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Friday, June 14, 2019

Blasts from the Past (I)

I have decided to spend a couple of weeks reposting some material from the distant past.  This piece, entitled, George W. Bush: Man of the Sixties, first appeared on October 21, 2004, in the midst of a presidential election campaign.  It certainly identified many of the issues that I have been focusing on ever since.

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 Administration 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was greedy imperialism; civil rights laws simply masked enduring American economic racism; marriage and family were outdated bourgeois conventions; and democracy was a sham.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 left wing 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.


Bozon said...


Wonderful idea.

I haven't read this repost yet, but will.

I have been doing this with some of my old posts...some of them refer to your old posts, and even quote them.

All the bewst

Energyflow said...

Wow a 15 year old post. A generation away almost. I will create my own reality Boomer braggadoccio is so admirably insane sometimes. I just loved 'the dude', great acting. That is the downside to reality denial like 's##t happens'. But Rummy was a silent like John Lennon. Wave leaders, gurus of the revolution. The rot sank in with the boomers themselves. True believers in the nonsense of solipsism. Science posits a theory, tests it, rejects or accepts. 3 generations from Socrates(pure rationalism) over Plato (all philosophy is a footnote) to Aristotle ( abstract) and then to his pupil Alexander the great, 4th generation created a new world order. But then you need luck. It will be sad to see early boomer politicians gone after Trump likely. 50s boomers like Madonna are merely vulgar. Clinton might really have tried war with Russia. Wicked Wirch of the East reincarnated. Such theater! Xers are placeholders like Ike in the 50s till Milllenials take over once cleansed of their illusions. Making America Great Again concept could be their big project in 20 years after fiat money, FDR statist system crashes and military industrial complex. The Chinese have gone through many such rebuild cycles. National withdrawal into oneself recuperates energy. One could again find identity separate from ideology, including that of founding fathers and succeeding waves layered upon us from lincoln, FDR and others. Clean slate indeed. 1600-1800, phase I(colony),1800 - 2000, phase II(power grab) 2000-2200 phase III(decline and fall), 2200-2400, regeneration as regular nation like Italy, UK today. So we are perhaps on downslope since 9/11. Thank boomers with cheney, rummey as gurus paving the way. Patient will get resuscitated for a slight comeback by Xers as reactionary gurus to millenials bent on survival, making america great again as a mere regional power minding its own business until next crisis in 2100. We can't guess where that will lead as the conditions create the ideology that powers the next wave of cultural evolution. Technophiles assume positive outcomes or negative technical dystopia like Orwell and technophobes assume low population, habitat, ecodestruction. It is a turning point now. Phase II was fossil fuel technophile. Phase III has little slack due to poor management. Cool how history unfolds before one's eyes. Iran bombing those tankers(wink, wink, nudge, ndge as in Monty Python) just to provoke those evil empire builders into a justified bay of tonkin police action. Oh the horrors of it all. Satire is so easy when the script of the actors are always the same year after year. Decline is so bitterly obvious that Xer hardened cynicism seems reality check only to the unreality buildup of silent gurus abnd boomer disciples. Why mllenials don't yet get it? Waiting for the big crash or something big like 9/11 or Lehman to change the game rules.

Jeff said...

Prescient. W set the table and Trump invited himself to dinner.

Jeff Farkas

Gloucon X said...

I’m reading, Invisible Hands: The Businessmen's Crusade Against the New Deal, by Kim Phillips-Fein. https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B003U6YKS4/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_hsch_vapi_taft_p1_i0

It documents the efforts of a US business class that never accepted the ideals of the New Deal and immediately plotted to tear them down. This effort began as early as 1934 under the DuPonts and extended throughout the era, and included the inspiration provided by the Lewis Powell(1909) memo in 1971. Following the memo's directives, conservative foundations greatly increased, pouring money into think-tanks. All this was done by wealthy businessmen of pre-boomer generations long before most boomers were old enough to vote. The impact of these efforts on our daily economic lives has been a hundred times more profound than those of either SDS or Mario Savio.

Ayn Rand(1905), Goldwater(1907), and Reagan(1911) are all part of this long tradition of business led advocacy of anti-government ideas. The Bush quote you gave is just a parroting of Herbert Hoover’s 1928 rugged individualism speech. Not a single idea of Bush or Norquist was not already being promoted by other free-market ideologues of previous generations. It is complete nonsense to attribute these ideas solely to the boomer generation. By attributing these ideas to a single generation you are doing enormous harm. Firstly, because it’s not true, and secondly, and far more importantly, you’re giving people the false hope that these ideas will die with the boomers. This leads to passivity, which is exactly what the promoters of these evil ideas want.

The list of powerful people who were influenced by Ayn Rand far outweighs any list of people influenced by Mario Savio or SDS. Oh sure, I’ll admit that a few college kids at elite institutions are a bit noisier than before because of their legacy, but what is that compared to an economy where the real lives of working people have been crushed by an all-powerful business elite. In summary, you focus on ants and ignore elephants.