The status quo was holy grail in the early Fifties. Everything was perfect. We even had a song about it, to the tune of God Bless America.
Long Live free enterprise, system divine
Come beside us and guide us,
Just as long as the profits are mine.
Good old Wall Street, may she flourish,
Corporations may they grow
God bless free enterprise, the status quo
God bless free enterprise, the status quo.
All you had to do was conform. Don’t rock the boat. The opposite side of conformity was alienation; if you didn’t conform you were alienated. The popular press blamed alienation on everything that bothered us, from juvenile crime and bored housewives to fungible white collar workers. Television portrayed an idealized, white picket fence life we were all supposed to be living and most people pretended it was real! But it was all sustained by hypocrisy, the world that J. D. Salinger captured in Catcher in the Rye, which came out in 1951. Everybody was a “phony.”
Sociologist David Riesman wrote about alienation in The Lonely Crowd (1950) and C. Wright Mills offered his bleak view of the middle class in White Collar in 1951. Most of the critiques would come later in the decade, the faceless corporate man in Sloan Wilson’s best-selling novel The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955), Vance Packard’s diatribe on our susceptibility to advertising The Hidden Persuaders (1957), William Whyte’s The Organization Man (1956).
Most high school students were blindly jingoistic. America was the greatest country in the world. It could do no wrong. Any criticism played into the commies’s hands.
But Berkeley High had 2000 students in 1950. A few of them didn’t buy into American perfection. Some of us formed the “Society of Cynics,” a secret membership organization. We posted notes to students and faculty members who offended our sense of truth-telling. Outraged by some forgotten steps taken by Berkeley High’s administration, we hung branches from the outside wall of the new auditorium, a feat that required mountain climbing gear and skills. School officials lined up the entire student body and demanded a confession or a stoolie, but we were too small a group to be penetrated. Everyone remained silent to the fury of the principal.
I flirted with religion in my junior year and briefly considered becoming a Unitarian minister. But during a crisis in faith when I doubted if God existed, Reverend Cope told me, “Many Unitarians don’t believe in God, Christopher.” Religion seemed a waste of time after that. But I took something with me from the Unitarians that helped shape my life. “I believe in the inalienable right and duty of every man to follow the truth, wheresoever it may lead him.” That’s the first principle in John Ballantyne defining 1916 book, The Beliefs of a Unitarian. It was a sentiment entirely consistent with the heroes of the books I read.
I worked, first as a paperboy at 14 and then as an assistant to a portrait photographer from fifteen through high school. Berkeley High excused me from school at 1:00 pm every afternoon. I worked 28 hours a week. Jobs were plentiful and I could make $1.25 an hour in those days. A popular book of the time explained how to travel through Europe for $5.00 a day, half a day’s wages! I made enough money to maintain a car, buy my own clothes and take skiing and camping trips. Best of all, I avoided most of high school’s social life.
I graduated in 1953. That summer’s most popular movie was The Wild One. Marlon Brando played the leader of an outlaw motorcycle gang. An incident in California where a gang actually took over a small town and frightened its citizens inspired the Hollywood film. In the movie version, however, the gang isn’t at all threatening. Gang members are neat, short-haired and clean cut compared to the motor cycle gangs that appeared during the Vietnam War.
One of the town girls asks Brando what he’s rebelling against. Brando famously replies, “What have you got?”
Brando was not trying to change the system, simply to live as his own person within its narrow confines. The rebellion of The Wild One was not political. Brando, like many of us, was simply alienated.