A long, long time ago...
I can still remember
How that music used to make me smile.
And I knew if I had my chance
That I could make those people dance
And, maybe, they’d be happy for a while.
But February made me shiver
With every paper I’d deliver.
Bad news on the doorstep;
I couldn’t take one more step.
I can’t remember if I cried
When I read about his widowed bride,
But something touched me deep inside
The day the music… died.
- Opening to “American Pie,” by Don McLean (1971)
That “the day the music died” is February 3rd, 1959 is undisputed. On that day, a small plane carrying Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and JP “The Big Bopper” Richardson went down in an Iowa cornfield, killing all three. Their fans, and the music world, were stunned by the loss of three rising stars in the still-infant Rock ‘n Roll movement.
The next five verses are a rather more enigmatic - yet brilliant - history by metaphor of what was to follow that reflects the perspective, and how it shaped the views of their author. Looking at perspective – and how it influences worldview - is the purpose of this article, so I’ve chosen to take the same time period to serve my own purposes.
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The first reason I chose 1960 is because it marked an seminal time in McLean’s mind as he penned “American Pie.” The music, or rather the artists behind the music, died in 1959 and the oft-revered decade of the fifties and all it represented was about to give way to something unrecognizable. Just as important as the deaths of Holly, Valens, and Richardson was what they came to represent to McLean as he looked back ten years later at the storminess of the sixties: the loss of his, and his generations’, innocence and a nation’s character and identity forever changed.
The years just prior to 1960 have that effect on a lot of people, does it not? The fifties are often idealized, in mind and media, as an era of innocence, stability, American fortitude and national resolve. The post-war years had been good and, even though we knew we had to keep a sharp eye on the godless Reds, our military was more than ready and willing to wipe the map with them if they got out of line! And then the sixties happened: stability gave way to unrest, innocence to worldliness and promiscuity, and resolve to dissension and self-doubt. In “American Pie,” McLean traces the decade through sometimes cryptic imagery, referring mostly to the music and artists of the day, to record and mourn the loss of what was – or, at least, the way he remembered it.
His song reflects his perspective, and it’s one many easily relate to. It’s a perspective a lot of us share whether we lived during those times or not. It’s a perspective that, in the minds of many, reflects an inviolable truth.
Of course, if you really look at the decade of the fifties historically there may be other perspectives, too. If you really look at it historically, maybe what happened in the sixties wasn’t such an anomaly. Perhaps, looking at the post-war era historically undermines the perspective of stability, and its underlying fault lines made the tempest of the sixties inevitable. Maybe perspective is fluid?
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The second reason I chose the year 1960 for our study of perspective is because of more empirical considerations. In 1960, the population of the United States (per US Census figures) was 179,323,175. And though the US population has continued to grow tremendously since then – at the precise moment I sat down and began writing this article, it was estimated by the US Census Bureau to be 314,854,577 – the geographic area has not changed since the statehoods of Alaska and Hawaii in 1959. That is an increase of 135,531,402 people over 52 years. Of course, the nation’s area in square miles is the same but the population distribution has shifted – and continues to shift - significantly in the intervening years. Regardless, most Americans are probably living in ever closer proximity to their neighbors.
Combine that with the seemingly tectonic shifts in social mores and public morals that came out of the sixties, the trauma of being a nation bitterly divided over war, challenges to the United States role and place in the world, poverty, race relations, the normalization of civil disobedience and protests opposing the old order, and the excesses of the counterculture (sharply increased drug use, sexual promiscuity, and, among some, militant reaction to standing authority). Since then we’ve only pulled farther away from the stability and safety of the idealized fifties, through decades marked by their own excess and challenges, to the headlines of today.
Obviously, crime has surely skyrocketed as more and more people are living practically on top of each other, right? According to the apparently fatalistic perspective of many in law enforcement – the men and women who protect, serve, and stand the wall between law and disorder – our society is well on its way to hell in a hand basket! At least if some of their comments to news stories, blogs, social media postings, etc are any indication. This is also reflected in conversations we sometime have with those who are sure crime and depravity have never been worse, the current generation more hopeless than any before, the social fabric is tattered past mending, etc, etc… This type of fatalism has consequences for those who subscribe to it, so shouldn’t we actually be sure it’s warranted in the first place?
Well, the answer, as they say, is “complicated.”
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If we look at UCR Crime Statistics from 1960 compared to the most recent reporting year (2011) we see that today’s stats are clearly much higher. The overall crime rate per 100,000 persons in 1960 was 1,887.2, and the violent crime rate was 160.9. In 2011, the rates were 3295.0 and 386.3 respectively. That is a huge jump, for sure. But something else jumps out that in contrast to the idea that 1960 was a more orderly and law abiding society than today’s. The murder rate in 1960 was 5.1/100K; In 2011 it was only 4.7. So, while the 1960 violent crime rate was less than half what it is today, the incidence of citizens killing one another was slightly higher. How could this be?
While this is only a hypothesis, I believe it is sound and reflects changes in policing derived, at least in part, from the social changes of the sixties: The crime rates of 1960 were not really so different from today but the way they were handled and reported to the FBI were. You can’t really not report a murder if you are a serious police department, whether in New York City or North Podunk, Nebraska. They tend to stick out. Property crimes, assaults - even rapes and robberies - may not have been reported as diligently, especially in an era when very different attitudes and beliefs might mean the complaints of women, minorities and the poor were viewed or investigated less seriously, or that certain victims were less likely to come forward, than today.
Interestingly, just a few years into the turbulent sixties, we see dramatic changes in crime reporting: Crime rates across the board begin to gradually tick upward until, by 1970, they rival or even exceed – and in some categories, very much exceed – those of 2011. In some ways Don McLean was right; the innocence of his youth was gone. But was it because America had really lost its innocence somewhere along the way, or because previously hidden truths were being revealed? Had the discord of the sixties opened cracks in the social fabric, or did the changes it drove expose them? It was probably a little of both.
Crime rates continued rising for roughly the next twenty years, with historic highs reached (for both violent and property crimes) in 1990 and 1991. Murder rates had been high since the early seventies, peaking at 10.2/100K in 1980, and remained consistent through 1991. And then the tide turned.
Since 1991 crimes rates have actually dropped to levels comparable to those of the late sixties, and with a murder rate lower than only those of 1962 and 1963. Even assaults on police officers and homicidal line of duty deaths, despite sharp increases in 2010 and 2011, have remained largely consistent over the years by most reports, and now appear to be declining.
Crime rates are empirical, even if the impetus behind how and why they change may be less so, and give a picture of the clear contrast between what we tend to believe or want to believe (crime is out-of-control, morals and values are crumbling, our society is in decline, etc) with reality (crime rates are dropping, we are safer as a whole than at any time in the past forty years, your efforts really are paying off, etc).
Other judgments of society – whether its morality and values have weakened, for instance – are necessarily subjective. Likewise are concerns over generational differences (a debate going on for millennia) and other issues for which there are widely varied opinions. How you view the ways of a different generation or the prevailing morals, values, and practices of society depends largely on your own personal worldview and personality.
The risk for those who find themselves at odds with those ways is how easily they can assume a fatalistic view. And that poses a significant danger to those are prone to that fatalism. The trick to staying emotionally healthy – to maintaining a healthy perspective – is learning how to sift the facts from the fantasy and base your point-of-view on them. Our next and final article on this topic of perspective will provide some strategies to help you do just that.