Finance Michael Pascoe: Sleeping on the wrong side of history
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Michael Pascoe: Sleeping on the wrong side of history

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An American article published at the turn of this century posed a question about two Rip Van Winkles: One went to sleep in 1900 and woke up 50 years later, the other dozed off in 1950 and woke in 2000.

It asked which one suffered the greater culture shock and would have found it harder to adapt?

Embarrassingly, I have forgotten the author’s name and the publication, but the story has stayed with me as I suspect it carries truths that are worth remembering. (The best I’ve managed via Google is something of a passing refutation by historian Michael J. Hogan.)

In the way of such pieces, the author built the story of the first Rip, waking to discover aeroplanes and television, ubiquitous motor cars travelling at incredible speeds and no horses in sight, conspicuous wealth by 1900s standards suddenly common despite being told of two world wars and the Great Depression he had slept through, America the world’s richest and greatest power and Europe’s former great powers struggling to rebuild.

The second Rip, well, planes and cars were faster and safer, but they were still recognisably planes and cars, television was now in colour and more reliable with more channels, man had landed on the Moon, America remained the world’s richest and greatest power and wars and economic cycles had been kept modest compared with the first half of the century.

But, argued the author, it was the second Rip who would suffer the greater culture shock, find it harder to cope.

For the first Rip, things had radically changed, but they were just “things”. For the second, society itself – people – had changed.

The racial divide and the treatment of homosexuality hadn’t altered much from 1900 to 1950. Interracial marriage remained illegal in most of the US in 1950 and sodomy was a criminal offence.

American women had gained the vote, but their perceived role in 1950 would be familiar to someone from 1900. Single-income households were the norm and divorce wasn’t.

Between 1950 and 2000, society was revolutionised. Civil rights, women’s liberation, Gay and Black Pride changed the US and Australia.

A typing pool full of women typists in the 1970s. Photo: Mary Evans Picture Library

A local Rip Van Winkle going to sleep in 1950 knew a White Australia where the original custodians were not even counted in the Census, where black children were routinely taken from their parents and trained for servitude. He would awaken in a post-Mabo, multicultural Australia where more migrants were coming from Asia than Europe.

Gay rights would have been anathema to Ripper and the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras unthinkable, unless he was gay.

But assuming Ripper was white and straight, the biggest shock in his universe would be women’s rights and expectations.

While he was asleep, the Commonwealth Public Service dropped its ban on employed married women (1966). Even the Barrier Industrial Council gave way in 1981. The pill had enabled a sexual revolution, no-fault divorce had been introduced, more women than men were enrolling in higher education and the late, great Susan Ryan achieved the passing of the Sex Discrimination Act in 1984.

These are only some of the easily measured things. Harder to quantify is the revolution feminism unleashed in expectations of genuine equality and freedom of choice – expectations, demands, that most of us now take for granted, as nothing less than reasonable.

Ripper would have an excuse for being disoriented, the suddenness of the disappearance of the 6 o’clock swill in his men-only public bar.

Others seem to have trouble awakening even as they have travelled through time with their eyes open, preserving an inability to accept change or that the pace of change is not slowing.

It is a very fine and wonderful thing that our society has learned to change, to evolve rapidly into the better place it is becoming. There remains plenty to be done, but we have the evidence that we can do it.

At every step of that evolution/revolution, there has been opposition from those who don’t like change, who were perfectly comfortable with the status quo, the existing laws and conventions, who didn’t see the need as things were pretty good for them as they were.

There always will be such people, but the encouraging thing is that they chose to sleep on the wrong side of history.

They can delay our evolution a little, but not stop it. We’re too far down the track with too much momentum.

In time, if they are remembered at all, it will be as a derisory footnote, those who snoozed when it was such a time to be awake.

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