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Ed Driscoll

Time Stands Still

November 1st, 2011 - 8:58 pm

In Mark Steyn’s recent After America, he begins with H.G. Wells’ legendary time traveler, transported from the late 19th century to first 1950 then to 2011:

He notices there is snow on the ground, and yet the house is toasty warm, even though no fire is lit and there appears to be no stove. A bell jingles from a small black instrument on the hall table. Good heavens! Is this a “telephone”? He’d heard about such things, and that the important people in the big cities had them. But to think one would be here in his very own home! He picks up the speaking tube. A voice at the other end says there is a call from across the country—and immediately there she is, a lady from California talking as if she were standing next to him, without having to shout, or even raise her voice! And she says she’ll see him tomorrow!

Oh, very funny. They’ve got horseless carriages in the sky now, have they?

What marvels! In a mere sixty years!

But then he espies his Victorian time machine sitting invitingly in the corner of the parlor. Suppose he were to climb on and ride even farther into the future. After all, if this is what an ordinary American home looks like in 1950, imagine the wonders he will see if he pushes on another six decades!

So on he gets, and sets the dial for our own time.

And when he dismounts he wonders if he’s made a mistake. Because, aside from a few design adjustments, everything looks pretty much as it did in 1950: the layout of the kitchen, the washer, the telephone…. Oh, wait. It’s got buttons instead of a dial. And the station wagon in the front yard has dropped the woody look and seems boxier than it did. And the folks getting out seem … larger, and dressed like overgrown children.

And the refrigerator has a magnet on it holding up an endless list from a municipal agency detailing what trash you have to put in which colored boxes on what collection days. But other than that, and a few cosmetic changes, he might as well have stayed in 1950.

As Steyn adds, yes, today there are computers, an industry that grew in the 1970s and 1980s largely because it was under the radar and fast-changing enough so as not to get regulated to a pulp, but aside from that, technology — what Alvin Toffler would call “Second Wave” technology such as the automobile and jet travel — has stagnated and flattened out. If you look closely while watching the original Airport from 1970 with Burt Lancaster and Dean Martin, you can can see a model of the Boeing SST in a TWA paint scheme sitting on a desk in one scene. The SST was to be the next phase in commercial aviation; TWA had assumed that they’d be converting a fair chunk of their 747s into cargo planes. But once the then-nascent environmental movement killed the SST, commercial air travel in America has been stuck at subsonic speeds since.

Fashion has truly stood still — I’m not sure if I’m the best one to make this case, given that traditional menswear was perfected by Apparel Arts magazine in the 1930s; you can click through these images and find plenty of suits that would look perfectly acceptable amongst us would-be one percenters today. But the New York Post recently ran a photo essay on the permanence of the late ’60s Woodstock-era look. These duds are 45 years old; in 1967 or so when they debuted, that would be the equivalent of wearing the Great Gatsby’s wardrobe. Four years ago, when Michelle Malkin linked to a hilarious story on how déclassé the original Haight-Ashbury hippies found the latest band of young transients moving into their old neighborhood, I wrote:

I used to think that this was one of the most implausible episodes of Star Trek because it was so wedded to the fads of the era it was filmed in. (If the show had been shot 10 years earlier, would the guest stars have been black turtleneck-wearing beatniks?). Now I’m starting to believe that there will be a class of reactionary young people in perpetuity who rebel against accepted contemporary societal norms by dressing exactly the same as one group of teenagers fawned over endlessly by the media 40 years ago.

I’ve already quoted from Tom Wolfe’s The Great Relearning essay a few times in regards to Occupy Wall Street, but it keeps playing itself out, again and again, and again. As Wolfe noted, at the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic, doctors began treating a myriad of diseases “that had disappeared so long ago they had never even picked up Latin names, diseases such as the mange, the grunge, the itch, the twitch, the thrush, the scroff, the rot.” They were reappearing in 1968 because San Francisco hippies thought that basic hygiene and not sleeping around were, like, dullsville L-7 ideas for squares, maaaan. 

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