Tuesday, January 28, 2020

The present is a bully

--- Richard Snow, in Disney’s Land: Walt Disney and the Invention of the Amusement Park That Changed the World (2019), quoted by Riley Robinson in a CSMonitor book review, 31 December 2019

"Why did you do this?" a journalist [Walt Disney] asked amid the park's scaffolding, and received the simple answer "For twenty years I wanted something of my own." There was a good deal more to it than that. Disney had become tired of animation, had been embittered by a 1941 strike at his studio, and like so many at the end of World War II felt dissatisfied and adrift. 
And this man who had so acute a sense of what the public would respond to believed that other Americans shared such feelings—that there was a vast potential audience in need of reassurance. 
The present is a bully, always making us think the molten moment we inhabit is the most alarming ever, while the past tends to slip into that specious category of "simpler times." The 1950s now bask in the sunshine of false memory, sock hops, genial Ike, two-car garages, Elvis, and a victorious America, her manufacturing plants unshaken by a single Axis bomb in the war, bestriding the industrial world.
Few saw the decade like that while they were making their way through it. In 1947 W. H. Auden published a book-length poem in which four characters in a New York City bar discuss the cosmos. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1948, but reading it could be heavy going. Nevertheless, it at once became universally known because of its title: The Age of Anxiety. That's what millions of Americans thought they were living in. 
And with reason. The war had ended with the thunderclap of two doomsday weapons over Japanese cities, and just four years later Soviet Russia, recently an ally, now a threat, possessed those weapons, too. American GIs who had never wanted to see another acre of Asian landscape found themselves fighting a shooting war against Communism in Korea and, once that dwindled to a stalemate, were being urged to help the French in Vietnam.

The fear of Communism simmered, a low fever that ran throughout the decade, spiking every few months, as when the Russians matched the new U.S. hydrogen bomb, or when Senator Joseph McCarthy claimed that reds had infiltrated American life at every level.

Nor was all the unrest in other lands; in a few months Rosa Parks would refuse to yield her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus to a white passenger, thereby triggering the first direct action campaign of the modern Civil Rights Movement.