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The Clutter Principle, Perry Mason’s Convertible, and Other Puzzlements of Modern Life

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Perry Mason had a Cadillac convertible.  I don’t know what color it was, because the show was in black and white except for a single episode, and the convertible didn’t appear on that episode.

But Perry Mason had one, at least for the TV show, and the really amazing thing about that was:  time after time, Mason was shown driving up to his office building with the top of the convertible down, parking in front of the building’s front door on a busy Los Angeles street, shutting the car off, taking the keys, and hurrying out to enter the building.

Notice what I did NOT say.

I did NOT say he put the top back up before leaving the car on the street.

He didn’t do that.  He left the top down. 

And he left the car open on the street.

And nobody ridiculed the scene, or talked about how that car would have been gone as soon as Mason got into the building and out of sight.

Of course, nobody complained about the possibility of rain, either, but this was supposed to be in LA, which is in the desert, and mostly dry.

What I can’t get out of my head is the fact that, in the 1950s and very early 1960s, nobody thought those scenes were unrealisitic.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, in LA, it was not implausible that you could park your convertible on the street with the top down and not have to worry about it getting stolen.

One of the things that has happened to me as I have gotten older is that I have begun to lose the sense of what I actually remember and what my memory has reconstructed to fit with what I wish things had been like.

That is why things like the Perry Mason episodes bring me up short, and why I’ve been increasingly fascinated with a CNN original series called The Sixties.

Leaving aside the narration or the construction or what the intentions of the producers were in presenting this show, there are lots and lots and lots and lots of clips, and those clips are just astonishing.

It is staggering to see just how polite we all were–Humphrey conceding to Nixon, Civil Rights icons giving speeches about integration, even teeny bopper screamers trying to get a glimpse of the Fab Four–everybody is neatly and half-formally dressed, nobody is indulging in Anglo Saxonisms, there’s virtually no slang and even the Beatniks are speaking mostly in standard English.

And no, that’s not because these clips lack “diversity.”  There are plenty of black people in them.  It’s just that the black people are also speaking standard English, whether they’re Martin Luther King or a sharecropper’s wife trying to register to vote.

In  many ways, watching that CNN series is completely and utterly surreal.

It’s not just that there is “civility” where now there is none.

“Civility” doesn’t even begin to explain what is going on there. 

One of the better words to describe what I was looking at might be “innocense.” 

We were innocent in a way, then, that we are not any longer.

It hadn’t begun to occur to us that we needed to worry that somebody would steal our cars if we left them on the street with the top down.

Never mind worrying about other things like whether our next door neighbor was a pedophile with his eyes on our six year old or if the adolescent kid across the street had a gun in his room he was planning to use to blow away most of his classmates at the local high school.

I am not saying the times were actually innocent, because of course they were not.

This was the era of Charles Starkweather and the Clutter family murders.  Pedophiles existed then as now.  Bad people embezzled and robbed and raped.

But I think one of the things we had was an inner conviction that most people were good people, that the evil among us were an exception, not the rule.

That was a principle stressed over and over again in those old Perry Masons, both the TV show and the books: if a character believed that “everybody” was crooked, that said more about him than the world.  That was a sign that he himself was crooked, and you had to watch out for him.

And this sea change–this shift to a place where we feel that most people are up to no good, that even under the skin of the seemingly most admirable among us there lurk the reality of corruption and vice and predation, to militarized police departments and schoolteachers convinced that the children in their classrooms are victims of abusive families who have to be rooted out and punished–

This sea change has come in spite of the fact that the actual incidence of crime, including gun violence and sexual predation, is far lower than it used to be. 

It is no longer the case the boys get their first gun at the age of 10 and drive to school in pick up trucks with three rifles hanging on the gun rack in the rear windshield. 

Part of this is, I know, a result of the distortion brought on by television news, amplified by the 24 hour cable cycle and the 24/7/365 Internet.

We now here about everything, everywhere, so that what is actually less crime and less danger perceived as more.  100 years ago, we wouldn’t have heard about the rape and murder of a teen aged girl in that took place several states away.  It would have been a local, not a national, story. 

There are no longer any truly local stories anywhere.

Some of this, though, is a real shift in attitude and understanding.  We live in a world where almost everybody now assumes that if we hear a rumor about somebody and that rumor is discreditable–well, then it’s probably true.

And that makes me wonder how much of the change is due to the other thing that’s surreally different between then and now:  the fact that we are no longer culturally coherent as a society.

The problem is not that we are now multiracial when we didn’t used to be.  We’ve always been multiracial, and multiethnic, too.

The problem is that there is no specific public face that pretty much everybody strives to present.

I suppose I am saying that there was more conformity, and I am–but I’m think of that conformity as a matter of outward appearance, not of inward orthodoxy.

Study after study–yes, those studies; and no, you can’t trust them without looking into them–

Study after study has shown that ‘diversity” is actually bad for us in a number of ways.  It decreases trust, for instance, and it makes people less willing to support things like social programs to aid the poor and unfortunate.

The more I look at it, though, the more I am convinced that the “diversity’ they’re talking about–the one with unplatable side effects–is a matter of surfaces.

People are lazy.  They take other people at face value unless something occurs to make them reexamine their ideas. 

If someone appears to be one of their own, most people accept that person as one of their own, without really thinking about it.

And race and ethnicity, in and of themselves, do not mark someone out as NOT one of their own.

I think the early Civil Rights movement understood this, which is why you get guys in suits like that of any banker and women working voter registration in crinolined skirts and little clutch hats.

The signal was not that everybody was alike, but that everybody wanted to be part of the same enterprise.

These days I think most people spend their time signalling that they DON’T want to be part of the same enterprise–and they send that signal no matter who they are, left or right, liberal or conservative.

Superficial individuation has become not a mark of true individuality, but of festering resentment: no, I’m not like you, and I don’t even want to be.

But people always have been, and always will be, more willing to do for their own than for people who don’t even seem to like them very much.

It’s not a matter of selfishness or racism or the hundred million other things we spend out time accusing each other of these days.

It is a matter of a willingness to see your fellow citizens as people you could at least potentially like and trust, and of being willing to make some surface accommodations to signal the fact.

And we’ve lost that.

And I think that’s a bad thing.

Written by janeh

August 8th, 2014 at 11:37 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'The Clutter Principle, Perry Mason’s Convertible, and Other Puzzlements of Modern Life'

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  1. On the other hand, just a few months ago I was in the parking lot at Target, salivating over an ORIGINAL Shelby Cobra (not a replica) which is worth the better part of a million dollars, or two million, depending. Cobras do not have a roof. The owner was inside, but returned while we were still drooling and talked to us for a bit. I guess you can take the girl out of Detroit, but you can’t take Detroit out of the girl. Unlike most collectors, this guy used his car. He didn’t have any qualms about it, and he seemed very used to finding lusting spectators when he came back to his car.

    Out here in S. Cal, it’s not uncommon to see vintage or new convertibles parked with top down, in summertime when rain is rare.

    I’ve lost my wallet a few times, and every time it’s been returned to me intact. Yes, I’ve had credit cards poached online, and things stolen out of my garage when it’s left open. All is not sweetness & light.

    Maybe I’m just old, but I still feel most people are basically good. Perhaps more later, crazy busy day here.


    8 Aug 14 at 3:02 pm

  2. Lymaree, I’ll go with the–well, maybe not “basically” good, but often so, and not generally inclined to commit felonies without provocation. I too have had wallets returned (and had credit card numbers stolen.) But the behavior of communities when police presence is known to be withdrawn is seldom edifying. Not many start, but a lot join in.

    Jane, I think you’re right about crime and perception. I believe Heinlein’s phrase was “wallowing in the troubles of ten billion strangers.” Mostly, it’s a habit which can be broken, but not easily. And if crime is not worse, that’s partly because cars and houses ARE locked, and often alarmed.

    The decline in civility is huge. Outside of gaming circles, everyone trying to sell me t-shirts is selling some which are deliberate insults of total strangers–which evidently passes as “cute” these days.

    The difference thing I think is probably genetic. If we didn’t have “different is suspicious” somewhere in our DNA, we might have bred back into the monkeys. (Manhood ritual rites probably helped, too–but you have to run the losers out of the village.)

    As for those early civil right films, I was never sure how much of the Sixties commonality was a put-up job. The same organizations and often the same individuals will trade their suits for kinte cloth, dshikis and afros–well, almost as fast as everyone grew beards in 1861. A first-term Senator who voted for anti-discrimination laws would still have been on that first term when the first racial quotas and references went into effect–to the applause of much the same people, differently dressed.

    Even a deliberate imposture may not matter in some ways. I man I’d cross the street to avoid has an undiminished moral claim to justice. But before you mourn the passing of the era, be sure it wasn’t all an illusion. Myself, I just don’t know.


    8 Aug 14 at 8:07 pm

  3. Some day I will learn to proofread. “preferences” not “references,” of course.


    8 Aug 14 at 8:09 pm

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