[Although the pace has slowed, people are still arriving here because they have received an email on the current state of America. If you are curious about my own views of the origins and consequences of the current crisis in American life, I recommend this link. However, the email attributed to myself comparing President Obama to Adolf Hitler, is a forgery which I did not write. All visitors may also be interested to read the following post. Meanwhile, here is the best explanation I've found of why that email is so incredibly popular.]
Last week, as often happens, a news item, read in the context of my current research, brought home to me the enormous changes in American life that have taken place during my adult life--changes that have involved significant steps forward at the individual level, but huge steps backward at the political and national economic level. The question now before us, in many ways, is whether we can manage to combine the far greater personal liberty we have achieved over the last forty years with the capacity to subordinate some of our personal beliefs to the greater good and establish some new and friendlier centers of authority.
My current research, as I have mentioned, focuses on the US preparation for, and decisions leading to, our entry into the Second World War. One cannot read very far into the archives of that era without realizing that the United States was then an entirely different country. The organizational effort that was involved in mobilization was altogether beyond anything that we would be capable of today. To go within three years from a military force of less than one million men to one of ten million was only one aspect of this. During the same period--from late 1940 to 1944--huge new industrial enterprises were built, tens of thousands of workers moved around the country to make them run, the Navy doubled in size, and the country built hundreds of merchant ships as well. Such an effort required organizational skill, which in turn depended, in large measure, on respect for authority. We understood in those days that a great undertaking required chiefs and Indians, and I frequently encounter men of all political persuasions, from Harold Ickes of the Interior Department to Frank Knudsen of General Motors (who contributed his services as one of the heads of Roosevelt's War Production Board), that no enterprise could function if a single man were not in charge. This did not mean that authority was either arbitrary or unrestrained. FDR insisted that war mobilization not involve any erosion of workers' rights and New Deal benefits, and except for voluntary no-strike pledges during the war,it did not. The same spirit continued, in many ways, through the 1950s and into the 1960s.
The great rebellion of the 1960s fought against the moral authority of a dying civilization, really the remnants of the Victorian era (and we should keep in mind that the grandparents of many Boomers were born when Victoria was still very much alive. It began as a rebellion against sexual taboos for young adults, quickly led to an explosion of divorce rates throughout society, and eventually became the most effective movement in history for women's rights, and the first for gay rights. Along with all this came a demystification of family life, acknowledging that parental influences could be very harmful, and encouraging people of all ages to acknowledge uncomfortable truths about those around them. All these changes have transformed our society. Because they have not been universally accepted, they have also become critical political issues--a most unfortunate development, in my opinion, which has diverted attention from the real business of government. But along with them, sadly, went a loss of respect for tradition and authority of all kinds. Boomer academics threw out a century of gradually acquired knowledge in the humanities and started over. Eventually Boomer bankers successfully agitated for the repeal of the New Deal legislation that their grandparents had put in place to restrain their parents. The individual, rather than the group, became our focus--a very important correction, undoubtedly, to the excesses of an era that had indeed become too standardized, too militarily threatening, and too mistrustful of human feeling. But like so many of such corrections, it has now destroyed much of the intellectual framework we need to cope with great national problems. The substitution of sound bites for any systematic analysis of them is in my opinion another manifestation of the same kind of problem.
The hook which got me thinking about all this was a story from the New York Times last Thursday about Claudette Colvin, a woman of 70 who has now been the subject of an award-winning children's book. In 1955 Ms. Colvin was a black teen-ager in Montgomery, Alabama, and it turns out that she had been arrested for refusing to yield her seat to a white woman on a city bus some months before Rosa Parks's more famous arrest, which ignited the bus boycott. According to the book about her by Philip House, however, the local NAACP decided not to make her a test case, partly because (although it is not clear from the whole story why) they did not think of her as a suitable symbol. Later, after the boycott began, Ms. Colvin's own mother, Colvin now says, told her that Rosa Parks would garner more white sympathy because her skin was lighter. I have not seen Mr. House's book, but the Times story, I can say confidently, leaves a very misleading impression about how the bus boycott actually got going and, more importantly, why it was successful.
The article mentions that Rosa Parks was, in fact, the secretary of the Montgomery branch of the NAACP, in those days by far the leading civil rights organization in the country and already a significant political power in Washington, D. C., and, though its legal defense fund, in the courts, where it had carried on a successful twenty-year campaign against segregated education culminating in Brown v. Board of Education a year before. But it doesn't mention the real difference between Rosa Park's refusal to give up her seat and that of both Claudette Colvin and another teen-ager, May Louise Smith, in the months before the crisis erupted. Colvin and Smith acted spontaneously. Rosa Parks did not. Her move was a planned first step designed to lead to controversy and to an immediate black boycott of the bus system, organized by the NAACP and by the young local pastor, Martin Luther King, Jr. The NAACP had learned from the world it lived in over the previous twenty years, becoming a formidable oganization under the leadership of Walter White and Roy Wilkins. They planned this campaign the way John L. Lewis or Walter and Victor Reuther planned union organizing campaigns. And it was a good thing that they did, because it took a full year for the boycott to lead to the negotiated end of segregated transportation in Montgomoery. The black community had to organize and maintain its own transportation network to get its people to and from work without the buses--and they did. And they very possibly did pick Rosa Parks to trigger the boycott and become its symbol because they knew and trusted her, because she was clearly a responsible middle-aged adult, and yes, conceivably, even because of her skin color. While that last factor may today make us all cringe, it would have been quite in character, in those days, for the NAACP to make such a decision based on the need to attract as much white sympathy as possible. That was how they had managed to accomplish as much as they had in the previous decades.
Indeed, it is fair to say that among no part of American society was the generational revolt more profound during the 1960s than among the black community. That was brought home to me again glancing through the autobiographies of Arthur Ashe, the great black tennis player and activist. A first-wave Boomer or last-wave Silent, born in 1943, Ashe grew up in segregated Richmond and was taught, as he explained again and again, that the only hope for black people to be successful in a white world--and in his case, that meant breaking in to the all-white world of professional tennis--was to be more accomplished, more courteous, and more dedicated to American ideals than whites. That kind of behavior had many tragic costs. In Ashe's case, I suspect, 36 years of continually suppressed rage--worsened by the trauma of losing his own mother when he was a small child--probably contributed to his early onset of heart disease, which in turn led to his contracting tranfusion AIDS and dying in his early 50s. The black rebellion of the 1960s--like the white--was above all a rebellion against the older generation's values. For young black Boomers that meant rejecting their parents' deference and respect for society's institutions. It also meant exalting spontaneity over organization. In the last forty years individual black people have advanced enormously, but the great civil rights organizations are a thing of the past.
Certain institutions within our society are still well-organized, if not always disciplined--including the new mega-banks, the drug companies, the gun lobby, evangelical Christian political groups, and the health insurance industry. There are, as far as I can see, no comparable organizations among the disadvantaged. That is the world with which President Obama and his Administration must now cope, and it is not surprising that they have so far made little impact upon it. And beyond this lies a broader question: will some future generations eventually learn to combine personal and emotional freedom on the one hand, with economic restraint on behalf of the general good on the other? Perhaps even to ask that question betrays, on my part, a somewhat naive faith in a future utopia that can combine the best of different eras from the past. Perhaps it would be better to accept that different eras inevitably highlight different aspects of human nature, both better and worse.