Friday, October 25, 2019

A blast from the past

It occurred to me this week, reading about the Republican sit-in in the Capitol basement, that today's Republican legislators are using tactics developed 50 + years ago by my contemporaries in the Vietnam era.  This is not unprecedented: John Bolton led a gang of Republican operatives who descended on Miami in 2000 to stop the recount of Florida votes.  Democratic Boomers either dropped out of traditional politics altogether or became respectable.  Republicans, including many from Gen X, show the the same spirit, outlook and tactics that the SDS did back then.  That in turn reminded me of one of the first posts I did here fifteen years ago, which follows.

Thursday, October 21, 2004


George W. Bush--Man of the Sixties

George W. Bush—Man of the 1960s

President Bush likes to contrast himself and his policies with the 1960s. “We’re changing the culture of America,” he says, “from one that says, ‘If it feels good, do it,’ and, ‘If you’ve got a problem, blame somebody else,’ to a culture in which each of us understands we’re responsible for the decisions we make,” (When Dick Cheney used the language of the 1960s in the face of an opposition U.S. Senator and defended himself because he “felt better,” the irony got less attention than it deserved.) Culturally, of course, the President rejects the sexual liberation of his youth, and portrays himself as a reformed sinner. Politically, as a conservative, pro-war Republican whose father had campaigned against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he was certainly out of step on the Yale campus of 1964-68. All this is, however, entirely misleading—and the country, particularly its younger voters, should try to understand exactly who and what they are voting for before the election. George Bush and his Administration actually represent the worst of the late 1960s—a terrifying certainty determined to repudiate the past, disrupt the present, and risk the future for an ideological ideal. His certainty is not merely, as Ron Susskind argued last in last Sunday's New York Times, a question of his faith—it is all too characteristic of his entire generation.

As George W. Bush’s college years drew to a close, the most visible political faction on most campus was the Students for a Democratic Society, which took over the main Adminstration building, provoked a police bust, and temporarily halted instruction at my own school, Harvard, in the spring of 1969. They were distinguished more than anything else by a complete rejection of everything our parents stood for. In their eyes, the Cold War’s “defense of freedom” was greedy imperialism; civil rights laws simply masked enduring American economic racism; marriage and family were outdated bourgeois conventions; and democracy was a sham. They and they alone knew good from evil, and they had less than nothing to learn from the past. Even within their own ranks, they had contempt for democratic processes. In April of that memorable year, a vote of the SDS turned down a proposal to occupy University Hall by a vote of about two to one—but the next day, the losing minority faction undertook the occupation anyway, dragging their colleagues (and eventually most of the student body) in their wake.

A similar omniscient spirit has dominated the Bush Administration from the day it took office. One by one, the achievements of our parents’ generation—who occupied the White House from John F. Kennedy through George H. W. Bush—have been gleefully tossed aside: the ABM Treaty, the rigid separation of Church and State, overtime protection for workers, environmental protection, and especially the spirit of compromise and civic responsibility that allowed Republicans and Democrats to work together for the good of the country from the 1950s through the 1980s. In foreign policy they have even repudiated, in effect, the NATO Alliance and the United Nations. Events in the fall of 2002 were particularly revealing. Prodded by Colin Powell, who remembers the 1950s, the Administration sought a second Security Council resolution to authorize war against Iraq, but when they found they had only two other votes on their side, they simply disregarded the opinion of the world in the same way that the SDS disregarded the majority vote the night before the occupation of University Hall. Meanwhile, our Boomer-crafted new National Security Strategy gives the United States both the right and the duty to decide what nations shall possess what weapons, and summarily to remove hostile regimes. My Harvard classmate Elliot Abrams opposed SDS’s attempt to rule Harvard University according to their lights, but he is now enthusiastically doing his part to assure that he and his Administration colleagues rule the whole world in the same way.

Other memories from the Vietnam era come to me these days. One Saturday afternoon in 1970, I sat in a packed Harvard Square theater watching Sam Peckinpaugh’s The Wild Bunch. Midway through the movie, William Holden (himself a member of what we now call “The Greatest Generation”) tried to explain to his fellow gang members why Robert Ryan was now working for the other side. “He gave his word,” Holden said, speaking for an older America. “It’s not whether you keep your word!” one of his companions shouted. “It’s who you give it to!” The audience went crazy with delight. Isn’t that the same spirit in which the Bush White House has patronized the scurrilous, baseless campaign of the Swift Boat veterans? John Kerry is on the wrong side; therefore, he can’t be a war hero. And such is the partisanship of our times that even Bob Dole and George H. W. Bush Sr. have joined this campaign—although John McCain, significantly, refuses to do so.

Reality, of course, is a casualty of classic Baby Boomer thought. SDS members truly believed in 1969 that workers and students were going to overturn the established order—because it was right. In the same way, George W. Bush, in defiance of mountains of evidence that Iraq is disintegrating and that our intervention has reduced our standing in the Arab world to new lows, repeats that Iraq is on its way to a democratic transformation that will spread through the region. Freedom, he explains, is the Almighty’s gift to every man and woman on this planet—an homily which leaves a calmer observer wondering why the Almighty has been so stingy about bestowing it in so much of the world for so many centuries, or whether the President believes that he is fighting Satan’s evil presence on earth.
Caught between ideology and reality, the Administration constantly resorts to Orwellian language. A loss of jobs becomes economic progress, less health care means more, opening national forests to logging becomes “The Healthy Forests Initiative,” and so on. In the same way, the SDS explained to us that dictatorship of the proletariat was the only true democracy. And the Administration cares nothing about federalism, because federalism could stand in its way. In 1960, when Kennedy and Nixon debated federal aid to education, Nixon argued that federal money would eventually mean federal control. Now a new Republican generation is using federal money to discredit and weaken public education through the No Child Left Behind Act.

The Bush Administration and its supporters are usually less obvious than their leftwing contemporaries were about their repudiation of our parents’ works, but the other day, Grover Norquist—the anti-tax activist who has bragged about his close relations with the White House for four years—let the cat out of the bag in an interview with a Spanish newspaper. The Weekly Standard has printed quotes from the tape of the interview. Here is now Norquist assessed the coming election.

And we've had four more years pass where the age cohort that is most Democratic and most pro-statist, are those people who turned 21 years of age between 1932 and 1952--Great Depression, New Deal, World War II--Social Security, the draft--all that stuff. That age cohort is now between the ages of 70 and 90 years old, and every year 2 million of them die. So 8 million people from that age cohort have passed away since the last election; that means, net, maybe 1 million Democrats have disappeared…
This is an age cohort that voted for a draft before the war started, and allowed the draft to continue for 25 years after the war was over. Their idea of the legitimate role of the state is radically different than anything previous generations knew, or subsequent generations. . . . Very un-American. Very unusual for America. The reaction to Great Depression, World War II, and so on: Centralization--not as much centralization as the rest of the world got, but much more than is usual in America. We've spent a lot of time dismantling some of that and moving away from that level of regimentation: getting rid of the draft . . .

Norquist, a younger Baby Boomer, has actually hit the nail on the head. The twenty million men we drafted to win the Second World War (a conflict he apparently regrets) deserved, and got, their countrymen’s reward, in the form of the GI bill, 4% mortgages, generous Social Security benefits, and real pensions. Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower confirmed the government’s responsibility for their well-being and that of their families. Such policies have now become “un-American” as the Bush Administration leads us towards their New Jerusalem—really a new Gilded Age. Norquist is actually exalting the collapse of civic virtue and mutual responsibility that he has helped to promote during his political career. Younger Americans should understand one thing: our current leadership is impervious to facts. Ultimately, like so many of my contemporaries, they care less about any specific changes they make at home or abroad than about simply proving to their own satisfaction that they are right and everyone else is wrong. They have already left the nation and the world a dangerous legacy.

3 comments:

Bozon said...

Professor
Great retrospective, years before I started followimg posts.
I had painted you as a revisionist New Leftist, but you come out here smelling like a rose.
I can't really say where you stand.
You do have Whiggish tendencies.
All the best

Energyflow said...

We have to retrace the supposition of the first paragraph to show that its comparison of middle aged lawmakers with a fully justified complaint to radicallized teens is fully unjustified. As you know the Barr investigation of the Mueller, russiagate affair as a secretive Obama admin, DNC, Clinton, FBI, CIA led anti Trump entrapment, framing process has become a criminal procedure. The so-called impeachment process, better likened to a star court, kangaroo trial behind closed doors for lack of real evidence and fear of real witnesses is merely taking place to distract from this fact. Perhaps a large number of prominent card carrying democrats in all positions of power will end up behind bars. And in the current impeachment prcess the procedings are so unclean as, in the end, to also land people behind bars. When poer remains an end in and of itself without any respect for law, morals or respect for others then we see the breakdown of societal order at a fundamental level. I read all too oftenn that this inability to respect others, understand one another as human beings has spread to encompass everyone. I experienced this in my own family, due to religious, ideological, sexual issues now common. I remain the moderate, studying history, philosophy, religion, relying on facts. In private life boringly traditional while experimentingly open. Crossing barriers would be helpful. Gay couples married with kids or black conservative middle class. Church going soccer moms doing yoga classes, listening to hip hop music. I looked at your post and thought initially of people reliving earliest childhood. Trump obsessing with Korea, Hillary channelling Joseph McCarthy and Xers like myself going on the barricades against perceived injustices, channeling 60s zeitgeist. Thegenerational cycle is likely post nomadic. Wild peoples lose a quarter of their male populations in continual warfare. As animals, humans seem to have a primary hoddesian need for bloodletting. Religion, socialization suppresses this incompletely. The increasing irrationality in current society reflects this. Generational theory ought to be studied by developmental biologists not just historians. Civil wars, genocides are the civilizational outlet for a primal human need. The full moon beckns on capitol hill and elsewhere apparently. The 28 day moon cycle isn't the only one that drives men mad.

Energyflow said...

Interesting older article on Bush. My way or the highway. S### happens. We make reality and they analyze it. Those were the days indeed. I recall with fondness his reaction to the market meltdown. 'This baby's gonna blow' or similar. Just as helpless as his blank stares upon hearing of 9/11 while sitting in a classrooom. Thank God Cheney was there to put us into full war mode in 2001 and the lanky Paulson in 2008 who created TARP to save the banks. Obama's time was so boring. Now we have anothe full blood boomer who makes reality as he sees fit. I admire and envy such people. Where do they get their gumption from? Just come in, look around, and like any new first lady in the White House doing a redecoration, turn the entire world upside down. After the boomers are gone we will return to quieter presidencies with pliable rationalists for sure. Bush Sr., Obama, Carter. Reagan was exceptional in this sense and Nixon a true daredevil in foreign policy but I expect little exciting after Trump is gone. Visionaries who believe only in themselves and the moment really do fit the description of Strauss and Howe 'Prophet generation' description. I happen to be reading a secular bible criticism and Old Testament prophets were ideological, extremist, nationalistic. So it fits. The current three ring circus in Washington wll hopefully give way to common sense workings. How that will happen is hard to anticipate. One or the other side will succeed, either through elections or by legal tricks, impeachments, etc. Technology is a big game changer generally. Big tech, big media controls the pubic opinion. This is predominantly left leaning. Will the country simply accept a coastal monoculture? Is Trump an anomaly? Obviously an impeachment brings born again Pence. Surely the dems prefer his social views on abortion, gay marriage. But if Durham gets going then perhaps the dems could implode. Rule of law nowadays does not apply to the powerful, but hat if in a civil war between the power centers one side decides to send the other side to jail for their heinous crimes and not just laugh it off over a beer, good ole boys Washington back room style. This type of occurence might mean new party srtuctures could form and basic corrupt tendencies could recede for fear of prosecution. Is this the limit to American Crisis after 80 years? Sounds pretty boring after WWII and Civil War, more a Broadway play. 60s type protests revisited. All very childish but on capitol hill between left and right wing student groups. Seems a blast from past indeed. Faint echo rather. If this can all bring any general renewal as we would expect or just a limping on of a lame duck bankrupt system is a good question. Gradualism is not cris results. Trump already shook up relations with China. And the US political parties have extremely polarized. In terms of ideological clarity and vision then it is very good. Anything is better than stagnation. Obviously this 20 year cyclle based on Bush's teror and bank crisis must be finished up. Withdrawal from Middle East seems likely and the QE, ZIRP, japanization of global economy seems almost complete. Perhaps we get the first complete parallel banktuptcy of the entire global financial system simultaneously with a reboot on gold or oil or something. Superpowers like Britain, America end to decline in such cases. Internal party loyalties are just nonsense afterwards although, as in Russia, diehard communists and their constituents still vote in droves each election cycle, reminiscing on the past. Social security and such will disappear along with postwar military might nd dollar hegemony. Local manufacturing and perhaps flourishing local press could return. Local, regional politics cold be important, lively. Federal power from Washington, Brussels and elsewhere could decline. Globalism was the calling card of the post war order. The ultimate rationalism. Localism is quirky, indival, emotional, unpredictable. Perhaps we are entering a new age of irrationality, Age of Aquarius.