Monday, June 20, 2011

Greatest Generation My Ass

Can we stop all this "Greatest Generation" nonsense yet? It's indisputable that the fighting force that battled the Axis Powers in WWII showed incredible gallantry and sacrifice, as did the civilian population during wartime. The nation's war effort was a collective undertaking, combining soldiers' bravery and citizen resolve. Corporations transformed their factories into armories where women worked the assembly lines in the absence of men who were serving their country, and everyone supported the troops because the soldiers were us. After the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, men from every station rushed to enlist in the military. No American family was left untouched by the war, and the leadership of government, armed with a righteous cause, rose to the occasion. If there were ever a war worth fighting, this was it. The defeat of Fascism and Nazism by the U.S. military and our allies was among the noblest  achievements of the 20th century, and for that, the generation that fought and sacrificed so much deserves to be called "the greatest." After the war was over? Maybe not so great.

The former mush-mouth anchorman, Tom Brokaw, has created a cottage industry celebrating our parents' and grandparents' exploits in war. I know I bought a copy of his "The Greatest Generation" to give to my dad one Fathers' Day. The book proved to be such a cash bonanza that Brokaw followed up with "The Greatest Generation Speaks," a series of letters and interviews with former soldiers. Brokaw's gravy train slowed when he discovered that his planned third book in the trilogy, "The War Lover," had already been written by John Hersey. But just when Brokaw was becoming the wrinkled equivalent of a teen-idol for the aged, the cause was joined by director Steven Spielberg and actor Tom Hanks. One WWII vet was quoted as saying that Tom Hanks has spent more time filming the war than the actual soldiers did fighting it. Suddenly, WWII movies were back in vogue, and Hanks and Spielberg became the John Wayne and John Ford of this generation, as if every conceivable battle were not already portrayed by a Hollywood movie. Post-war kids were fed a steady diet of films celebrating war; "30 Seconds Over Tokyo," "Back to Bataan," "To Hell and Back," "Flying Leathernecks," "Sands of Iwo Jima," and so on. War seemed so damned exciting, I could hardly wait until I was old enough to go kill somebody in battle and be a quiet hero about it when I got back.

War seemed a rite of passage for American men and we were certain that God was on our side. However, a  golden opportunity was missed to remedy the societal inequities in this country that were magnified by the war. One million black men served in WWII with the hopes that their patriotic service would be rewarded, yet they were segregated into separate units in the Army, the Navy limited blacks to service roles like cooks and janitors, and the Marines excluded them altogether. Everyone knows about the internment camps where Japanese-Americans were stockpiled after Pearl Harbor. Less well-known are the first-hand accounts of black soldiers returning home from the war and being forced to sit in segregated sections of trains and buses, while Nazi prisoners of war received the accommodations and amenities reserved for whites. 400,000 German and Italian prisoners were transported to the U.S. during the war and confined to military bases, mainly in the South. While black soldiers were relegated to separate facilities, prisoners of war were permitted to dine with white officers and enlisted men. The war against the rabid racist Hitler was fought with the most segregated army in history. Although President Truman ordered the military desegregated in 1948, it wasn't accomplished until the sixties. The civil rights movement was the direct result of the unjust society left in place after the war.

The 1950s are often portrayed in fictions like "Grease," and "Happy Days," but the reality was far more grim. In prosperous, post-war America, with Ike on the golf course and the Korean conflict concluded, it may have seemed as if all was well with the world. But these were also the days of the Cold War, "duck and cover" drills, McCarthyism and red baiting, black-listing and Jim Crow. While white America embraced a corporate culture and a celebration of consumption, seeds of unrest were sown in  those left out of the "American Dream," and their children. A new phrase entered the lexicon: "Juvenile Delinquent," and it was no coincidence that the boldest critique of society came from the movie "Rebel Without a Cause." A straight line can be drawn from this film about teenage alienation to Elvis Presley, and then the generational breach became irreparable. It might have been different, but the "Greatest Generation" had turned into the "Whiskey and War Generation" that instituted segregation, glorified war, and assumed an authoritarian puritanism that ultimately caused their children to erupt in social protest.

Such a mindset created the Vietnam War, the meat grinder which caused my generation to turn into schizoid Mouseketeers. Our patriotic parents could not understand why anyone would object to fighting in an ideological politicians' racist war. Add to that unrest a president who accrued votes by pitting the old against the young and a "Generation Gap" materialized. The so-called "counterculture" would never have happened without the Vietnam War. Say what you will about hippie excess, but the unifying message of non-exclusivity, and the belief that all people had value, was closer to Martin Luther King's vision of a "Beloved Society" than the "Love it or leave it" sentiment of the "Silent Majority" of militant patriots. My bi-polar generation is best represented by Bill Clinton on one hand, and George W. Bush on the other, dividing my age-group between those that dropped acid in the 60s and those that did not. People of all ages have fought the good fight, but the societal progress made since WWII in civil rights, women's equality, and human rights were accomplished in spite of the so-called "Greatest Generation." They were magnificent in wartime. Then they became Republicans.

Monday, June 06, 2011


If I were a Republican... Oops, pardon me; I just threw up in my mouth a little bit. Let me rephrase that. If I were a principled conservative concerned about my party, I believe I would stop fighting it and just hand the steering wheel over to the Tea Party for the coming elections. Perhaps a stunning political defeat, like the Democrats suffered in 1972, will finally force the Greedy Obsolete Party to divest itself of the right-wing fringe element whose borderline insanity is destroying the final vestiges of a once formidable organization. Only an electoral smack-upside-the-head can convince these zealots that their reactionary philosophy of gutting governmental social programs, taxes, public schools, and labor unions is unacceptable to a civil society. Their attempts to lower the deficit by slashing popular programs that benefit the elderly or less fortunate, while leaving the Bush tax cuts intact, is simply immoral. The oblivious Tea Party is unaware that Poppy Bush had to raise taxes in the wake of the deficits caused by Ronald Reagan's tax cuts, and still cling to the discredited, supply-side, "trickle down" theory that was the bedrock of Reaganomics. When Newt Gingrich criticized the Paul Ryan budget plan that all Republican office-seekers must embrace to win the support of the party, he was pilloried by the radical right as too liberal. This is the man who led the "Republican Revolution" of 1994.

That old George Santayana quote about those ignorant of history being condemned to repeat it has grown tired, so let's try another: "History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce." Groucho's cousin, Karl Marx, wrote that, and though I heard it long ago, I never really knew what it meant until I  began watching it play out in front of my eyes. Now the meaning is unmistakable. The tragic backdrop for the unmaking and splintering of the Democratic Party in the sixties was the Vietnam War. In refusing to support the liberal Hubert Humphrey's candidacy for president because of his association with LBJ's disaster, the left-wing Democrats handed the presidency to Richard Nixon. After four more years of unrelenting horror, the Democratic Party was dominated by a radical, anti-war left whose tactics were repugnant to a great part of the electorate. Their nominating convention was a circus, yet they still managed to put forth a credible anti-war candidate in Senator George McGovern and a moderate running-mate in Missouri Senator Thomas Eagleton. I knew it was over the day I saw the newspaper headline, "Eagleton Admits to Past Shock Treatments." Electric shock therapy was the standard treatment for depression at the time, but still too shocking for voters to accept. Despite his broken promises, Nixon won 49 states.

The ongoing self-destruction of the GOP presents itself as farce this time, as the least qualified, most rabid anti-intellectuals of the Tea Party are calling the shots. Party members like Mike Huckabee, Haley Barbour, or Mitch Daniels, already see the writing on the wall and are sitting this one out, encouraging carnival freaks like Rick "Man on Dog" Santorum, and secessionist Texas Governor Rick Perry to consider a presidential run. Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, though not yet an official candidate, told Iowa Public Radio that she has received the "calling" from God to run for the nation's highest office and promptly called for the teaching of Creationism in public school science classes. The clueless Mitt Romney has had to run against his own record as Governor of Massachusetts in order to pander to the Republican pit bulls, and Tim Pawlenty is still groping for a message. The desperate, discredited neo-cons are courting Jeb Bush, while disillusioned party elders see a large prospect in high-flying New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. And then there's Sarah Palin.

Palin believes that running for president is like vying for Miss Wasilla, and that a lack of substance can always be overcome by a "cute" personality. Her patriotic bus tour of American historic sights has become the most hilarious rolling disaster since the last Cheech and Chong road movie. Her knife-and-fork pizza summit with Donald Trump in New York City, where she strapped on a gigantic, silver Star of David, was only trumped by her visit to the Old North Church in Boston, where she explained the midnight ride of Paul Revere. According to Palin, Revere "warned the British by ringing those bells and sending up those warning shots and bells that we were gonna' be secure and free." So much for that "One if by land, two if by sea" business. When Fox News pointed out that she blew the Paul Revere story, Palin blamed the media and said it was "a gotcha" question, then insisted that her interpretation was correct. "Part of (Revere's) ride was to warn the British that were already there that 'hey, you're not going to take American arms; you are not going to beat our own well-armed persons individual private militia that we have.'" And this genius is currently polling at the top of prospective Republican presidential wannabees. The Tea Party is correct in one of their notable rallying cries. We do think they're stupid.

By the time the Vietnam War tore the Democratic party apart, they had already lost a previously dependable voter base. They didn't call it the "Solid South" for nothing, but LBJ's fight for civil rights legislation caused him to remark that the south would be lost to the Democrats for a generation. The party's sin was not in alienating white southern voters, but for ever granting political cover to openly racist and segregationist politicians in the first place. Ultimately, the extremists founded aggrieved third parties and ran their belligerent candidates, from Strom Thurmond to George Wallace, who demonized the "gub'ment," and the "pointy-headed intellectuals." Republicans will learn the same hard lesson for ever harboring the Tea Party within their ranks. Should the Republicans nominate an unacceptable "moderate" like Mitt Romney, there is every chance that the Tea Party will morph into a radical third party as early as next year and run their own candidate. Whoever their frothing mouthpiece turns out to be, he or she will only help to re-elect Barack Obama, while simultaneously destroying what remains of the current, anti-government Republican Party. I call that a win-win.