Cultural imperatives can transform slowly and subtly without anyone being aware of the change. But sometimes we see something in an old movie or TV show that depicts attitudes or conditions that have changed so much that it makes us realize how different things are from “the good old days,” “our salad days” and “back in the day.”
The other day I had one such epiphany of change while channel surfing for something to watch while exercising. I chanced upon the 1982 Taylor Hackford melodrama, “An Officer and a Gentleman,” which dissects the lives and loves of Naval pilots in training. At the beginning, Lou Gossett Jr. chews up the scenery for what seems like an eternity as a sergeant who is abusing the new recruits, who are all lined up in front of him. In his diatribe, he throws every invective and emotion at them, each a reason why he will make sure they fail. The anger rises in his throat when he tells them how pissed off he is that they’ll get out of military in six years and make big bucks flying for the airlines.
That reference stopped me in my tracks.
Just a few weeks earlier I had seen an episode of HBO’s very funny “The Brink,” in which two fighter pilots in trouble for a variety of reasons bemoan that they may have to leave the Navy and get a job making some puny amount, $30,000 I think, working terrible hours. FYI, these guys will later save the world from nuclear holocaust by dive-bombing their jet into a rogue Pakistani refueling jet loaded with nuclear devices headed to downtown Tel Aviv. It being fiction, they are able to eject from the plane seconds before impact.
Think about it. In 30 years, the cultural reference to commercial pilots went from they have a great-paying glamorous job to they mill a grindstone for peanuts.
Back in 1982, commercial pilots—primarily unionized—were considered to be at the top of the middle class. Today, the question is, what middle class?
The change in pilot status implicit in these two references in works of art 30 years apart indeed symbolizes what has happened to the American middle class over the past three decades. The Reagan program of suppressing unions, cutting taxes on the wealthy, cutting government spending on education and social programs and privatizing government services to for-profit, mostly non-unionized companies has laid waste to the incomes and wealth of the middle class and poor. The wealthy now take a far greater share of the wealth and income pie than they have since the Gilded Age of the 19th century. That piggish slice of the pie came at the expense of all others.
The difference between the America with a strong middle class and shrinking poverty that existed before Ronald Reagan took office and the nation of rich and poor we have today is so obvious that it comes across in minor details of the extended dramatic exhortations of popular culture. The reality then and now was and is baked into the popular art of the times.