I was lucky. My early formative years were guided not only by two previous generations of immediate family and relatives but by an old Philco black and white television set, channels few, reception hardly optimal. Squinting at the screen, it connected me to the Golden Age of American Television, a period I consider beginning the late 1940s and terminating the late Sixties, about the time expanding formats and advertising started dominating.
Until that phase of the Network era, television’s great potential as educator and community service, promise once envisioned by Edward R. Morrow and pretty much limited to PBS nowadays, had a chance to be realized. Amidst live performances, anthologies, literary adaptations and romanticized slice-of-life dramas, many adapted from successful radio shows and movies, writers like Rod Serling, Reginald Rose, Paddy Chayefsky and Gore Vidal received critical acclaim for their teleplays. In front of cameras, braving Playhouse 90 and other pressure-packed venues, a crop of post-war actors and actresses took root in the new medium like pioneer species on barren terrain. Some were newly emergent artists, such as Paul Newman, Vera Miles, Lee Marvin; Julie Harris. Others, taking advantage of halcyon days, were established stars whose stage and silver screen prominences faded. The first James Bond story was the TV teleplay, “Casino Royale,” aired in 1954, starring Barry Nelson and Peter Lorre. At Internet Archives, you can treat yourself to a rare 1949 performance by Bela Lugosi in Autolite’s Suspense. He’s cast as Fortunato in Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado,” set in and modernly revised for WWII Italy. In fact, a young Ray Walston also appears in a minor-role as a GI. Many an actor playing someone who’s drunk, resort to clichés, slurring their speech and staggering about in intoxicated caricatures. Lugosi’s performance, spiced with malevolence until his immurement, is a treat of fine acting.
Before commercials and political divisiveness gobbled up timeslots as Internet and cable channels batter us today, the “power of myth” was a television staple. From Paladin to Peter Gunn, Elliot Ness to Matt Dillon, weekly installments of heroic deeds formed an episodic backbone for a generation’s primetime. Principled protagonists, many on horseback, also provided positive role models for youths. When historians look back on our national decline, it may well be traceable to the phasing-out of these 1950s-1960s icons, especially of the western genre.
When I think back to television I watched as a kid (about which a syllabus is probably in order), the number of small-screen heroes and heroines as exemplars was staggering. I could fill a page just listing them. Saturday mornings had Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, Sky King, William Boyd’s Hopalong Cassidy, Gail Davis’ Annie Oakley, Duncan Renaldo’s Cisco Kid and Guy Madison’s Bill Hickok. Saturday afternoons had Tarzan (ranging from Johnny Weissmuller to Lex Barker and Gordon Scott), Michael Ansara as Cochise in Broken Arrow, Chuck Conners’ Rifleman, Jay Silverheels and Clayton Moore as Tonto and the Lone Ranger. Sunday afternoons featured British imports such as Ivanhoe, William Tell and Richard Greene’s Adventures of Robin Hood. Disney studios provided a culture craze (and ballads and merchandizing frenzies to boot) with Fess Parker’s idolized portrayal of Davy Crockett, Guy William’s Zorro and Robert Loggia’s Elfego Baca. Desilu Productions gave us Gene Barry’s Bat Masterson, Scott Forbes’ Jim Bowie and Hugh O’Brian’s Wyatt Earp. Even Mighty Mouse, in operatic splendor, wowed us ameliorating cataclysms such as the Krakatoa eruption and Johnstown Flood. Animation, too, idealized virtue.
Certainly, America’s Golden Age of television was not without its glint of pyrite. It took until the mid-1960s to seriously address its shameful lack of diversity. Gunplay was far too prevalent, though in most cases scripted non-lethal, and family life, usually limned in sugary middle class sitcoms, was unrealistically paternal, notwithstanding model performances by Robert Young and Hugh Beaumont as dads. Nonetheless, it was a period of adaptive radiation for heroes. Some were fictionalized. Some were based on real-life exploits networks embellished, whitewashed and sanitized for television. But we had George Reeves’ Superman and Lloyd Bridges’ Mike Nelson, Diana Rigg’s Emma Peel and Anne Francis’ Honey West with which to align our do-gooder compasses and, in the latter two cases, early pubescent hormones. And none of the characters of the Fifties and Sixties had moral ambiguity. Lying, conniving, willful ignorance and greed were neither celebrated nor rewarded, and no one was ever voted off an island.
Fourteen years hosting a classical music program at the University of Hartford’s radio station (WWUH-FM) I occasionally was invited by a colleague to help conduct phone interviews with stars of movie and television westerns. Among actors with whom I briefly chatted were Fess Parker, Hugh O’Brian and Clint Walker, the latter playing the lead in Warner Bros. Cheyenne. During each conversation, I thanked them for providing positive role models for me as a youngster. Each actor responded by saying how they took that responsibility very seriously. I was struck how all three men in separate conversations remarked how they never drank or smoked in public or engaged in any activities deviating from their TV personas which might be seen by kids. Westerns have always been America’s morality plays, and all three actors understood and committed to onuses placed upon them.
Brazil’s recent coup attempt by Jair Bolsonaro supporters, using the same insurrectionist playbook Trump and his acolytes used in 2020 and 2021, shows how bad modeling, imitated by others, poses risks. In Trump’s and Bolsonaro’s cases, the Internet was used to stoke anger and mislead election deniers into rioting, breaking into government buildings and obstructing legitimate transitions of power. Extremism in Brasilia, however, was not the first replication of bad behavior in America gone viral. Adolph Hitler based his blueprint for eastward expansion of the German empire on the long and brutal U.S. conquest of Native Americans, which he praised in Mein Kampf. Calling the Volga his Mississippi, Hitler’s Third Reich colonialism was really U.S. manifest destiny at a blitzkrieg pace, not the relentless but gradual depopulation of indigenous people by European immigrants. Hitler actually grew up reading Karl May’s novels about Indian Wars and “taming the wild west” in which land was acquired through racial displacement. The concept of Lebenstraum, originated by Friedrich Razel, drew inspiration from U.S. historian Frederick Jackson Turner’s “frontier thesis” and “colonization of the Great West,” which Turner found pivotal in shaping the nation. The genocidal approach with which U.S. governments first extirpated, then concentrated remnants of indigenous tribes on reservations wasn’t lost on Hitler, whose obsession with racial purity took much the same approach, to even deadlier extremes, as Nazis occupied Eastern Europe.
While eugenics found its most radical interpretations in German persecutory policies prior to and during the Second World War, its pseudoscientific attempts at “racial hygiene” (a term coined by German economist Alfred Ploetz in 1895 as Rassenhygiene) first sprang up in industrialized nations in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. After English naturalist Francis Galton introduced the idea in 1883 and American Charles Davenport advocated for better humans through better breeding, eugenics societies in the U.S. not only embraced the movement but became politically influential in the 1910s and 1920s. American “eugenicists” incorporated popular prejudices to convince followers that certain racial, ethnic and economic groups had heritable deficiencies that endangered and financially burdened their communities. By linking such characteristics with diminished capacity, depravity, promiscuousness, and criminal behavior, the idea of limiting reproduction of the mentally ill, cognitively impaired and other targeted groups via voluntary or compulsory sterilization became increasingly acceptable. So much so, state and federal legislatures in the U.S. began permitting such abuses. Just as today, virulent strains of ideas, especially where profit is attainable, can increase tolerance for violence and lower acceptable behavioral standards, sinking society below thresholds of decency. In fact, the U.S. was the first country to introduce forced sterilization laws. Stymied attempts were made as far back as 1849 in Texas and 1897 in Michigan. In 1907, however, Indiana became the first state to pass a mandatory forced sterilization law impacting the “feebleminded,” a term to which German lawmakers later referred and (for movie buffs) punctuated Montgomery Clift’s dialogue in Judgment at Nuremberg. Several other states followed suit, and the Supreme Court ruled such laws constitutional in 1927, explicitly defended by Oliver Wendell Holmes. The Nazis emboldened by pro-eugenic sentiments here and in the UK pursued even more terrible courses after 1933. Laws were passed which allowed sterilization of 400,000 Germans for “hereditary illness” and prohibited marriages of so-called “inferiors” to healthy German “Aryans.” Even more horrific, a Euthanasia Program, predating the Holocaust by two years, systematically murdered an estimated 250,000 Germans institutionalized with disabilities.
Fascists in Europe also were schooled by Woodrow Wilson’s administration (1917-1921) when government-sanctioned, White House-instigated extremism was unparalleled in our nation’s history. Adam Hochschild describes those abuses of power in his new book American Midnight, noting how even McCarthyism’s “red scare” tactics paled by comparison. The Wilson administration and its supporters pioneered police raids, surveillance operations, internment camps (for German-Americans and draft evaders, aka “slackers”) and murderous strikebreaking, the stench of which hung over American policy for years. Wilson also locked-up his highly-regarded Socialist opponent Eugene Debs (then 63 years old) for opposing US entry into WWI and banned progressive magazines like The Masses for questioning the draft. (Actually, one of the few bright spots of Warren G. Harding’s short-lived presidency, having been a newspaperman, was his reaffirmation of the 1st Amendment as Woodrow Wilson’s successor.) Wilson’s cohorts, aided by a young and ambitious J. Edgar Hoover, ruthlessly fanned anti-German hysteria into lynch mobs and a fledgling surveillance state that outsourced domestic terrorism and violence to officially-licensed vigilante groups. Law-abiding citizens, unwarily stating preferences for German foods and beer or failing to buy war bonds, could be rounded-up, summarily harassed or beaten, sometimes even killed, while attackers went unpunished. Presaging the “freedom fries” absurdity during the war in Iraq, frankfurters became hot dogs, and “liberty cabbage” replaced sauerkraut during the First World War. Even Irving Berlin feared reprisals for his pacifist song, “Stay Down Here Where You Belong,” years after he penned it in 1914. As late as the 1970s, Berlin kept offering Groucho Marx money not to include the song in his late-night interview shticks. Groucho took delight in turning him down.
The Committee on Public Information (1917-1919), also known as the CPI and Creel Committee, was an independent government agency created by the Wilson administration to shape public opinion in favor of US entry into World War I. While George Creel, its chairman, argued otherwise in his memoirs, the CPI was a government-sanctioned propaganda machine after which Joseph Goebbels patterned his own public opinion shaping as Reich Minister. Wilson’s team also imported torture and counterinsurgency tactics from the Philippine War against US occupation after the Spanish-American conflict’s Treaty of Paris. Gen. Leonard Wood, who orchestrated massacres of Moro and Tausug tribespeople in the Philippines, was given charge of suppressing strikes, protests and other social demonstrations in the Midwest. So directed, the Colorado National Guard killed 11 children putting down a coal workers’ strike at a Rockefeller mine. Mistreatment and lynching of Blacks also increased during Wilson’s tenure because perpetrators knew his rollbacks of African American progress, segregationist policies and overtly racist mindset afforded them impunity. Is it any wonder we’ve created a market for surveillance capitalism where facts, truth and scientific logic are dissolving before our very eyes?
With the Doomsday Clock only 90 seconds to midnight (i.e., Armageddon) due to climate change, infectious diseases, nuclear proliferation and on-line disinformation, the quality of leadership has not risen to meet the mounting challenges we face. Leaders are still unwilling to act by making long-term necessities and moral imperatives paramount, not only for our species’ survival but virtually the entire biosphere. Joseph Campbell’s ‘hero with a thousand faces” may no longer be seen on television as readily as in the 1950s and 1960s. But “the hero’s journey” used in reference to Campbell’s monomyth still has relevance today, judging from expansion of the Marvel Cinematic Universe into popular culture genres. At individual, domestic and international levels, good and bad, right and wrong, factored into examples we set, still have far-reaching consequences.
Scott Deshefy is a biologist, ecologist and two-time Green Party congressional candidate.