Thursday, September 3, 2015

Nonsensical Decadal Characterization

 A calendar for 1897. Featuring a calico cat and an artist, the way we typically think of the late 1890s. . .right?

You know you've heard or seen them.

"A look back at the turbulent 60s!"

"A tour through the Rockin' 50s"

"The Roaring 20s"

Or even just "The 80s".


All of these decadal references are darned near worthless, as whatever supposedly characterizes a decade, tends not to.

That doesn't mean that there aren't eras, even short ones of ten years or so, that are unique.  But they just don't start on the first year of a decade, and end on the last.  Indeed, that's highly deceptive.

Consider, for example, "the 60s", a decade we hear so much about because it supposedly "defines a generation".  Well, if it does, it defines it oddly.

The 1960s of course, started in 1960 and ended in 1969. But are 1960 and 1969 really in the same era?  They don't seem to be.

Indeed, the era up to 1964 is really part of what we consider to be the 1950s, really. Styles, haircuts, music, etc., all really fit into that "1950s" class of things. This is so much the case, in fact, that the movie that started off the whole 1950s nostalgia craze of the 1970s, American Graffiti, is set in the early 1960s not the 1950s.

It isn't really until 1965 that the "60s" started, and probably with our intervention in the Vietnam War. The Vietnam War, which started all the way back in 1958 in the form in which we entered it (or in 1945 in its French Indochina form), seems to be central to the "turbulent" 1960s, due to the war itself, I suppose, and the following opposition to it.  Conventional American ground forces went into Vietnam in 1965.

But they left in 1973.  And really, the 1970s at least as late as 1973 are really part of the "1960s". All the same protests, wars and controversy is party of it.  Shoot, Jimi Hendrix died in the early 1970s, not the 1960s, and so did Janis Joplin.

And regarding the 1960s, are the Cold War standoffs of the early 1960s really part of the same era that gave us Woodstock?  They don't seem to be.  Was the nation that was ready to go to war over Soviet missiles in Cuba the same one that was disenchanted with our involvement in Vietnam?

All that sort of means the 1970s, that "Me Decade", which should probably regarded as The Baby Boomers Second Decade, as they defined the "1960s" as well, really probably started in 1974, and probably ended perhaps in 1981 when Ronald Reagan became President.  Oddly, as a result of that, the "80s" fit about as neatly into a decadal calendar slotting as any decade, as a new era started when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, followed by the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990.

What about the aforementioned 1950s?  Well, they didn't really start until 1955.  Surely our image of the Korean War doesn't fit the 1950s. That's some other era, one that ran from 1946 to 1955.  It seemingly has no name, other than occasionally "the early Cold War", or "the post war".  It's not "the 40s", however, as that's World War Two, which as an era really runs from about 1938 until 1945.  And the post war era, in which people were eager to return to school, start families, buy consumer goods, take advantage of the GI Bill, etc., doesn't quite match the war years, but in some ways it does.  It sort of looks like them, in a home front sort of way, but it doesn't quite feel the same, and it didn't sound the same either, as the big bands, so notable for the sounds of the late 1930s and the war years, began to pass away pretty quickly after the war.

The "war years", that we associate with the "1940s" creeps into the 1930s, of course, but the 1930s is really thought of as The Great Depression, which started in 1929, truncating the Jazz Age, which started in 1919, with the end of World War One.  World War One, like World War Two, is really its own age, and while the war theoretically ran from 1914 to 1918, we probably ought to go back to at least 1912 for the era.

That would close out, sort of, The Progressive Era, which came up, sort of, with McKinley's second administration, or 1900.

So what area are we in now?  No way to tell.  You have to be past them, by some distance, to know.

Not that it particularly matters. Any one age is what it is. Except the easy mischaractrization of any one age does create some pretty false and superficial memories.  "The 1950s" as the age of teenage rock and roll doesn't really do much for a decade that featured wars in Korea, Indochina and the Middle East, and a titanic face off between the East and West, for example.  The years 1945 to 1955 are darned near forgotten except to historians.  The early 1960s are lumped into the 60s in a way that doesn't accurately reflect them at all.

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