Hey, have you seen this flying car? It appeared in over 200 newspapers across the United States in 1958. Sure, it’s impractical, but it sure is neat. I’m just going to be staring at this flying car for the next four years if anybody needs me.
The “flapwing flycar” as it was depicted in the 10 May 1958 edition of the Sunday comic strip Closer Than We Think by Arthur Radebaugh (Novak Archive)
Past visions of the future are a fun escape from the drudgery of modern life. I’ve been writing about them for 10 years now, and they almost always track with the prevailing mood and economic conditions of the people who were making them. When the national mood is one of hope you see more flying cars and jetpacks like those of the 1950s and ’60s. When the nation is fundamentally depressed about its prospects, you get darker visions of the future like those of the 1970s: Soylent Green, Future Shock and World War III. Even visions of the future from children become darker.
Don’t get me wrong, the future is always a struggle. Americans of 1958 were rightly terrified about things like nuclear war and there were hard fought battles over civil rights. But there was a general sense of optimism by progressives in the late 1950s that even if there were tough battles ahead, things could be moved in the right direction.
I’m not so certain of that today, and I fear that America’s visions of the future for the next four years are going to reflect that. Donald Trump has been elected President and starting on 20 January 2017 he’ll begin enacting policies that were promised during his toxic and divisive campaign. President-elect Trump said that he’s going to build a wall along the Mexican border, institute a ban on Muslims from entering the US and introduce stricter libel laws to combat what he sees as bias in the mainstream press. Newt Gingrich has even floated the idea of reviving the House Un-American Activities Committee to combat Islamic terrorism.
“We originally created the House Un-American Activities Committee to go after Nazis,” Gingrich said on Fox and Friends this week. “We passed several laws in 1938 and 1939 to go after Nazis and we made it illegal to help the Nazis. We’re going to presently have to go take the similar steps here.”
The part that Gingrich doesn’t mention is that the House Un-American Activities Committee morphed into an enforcer of thought crimes and ruined the lives of Americans with associations to Communists — both real and those merely rumoured.
People have always had to fight for the future. We can look at the pictures of flying cars and jetpacks and forget that things were incredibly difficult for people of 1958 as well. But sometimes there is comfort in the rosier versions of tomorrow from half a century ago. The question for the next four years is whether the US will feel any sense of optimism about the future — the necessary condition for creating utopian visions of tomorrow.
I suspect America’s visions of tomorrow for the next four years will be more in line with the pessimism of the 1970s. But I have no idea. I’ve been wrong before. And I, perhaps better than anyone, know that making predictions for the future can make the prognosticator look like an idiot.
But I’m in genuine shock that the US now has a president who was elected for telling Americans just how crap everything is. Now that Republicans control both the House and the Senate, it’s Trump’s turn to set the national mood. And I fear that after 16 months of ideological destruction, with the decimation of progressive ideas in Trump’s wake, it’s going to be difficult for Americans to imagine a future filled with anything but strife and suffering.