normalizes certain kinds of behaviors from the class that most benefited from them: life was much more difficult in an era of strong social conformity for those outside of the narrow prescriptions of said community.

I wouldn’t be as concerned with the language of it was simply described as a preference for certain kinds of communities. However, the nostalgia of the 50s and 60s is rarely just about tastes: it almost always is represented as a sort of Eden, which represents the high point of American society and an era from which we have naturally fallen from.

The nostalgic childhood of the 50s and 60s wasn’t available for most: the poor, ethnic minorities and social non-conformists are some classes that did not benefit from the “freedom” of the era. It came at a terrible cost to women, because it only worked if women were kept in the home due to social pressure.  By most metrics, a childhood in today’s America is certainly more free, even if that freedom is expressed in very different ways. We should honor and remember this and not fall into silly lines of argumentation, promoting a world that was generally nonexistent and whose memory actively harms those that weren’t privileged enough to experience it.

As a note: I recently watched the anime series, Dennou Coil, which brilliantly deals with the tension of technology and childhood freedom. How do children create social communities and means of play in a city that exists as half-physical and half-badly regulated virtual? I heartily recommend the first 13 episodes to anyone: they are the medium done right. It gets a bit more complicated afterwards.