The Happy Now

Instapundit called this "a disturbing photo essay" when linking to it a couple of weeks back.

It did disturb me, but perhaps not in the way me he meant it to. (No, I'm not sure. It never does to second guess Glenn Reynold's intentions.)

What disturbed me more than the pictures was the tone of the post which seemed to - universally - assume that "then" was better than now.

This romantic fallacy, the idea that the past was "simpler" or somehow "cleaner" or "nicer" seems to be part of how humans are built. And it is almost always a hundred percent wrong.

Let me start at the top. First, the "then" pictures are not the same as the "now" pictures. No, not in the obvious way, but in the nature of the shots. The "then" pictures are all, without exception, posed, even those that don't look it. Trust me on this. I grew up in the sixties and seventies, in a society where few people owned a camera, film was expensive and developing film even more expensive. There is a reason why I - a tomboy in t-shirt and shorts - only have childhood pictures in pretty dresses and holding dolls. This was my mother's idea of what I should wear and how I should spend my time, and by gum, that's what we'd show the camera.

Need I tell you that nowadays you can use your phone and take pictures when people aren't even aware of it? I hope not. At least not if you're living in the same universe.

So, what is being compared is the "image" someone wanted to project to candid shots. That's the first issue - and let us pause and be grateful for the material wealth and tech progress that allows us to capture candid shots of men outside Walmart, before we move on.

Let's move right on to the picture of the people saying grace before the barbecue dinner. Do you see how all the men are dressed more or less alike? All the women are in their Sunday best? This while they're having fun, mind. And they're ALL saying grace. (read more...)

No "But I'm not a believer." No "But I never pray in public." Imagine either of those there. Can you just hear the "you're not from around here, are you?" coming from those stalwarts in the picture? Yeah, I knew you could.

Now let's move on to the gentleman in the t-shirt. Okay, I've seen more fortunate sayings to print on your clothing. On the other hand, notice he's not being jumped and beaten. He's not even being pointed at by a gathering crowd of gawkers. And I bet you when he got to the register, the cashier called him sir and was polite to him. Beautiful, isn't it?

The posed picture of the couple is very pretty. If my reading of the time is correct, though, this was a time when the man could have pounded the living daylights out of his wife, and it would mostly be kept quiet, to present a good front to the world. And not only is it unlikely she could have survived financially without him, note she's wearing an apron in this posed photograph. Can you hear "A woman's place is in the home?" Yeah, I sure can. Now, mind you, I chose to stay home (and work from home) when we had kids. But would you want that enforced? To the point an apron was a needed accessory of a woman? Think carefully. Would you want that to be societal dictate and assumption?

The lady in the t-shirt is overweight. Many of us are these days and there are many factors. Besides that? Well, she clearly didn't dress up to go shopping. It is not needed nor expected and no one will think less of her for not doing so. Do you know how many times we realized we were short on milk just as I needed to feed the kid? Or cat food just as the cats started picketing? Her t-shirt? Well, listen, I know women who are that overweight and more and who are very sought after. (And isn't that lovely, too?) Or even women who wear that type of thing in self mockery. Do we know her? Do we know which she means? Other than elitist assumptions, do we have anything about her? Or are we happy that she can show up in a t-shirt with a funny saying and not an apron? I am! And that women can express their right to reject suitors, in public without fear? Whoo-hoo. We live in AWESOME times.

The next set? Yeah, okay, the "now" picture they're overweight. Well, by today's norms so is the "then." Live with it. Look how vibrantly dressed they are. Their posture itself speaks of the racial equality in our society. This wasn't true in the thirties.

And the children. Oh, the children. Well, nowadays they're more likely to see "dancing with the stars" than patriotic parades. I grew up in a village with no tv. Patriotic displays? Sure. You'd do anything to break the monotony. I played at being a princess a lot, and I'm not even a monarchist now. Both of these pictures reveal kids either being manipulated by or trying to impress adults. They mean nothing about what these kids will grow up to be. I can almost guarantee, though, that the modern kids are better fed, healthier and for all the disaster of our public education, have more chances of picking up knowledge outside school than the "then" kids did.

We segue right into parenting with the next two photographs. Let me tell you that were it not for the fact the woman is more overweight than I was thirteen years ago (or now) that could have been me, with my second son. My second son, aka Houdini, perfected the ability to vanish in the second you needed to turn away from him. I'd let go of his hand to count change, and he'd be gone. As much as I hated leashes for children and had only used one with his brother during international travel, I had to revise my opinion with child #2 until he was old enough to understand what running off might mean. Note the woman isn't walking. She's stopped there. I don't know about other people, but lying down like that and looking at the ceiling was one of my kid's favorite activities. (The other was grabbing onto the leash surfer style, lying down on his belly and demanding I pull him. Depending on the clothes he was wearing, sometimes I did, to much giggling.) As for the "then" picture, other than the fact that the whole family looks like it was put through the ringer - and probably was - those kids probably were beaten (not just what we'd consider a spank) on a regular basis. If they fit their time and place, they were all already working hard. And they wouldn't be encouraged to question authority. Any authority. Parents, teachers or the lady down the street. I'd rather deal with the "now" kids.

Another thing built into the assumptions in those pictures is the fact that the "then" parents on average probably had a lot more children. Discipline had to be tighter, to keep the brood under control. And while the death of a child has always been a tragedy in every time and place, it was not always the same. I grew up in a place and time of large families. Little Johnny running out of the store and getting run over in the parking lot would be sad but not the end of the world. NOT as it would be now, when Johnny is likely to be an only child, or one of two. That leash is not a symbol of neglect, but of excessive caution.

The next two photographs. Sigh. Picture the "now" gentleman walking into the place of work of the "then" gentleman dressed as he is. If you think he'd get what he has coming to him, congratulations, you are in fact a totalitarian and a dictator at heart. Me, I'm happy he doesn't get more than a second glance these days.

The next two photographs - yes, the modern lady is very overweight. She has two small children. I would argue that someone with two small children getting that obese reveals more an underlying health problem than the leisure to lay around. In fact, I doubt she has time to exercise. I'm finally getting back into shape now, when I can exercise every day without endangering the boys. With kids that small? No way. So... Different living conditions. I'd still rather live now, when food is plentiful and we can deal better with the health problems inherent in our lifestyle. Now, mind you, I'd never have been caught dead in that ill-fitting shirt, but I guess she has other things on her mind. Like... her kids. And the cashier will still be nice to her, and call her ma'am. Beautiful, isn't it?

The last photographs? Maybe the gentleman is also thinking he wishes this would copulate. Look, again, yeah, the modern lady is being rude... And who cares? Imagine talking to both of the photograph subjects. Can't you picture getting grievances from both? She's just expressing hers more openly because she CAN. A society in which cranky old ladies can be cranky old ladies is a free and safe society.

And that brings us to the comment at the end from the author of the post Compare and contrast our noble ancestors with modern Americans. Then: Poor, yet dignified, with strong family and community bonds. Now: Overfed, government assisted trash who look like shambling monsters.
It won't be long for this country.

Oh, please. Let's leave aside the obvious elitism in assuming that anyone who is overweight is on government assistance (does this person know any computer programmers or other chair-sitters, whose long hours of work MAKE them obese?)

Strong community bonds? You can say that again. Strong, small communities that enforce conformity. Having grown up in a village, I'm given to saying, "It takes a village to make a child completely neurotic." Strong community bonds also means "Don't you dare be different."

As for It won't be long for this country - well those noble ancestors let FDR build the foundations of the leviathan now crushing us. The ones in the pictures probably voted for him all four times.

Instead, I'd sum up this photo essay like this:

Then - strained, down on their luck, provincial people who didn't even know it was possible to live differently from what they'd been taught and whose desire to fit in and behave like their neighbors allowed the government to manipulate them and incite them in petty hatreds against the "fat cats."

Now - a well fed, vibrant, open-minded people that allow for the outliers in their midst and are, therefore, the engine of innovation of the world.

The future is so bright, I've got to wear shades.

posted by Sarah on 08.31.10 at 09:01 PM


"I grew up in the sixties and seventies, in a society where few people owned a camera, film was expensive and developing film even more expensive. "

Are you sure you haven't veered too far in the other direction from golden memory? I grew up in a 50s and 60s in which every kid in my class owned an Instamatic, film was fairly cheap and developing was, if not dirt cheap, cheap enough that I could shoot rolls of the stuff at Boy Scout Camp and afford to get it developed through the drugstore. Flashcubes were a little pricey, though.

HMI   ·  August 31, 2010 10:43 PM


No, I probably neglected to say, this was in Portugal. I had it there, but might have edited it out. Sorry.

I know the "time line" was different in the States. Heck, in Portugal it was highly regional. It will give you an idea where we were gadget wise, though, if I tell you my brother got the very first transistor radio in the village as a gift from family overseas when I was very young. I'm not sure when, I just remember I broke it when I was six, so... sixty eight/nine. It was maybe by then one of two such in the village.

When I became an exchange student in 81, I had to borrow a camera to take pictures of my home in Portugal, but when I got here,in the very first month my family gave me an "instamatic" (I think that's what it was called) camera of the type you pulled out and covered till the picture appeared. To me that was ALMOST magic. Something I'd heard of, but never seen. But to them it was just a "Low price, fun" gift to give me.

Sarah   ·  August 31, 2010 11:31 PM

Sorry 80-81 as an exchange student. From what my husband (Grew up in Connecticut, Maryland and Ohio) and I can tell, my experiences growing up are more -- though not exactly -- comparable to someone growing up in the forties and fifties here. (Which makes some sense since the whole time growing up, I was told Portugal was "20 years behind.") Mind you a lot of them don't "translate" at all.

Sarah   ·  August 31, 2010 11:33 PM

I must agree with HMI on the cost of cameras and film. My family was not wealthy, but my sister had a Brownie and I had an Instamatic (still have it, though you can't find film cartridges any more.) I took mine to Boy Scout camp too, dropped it off the dock into Lake Pilila and it took me a dive or two to find it, but most of the photos still came out and I used the camera for years after. This would have been 1968 or so.

Stewart   ·  August 31, 2010 11:38 PM

Good to see you back.

I don't miss radio tubes much. Finger burns. OTOH there are places where only vacuum bottles will do. My first transistor (the CK722) was in 1960. My first computer in 1975. I like things better today.

M. Simon   ·  September 1, 2010 12:03 AM

Most of what Roissy posts is disturbing.

The old photos used in that post are available with many more here:

Some of them were obviously posed, certainly not all. But it's more important to know they were taken by professional photographers hired by the government.

Donna B.   ·  September 1, 2010 12:49 AM

After I realized the blogger was comparing people who agreed to be photographed at their homes, farms, and workplaces with people at WalMart who didn't know they were being photographed (let alone why), I stopped paying attention. All those people out running an errand would look completely different if the blogger had gone to their homes/work and asked if he could take their photo. Comparing apples to styrofoam packing peanuts says more about the blogger than about the people in the photographs of either era.

The part that fascinates me is that in the "then" the blogger prefers, there would have been social (possibly legal? I do not know) repercussions to taking unflattering photographs of your neighbors without their consent, and publishing them with the intent to demean. I don't think it takes away from Sarah's points about abuse and conformity to note that one place where "then" was better than "now."

(I am also going to disagree with this: And they wouldn't be encouraged to question authority. Any authority. Parents, teachers or the lady down the street. I'd rather deal with the "now" kids. I live in a city where teenagers routinely assault bus drivers, teachers, and cops for fun, because they know nothing will happen to to them. Their mother or grandmother will take their poor sweet misunderstood baby's side (the bus driver was asking for it by expecting a fare to be paid!) against a court too cowed by the purveyors of "social justice" to do anything but agree with them, right on up until their next victim dies. I'd rather deal with the kids repressed into conforming to arbitrary societal diktats like "don't punch your teacher in the face, or you better hope you go to jail because there's worse punishment waiting for you at home" because I like having all my front teeth. YMMV.)

HeatherRadish   ·  September 1, 2010 2:23 AM

"If my reading of the time is correct, though, this was a time when the man could have pounded the living daylights out of his wife, and it would mostly be kept quiet, to present a good front to the world."

"As for the "then" picture, other than the fact that the whole family looks like it was put through the ringer - and probably was - those kids probably were beaten (not just what we'd consider a spank) on a regular basis."

I don't understand the assumption of beatings. Where does that come from?

Your main point of the two photo essays being apples and oranges I agree with.

Deb   ·  September 1, 2010 7:57 AM


I could be completely wrong on the beatings. It's just from reading bios (not famous people bios, but "normal people" bios -- you can get them self-pubbed and what not) of the time, it's clear that what we'd consider "beatings" were far more common. In fact it was an assumption of the culture.
Here, I'm going to say that time outs don't work and that my kids got the occasional smack when they were too young to be reasoned with (and too young for the real punishment to be taking their computer cord away).
HOWEVER it seems that larger families, with busy parents (and they would be, most of the time) it's harder to keep "control" of all the kids even to the point of their not endangering themselves. Hence what we'd consider "beatings" but in their day would probably be "a sound spanking." (Seriously -- at least looking back, myself, the perception of this has changed drammatically.)
The leash came in because we don't spank our kids nearly enough (Having just read Heinlein's Starship Troopers for the upteenth time, I'm going to say this is not all good) and therefore we need to safeguard them other ways.
BTW on mothers, etc standing behind their darlings -- again, a result of a much less harsh upbringing, I think. I'm not going to say "questioning authority" is always value added, but I remember the other extreme too (Portugal being a much more traditional society) and er... "moderation in everything" is a good motto.

Sarah   ·  September 1, 2010 8:39 AM

Again, please, do not get hung up on "But I could afford that." I was born and raised in a village in the North of Portugal. The village is now getting absorbed by Porto, but my grandmother lived in it her whole life and could count on one hand the number of times she'd gone to Porto.
It was an odd time and place to grow up in, and sometimes it makes me feel like a time travel traveller when discussing childhood experiences.

Sarah   ·  September 1, 2010 8:42 AM

Sorry, Sarah, you're wrong. Oh, the essayist you pointed to is wrong, too -- but his(?) is a case of overstatement, where yours is a wrong assumption.

I was born in 1948, in the American South. We had fat people and thin ones, white people and black -- our town was considered highly liberal, and an attractive place for blacks to live, so there were many.

It was a time and place when a hobo -- black or white -- would have moved Heaven and Earth to be seen in a shirt with a collar, and preferably with a properly-knotted tie. If the shirt was dirty or the tie stained he could approach almost any of us, ask for help, and get a meal and his clothing put through the wash, this when not a few of us were still building a fire under the wash-tub once a week and "dryer" meant ropes slung between poles in the sunshine. On the other hand, a T-shirt and jeans, even if clean, labeled the wearer as "shiftless" and not entitled to much, if any, help.

So yes, those pictures were posed in some sense, but they aren't unrealistic. I can well remember going to family reunions; all the men in suits or sport jackets with ties and ironed shirts, all the women starched and ironed, their makeup done, and with little pieces of jewelry; all the boys in collared shirts and broadcloth trousers, all the girls in junior editions of their mothers' outfits -- in Texas in the hot summer. The New Mexico barbecue doesn't look odd to me at all. That's the way it was.

As for prayer -- join the group, adopt the group norms. Those same people, invited to an occasion where all the attendees were Buddhists, would have inquired as to proper behavior and attempted to conform with what was going on, even if all they could in conscience do was stay well back. The first foreigner I ever met, in the early Fifties, was a Muslim from what is now Jordan. His host and my father were best friends, and Mother (a true fundie, in modern terms) and Lucille, the host's wife, found him a rug to use as a prayer mat, and prevailed upon me and one of my friends to use a globe and compass to determine which way was Mecca. Their private opinion that he was bound for Hell was irrelevant -- he was there, among strangers, and deserved to be made as comfortable as possible.

As for last-minute shopping trips, the necessity itself would have been regarded as evidence of slovenly inattention to preparedness. Showing up at the grocery store in T-shirt, shorts, and thong sandals would have confirmed that. Such a person would get served, even politely, but disapproval would be made clear. How you presented yourself was regarded as an indication of your own pride and self-respect, and people who didn't respect themselves didn't get respect.

A society that doesn't enforce its own norms is not a society, it is a gaggle of unrelated people who cannot act together and who can be easily separated into mutually-competitive (or worse) factions. You might, with some justice, accuse us of going too far in that direction, but saying we didn't do it at all is ignoring, or being ignorant of, the way it was.


Ric Locke   ·  September 1, 2010 4:06 PM

Thank-you Mr. Locke! I rather agree with your response and would add that carrying oneself with self-respect, pride and dignity was crucial to the people around me when I was growing up in the 50s and 60s. And this was true regardless of whether one was rich or poor, White or Black. None of the people with whom I grew up would ever, ever, ever have been caught quite literally "with their pants down" either in the home or outside it even when doing house chores or about town on quick errands. Whether posed or not, in my view the blogger's pictures of people in the past provide an accurate portrait of this reality. Conversely . . . I quesion Sarah's implication that those present-day people pictured would have comported themselves or dressed that much differently had their photos been posed rather than "candid". The very fact that they would even consider stepping into public with so little a concern for their appearance, demeanor and attitude speaks to a quite different conclusion.

Anonyme   ·  September 1, 2010 5:29 PM

There was one other point I wished to make that with respect to Sarah's post. For me, her remarks and many of the assumptions behind them reflect a thorough cynicism that is typical of our age. It may be true that some of those photos do not reflect the complete "truth" of the way things actually were for their subjects; however, what Sarah misses in those "past" photos is the presence of an aspiration to the "Better" or the "Best" on the part of their subjects. For me, this is precisely what is is lacking in the world today and the more recent photographs are a reflection of this.

Anonyme   ·  September 1, 2010 5:48 PM

Times like this I like to quote a great Long Island poet.

No, not Walt Whitman but the other one, Billy Joel.

"The good old days weren't always good
and tomorrow ain't as bad as it seems.@

Anthony   ·  September 2, 2010 5:25 AM

Perhaps I view the images through my upbringing and life. The thing is, I find that people both tend to romanticize the past and that our past IS truly different from today -- even our own past.

Perhaps my view is colored by having changed countries back and forth twice then back again -- and therefore knowing the changes in acculturation and what you accept as normal. Also, by seeing changes in Portugal.

A small anedocte: when I was eight, I gave up drinking wine. The entire family teased me about this. (Yes, I had read it killed neurons.) Now Portugal is part of the EEC. Drinking wine is forbidden till age eighteen. My kids, at fourteen, weren't even allowed table wine till they were eighteen, not even the taste I give them here when we drink. The thing is this -- My parents will swear up and down and sideways that they never allowed me to drink till I was eighteen. DESPITE the fact that by the time I came to the states at eighteen, I had been drinking wine at table (again, yes, since fourteen) and knew my way around the hard stuff (I'm a very moderate drinker, but I enjoy it.) They will swear to this despite pictures of "kids" parties with wine/liquor on the table. You see, the new sensibilities project backward into memory. Are you sure you remember your childhood correctly? Memory is a slippery thing.

The other part of it is that I'll admit that Portugal in the 60s/70s wasn't "exactly" like the States twenty years before. There IS such a thing as an American Ethos. One of the things I was first captivated by in the US as an exchange student was the playful banners and markers in highschool hallways. Stuff like "Egghead alley" in the tech zone. You couldn't find that in Portugal not in a million years -- then -- things were MUCH more serious, enforcedly so.
And I will still maintain that American tolerance for outliers and weirdos (I SHOULD know. I write science fiction and fantasy for a living, and my people are powerfully weird, in relation to the main stream) has increased with time and that this is a GOOD thing.

Sarah   ·  September 2, 2010 1:14 PM

M. Simon,

I'm an idiot. Sometimes, rarely, I slip not so much into Portuguese but into the slang of my childhood. When I said "Transistor radio" what I actually meant was "portable radio." That was what they were called (also "battery radio") and probably still are in Portugal. You see, they were the first TRANSISTOR radios.

I think there were transistor -- non portable -- radios around at the time. Not sure. I know my parents bought the first non-tube radio in 69. In 75 I cannibalized various tube radios exiled to the attic, to build my own radio.

Sarah   ·  September 2, 2010 1:18 PM

Oh, and Anonimme, I wouldn't say I'm cynical at all. On the contrary. I have unlimited faith in the fact that, despite some truly disgusting periods/places, the future is in general better than the past.

Buck up. Tomorrow, it will rain soup, and all you need is a bucket. :-P

Sarah   ·  September 2, 2010 2:01 PM

Thanks for a wonderful and thoughtful post. I remember the piece, and I thought the then and now comparison suffered from a serious logical problem. The WalMart stuff consists of ugly social misfits deliberately selected by modern photographers with unlimited memory and endless time to waste, and the bias is obvious.

The older photos reflect a very different photographic intent. Had someone wanted to photograph skid row characters and circus freak types in the 1930s (I've seen lots of pictures of period drag queens), he could have found them. But it would have taken time and money, and who would have wanted them?

(It's not as if they had a way to post them online....)

Still, you have to admit that the contrast is entertaining.

Eric Scheie   ·  September 3, 2010 10:25 PM

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