The Universal Notebook: How things have changed

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Legalizing marijuana for recreational purposes is just the latest sign that America is becoming more liberal every day. Smoking pot is one of the many things over the years that Americans have come to embrace and approve that were once considered verboten.

When I think back over my 72 years, I am amazed by how far to the left the United States (indeed most of the free world) has moved.

Believe it or not, kids, it was once considered immoral for a man and a woman to live together unless they were married. It was called “shacking up” or “living in sin” when I was young. But cohabitation has been pretty mainstream since the 1970s with something like two-thirds of marriages starting with couples living together. 

Interracial marriages only became legal in America in 1967, the year I graduated from high school. In 1970, there were only 310,000 interracial married couples in the U.S. Now there are 11 million and something like 14 percent of American infants are happily multiracial.

The velocity with which Maine and America came to embrace same-sex marriage astonished me. In 2009, the Maine Legislature legalized marriage equality, and then it was repealed via referendum. Just three years later, in 2012, we reinstated same-sex marriage by popular vote, and then the U.S. Supreme Court made it legal in all 50 states in 2015.

When I was a kid I only had one friend whose parents were divorced. It seemed a strange and slightly risque state of affairs. Only about 20 percent of marriages ended in divorce in 1950. Since 1970, perhaps thanks to the women’s movement and the sexual revolution, close to 50 percent of marriages have ended in divorce. Maybe not something to celebrate, but it’s better than being trapped in a loveless marriage. 

You see the liberalization of America in lots of smaller ways as well. Back in the conformist 1950s, for example, only sailors, bikers, and felons sported tattoos. Now that even nerds are cool, 30 percent of Americans have ink. 

And I’m sure teens today would be surprised to learn that in the 1960s, girls were not allowed to wear slacks to school, and boys were not allowed to wear blue jeans. And forget about facial hair of any kind. I was once sent home to shave off chin whiskers that would have embarrassed Ho Chi Minh.

Schools, of course, have been slow to progress. In 19 states (mostly in the South), corporal punishment is still legal in schools. I would have thought spanking had been outlawed decades ago, but apparently, it is still legal for a parent to strike a child under certain circumstances. So there’s still room for improvement.

Back when I was in high school, 45 percent of Americans smoked. Teachers smoked in the faculty lounge and I had a favorite teacher who let me smoke in the language lab. But the percentage of smokers has fallen steadily since 1964 when the surgeon general reported that smoking caused cancer. Now only about 15 percent of (soon-to-be-dead) Americans are hooked on butts. Still, it’s incredible to me to think that diners routinely lit up after (and during) meals in restaurants and that air travelers landed smelling like ashtrays.  

Smoking cessation is surely a sign of progress, as is the mandatory use of seat belts. As someone who spent my entire youth unrestrained, and about 40 years smoking, I guess I’m lucky to still be around to reminisce.

Edgar Allen Beem has been writing The Universal Notebook weekly since 2003, first for The Forecaster and now for the Phoenix. He also writes the Art Seen feature.