Popular culture, which is all about eyeballs and asses in seats, is more reliable than any survey to determine who we are at this moment. A glimpse at a shard of popular culture from the past is a snapshot of who we were at that moment. Sometimes, the disparity isn't pretty.
I was flipping through the channels at 4 a.m. yesterday, putting off getting to work, when I saw a very young Humphrey Bogart on Turner Classics. Had to stop.
The movie was KING OF THE UNDERWORLD, 1939. Bogart was a bank robber, natch, smooth and deadly, his grin like a poisonous flower beaming across the decades. He and his crew drive into a small town in Anyplace, USA, stroll into the Sheriff's office, where the man with the badge is blathering with his sidekick about maybe they should put up a speed trap of something, bring a little revenue into God's country. Next thing you know, Bogart's gang show their pistols, take the sheriff's keys and free their gang buddies from the jail. As Bogart and his men stroll out the door, the sheriff pushes a secret button on the floor, starting a siren blaring in this sleepy town.
What happens next knocked me out.
As the townspeople hear the siren, they rush TOWARDS the sheriff's office. They don't flee. They don't duck and cover. They don't wait for some alphabet agency to come and handle the problem, string out the yellow crime scene tape, maybe distribute bundt cakes and counseling afterwards. No, the call goes out that there's trouble. One of the townspeople, who is Mr. Average Joe, calls out, "Get yer guns!" and the crowd scatters to homes and storefront where they get their guns and start blasting away at Bogart and his men as they flee. Bogart gets nicked in the arm, which sets off a chain of events which, by the end of the movie, leaves the bad guys dead or on their way to prison.
It made me realize how different we are now. King of the Underworld was a B-movie when it was made, a quickie ground out in two months. No one thought it was art or social commentary or anything but 90 minutes of excitement and diversion, but there was something in that man shouting "Get yer guns!" that must have seemed natural at the time it was made. An instinctive response to evil. Collective action by free people. If it wasn't a commonplace reaction at the time, it at least seemed like something the best of us should do.
Today a screwhead goes nuts, murders innocents and the response is let's make it harder for people to defend themselves. Homeland Security comes out with the recommendation that when faced with an armed gunman, we should run, hide or throw something at him. Evidently that something not including .357 hollow points. The message is, "stay calm, you poor, dumb bastards, the authorities will be on their way shortly to carry away the dead and parade the victim's families to the cameras until there's no more political gain or TV ratings to be squeezed out of their grief.
We are not the people we used to be.