With all the fuss around Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In book and campaign, the argument over whether women can “have it all” and, if not, why not, and do they really want it “all” anyway, and so on and so forth is back on magazine front covers and all over the blogosphere. A related but different question is whether the women who might potentially “have it all” are chasing it all. What, in fact, are young, college-educated women deciding to do?
Writers – academic, commercial, and intellectual – have for generations indulged themselves writing about baseball. (This post, of course, becomes a further meta-indulgence.) There is nothing close in either American fiction or literary nonfiction about football or basketball, however much those other sports dominate the TV screen these days.Much of the baseball genre now tends to be nostalgic, elegies to a past of country pastures, sandlots, and pickup games. I was reminded of this trope when reading a recent essay in The (new) New Republic by Kent Russell about Amish boys playing ball. Russell’s essay combines two forms of nostalgia in the same space, wistful for a life and a sport that both seemed simpler and purer. (Will anyone ever write nostalgia about suburban kids’ traveling teams and their minivans? Maybe when they start to disappear.) An intriguing historical aspect of this literature, at least my impression of it, is that there are actually two strands of writing, one backward-looking and one forward-looking, although both are about childhood.
One of the major lifestyle changes of the twentieth century was the dramatic increase in the proportion of Americans who lived alone.  Virtually outlawed in Early America, rarely done in the early twentieth century, it became a stage of life for many Americans, especially for elderly women, by the end of the century. (In 2000, about one-third of American women 65 and older were living alone.) The question of whether this trend is a good or bad thing has been a matter of concern. Eric Klinenberg’s recent best-seller, Going Solo, conveys the positive side of the discussion (see also this earlier post).
Another side of the discussion is trying to make sense of why Americans increasingly chose to live alone. Is it because Americans became increasingly disaffected with family or because Americans became increasingly able to afford their own living spaces? The recent economic shocks we have gone through provide a way to contrast people’s “tastes” for solo living versus their budgets for solo living.
With the resignation of Pope Benedict and election of a new pope, amidst what seems an unending turmoil over sex abuse by priests, pollsters have understandably thought this a good moment to inquire about American Catholics’ attitudes on religious matters. The results describe a major disconnection between the Roman Catholic Church and its American adherents.
A New York Times survey conducted in February found, for example, that by roughly two to one or more, self-identified Catholics favored gay marriage, women priests, priests marrying, artificial means of birth control, access to abortion, and the death penalty – all anathema to the Church. Most said that the Church and its American bishops are “out of touch” with the needs of Catholics (although though most also said that parish priests are in touch).
The media are attending to the events and crises of the moment. It is important to understand that the alienation between the Church in Rome and Catholics in America has deep historical and cultural roots.
“ ‘Cause everybody’s living in a material world / And I am a material girl,” Madonna sang in 1984.
It’s a common refrain, that we are materialistic – obsessed with wealth and goods and consuming – in ways unheard of an earlier eras. But it was heard of in earlier eras.
Clearly, Americans of the 21st century have more and consume more than Americans 100 or 200 years ago did. That the closets of old Victorian homes hardly begin to store the stuff that today’s middle-class family owns testifies to that. Yet, because more Americans can afford more things than their ancestors could does not necessarily mean that they are more obsessed with things. (Indeed, one stream of social science research talks about modern people as being “post-materialist” – e.g., here.)
For those concerned with a too material world, there are social movements and web sites devoted to pursing the simple life, seeking “freedom from stuff and over-consumption” (e.g., here). This, too, has precedent: some people looked for the simple life in the 19th century. 
I recently received an email from a woman who had read my Boston Review column on how the political left and churches in the U.S. have drifted apart in the last few decades. There had been a vibrant religious left in the 1960s, but now the phrase, “religious progressive” seems (as one liberal commenter to the column insisted) “an oxymoron.” The conservative e-mailer also insisted that a reconciliation of the left and religion was impossible, because “either you understand the Bible or you don’t. Left-liberals don’t ….”
Our exchange did not go very far. But it made me want to revisit more explicitly the point that the contemporary alliance between laissez faire, free market ideology and conservative Christians is, if not an unholy alliance, certainly an historically unusual one. The two were, for most of our history, in conflict.
We have a commemoration going on about the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and the great social changes, such as the Emancipation Proclamation, which accompanied it. There’s another anniversary coming up over the next 12 months or so: the 50th anniversary of “The ‘60s,” by which I mean the 1960s as a distinct social, cultural era. It did not really begin in 1960 nor end in 1970. It began, culturally speaking, roughly in 1963-64 and petered out in the early-to-mid 1970s. If one is looking for a start date, perhaps the March on Washington, August 28, 1963, is a good marker (video); or President Kennedy’s assassination, November 22, 1963 (video); or the Beatles’ arrival in America, February 7, 1964 (video). Somewhere around then.
People often think that their time – particularly the period of their youth – is the fulcrum of history (see this study). Everything before we were about 14 or 15 is old, everything after is totally new. (Novelist Willa Cather famously wrote that “the world broke in two in 1922 or thereabouts”; historian Warren Sussman preferred 1905.) We are usually wrong. Some periods, however, are distinct and fateful for different reasons. For the generation that grew to adulthood in the 1960s, it was about rapid cultural change, a change apparently set off by earlier, rapid demographic change.