It’s something that can only be appreciated properly if you have put in the miles. In other words you have to have lived a few decades to appreciate the spin of the wheel. And you have to distinguish between what seems to be genuine improvement and what is history rhyming itself.
You start with the unquestioned assumptions that your parents have handed down. Take the question of race. When I was a child, I remember loving the tale of Little Black Sambo who ran around a tree so fast when being chased by a tiger that the tiger eventually melted into pancakes. I doubt that book would ever make it today onto the current socially acceptable children’s library list. In England there used to be a jam factory that marketed its product with little black cartoon characters with fuzzy hair and they were called Gollywogs. There was great surprise when a movement rose up to campaign for the banning of this symbol on the jam jar labels. At the time, it seemed a ridiculous notion. The idea of cute little Gollywogs was not racist surely. Looking back over the decades, one sees that it certainly was.
Years ago people at dinner parties used to joke that the custom of smoking at the table and going out into the garden if you were going to smoke some weed was all going to get reversed some day. We giggled at the ridiculous notion that in the not too distant future, the tobacco crowd were going to be the ones shivering out in the garden while the joints would be circulating round the dining room table. It’s no joke any more.
These are probably good things. But what about the see saw attitude shifts? One of my favourite songs is Julie Brown’s “Home Coming Queen’s Got A Gun.” It mercilessly parodies and skews Valley Girl culture with its tale of how the prom queen went postal and shot up the school. In the wake of Columbine and Sandy and Aurora, it’s a song that one might hesitate now to play in public. The same could be said of some of Tom Lehrer’s satirical songs. Some people now would find them offensive. They are all brilliant by the way.
There is a seminal film which had great impact when it was first released in the mid 60′s – THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS – a mock documentary recreation of the Algerian conflict that portrayed female suicide bombers with sympathy and understanding. In the aftermath of 9-11, sympathy for such portrayals was in short supply. Yet, it is a remarkable film, a classic. Now you can probably defend it at a dinner party and get a hearing.
We think we progress. We cannot imagine that we will ever revert to positions we held in the past. We are smug in our unthinking complacency, casting a superior eye over the blinkered attitudes of our forebears. Once I was researching in the Imperial War Museum on matters related to World War 1. One of the attendants showed me propaganda posters not on view to the general public. They depicted the Germans as baby eaters, rapists, killers of defenseless women and children. In the heat of war any propaganda was justified if it achieved its effect of stirring the population.
“Of course,” the attendant said, “that couldn’t happen now. We’re much better educated.” And he slid the drawer shut.
Not too many years later, the Argentians invaded the Falklands. The British response came in rapid stages.
First – bemused bafflement. What were the Argies doing messing around near the Shetlands? Half the UK could not have told you where the Falklands were.
Second – Rage in Parliament and the country. Of the six hundred odd Members of Parliament, only two abstained from voting for war. (One Conservatie, One Labour for the record.) The rest of the body politic was united in baying for blood.
Thirdly – the popular press – especially The Sun – reverted in an instant to the hate mongering propaganda of World War 1. Thousands flocked to see off the luxury liner Queen Elizabeth, converted into a troop ship. When the Belgrano was sunk and over 5oo Argentinians died, the front page of the Sun consisted of a photograph of the vessel about to dive into the deep and a one word headline in 48 point type – GOTCHA!
Two steps forward, one step back. Progress or reversion. And we should not think that it (whatever it is) could not happen here. It manifestly does.