As a white male who grew up in the 60s and 70s in Bethesda, Maryland, I somehow feel relevant all of a sudden. Perhaps you are waiting for secret dirt – like the fact that back then, a 16 year-old high school boy could cruise into Wildwood Deli (an eight-minute drive from Georgetown Prep) and buy beer with no questions asked, or the fact that I personally did so on numerous occasions. But enough about me.
Instead, I’m thinking about my 97 year-old mother, herself a 50+ year resident of B-Town, but not a patron of the Wildwood Deli. My mother is part of a very different cohort than mine. In her day, the boys went off to war and fought together, rich and poor alike, against the most evil enemy known to humankind. They came back – or at least some came back –as young but wise men. They were victorious and, no doubt, exceptionally patriotic. Having looked into the heart and soul of darkness, they cherished the values associated with the red, white and blue. Values like freedom of expression and opportunity, equality, respect for human dignity, brotherly love, and an appreciation for the principles of democracy. It’s no wonder that America became the envy of the world.
When these young veterans grew older and went into politics, they were determined to honor the country they loved so dearly. They knew that America was capable of great things – if it could defeat the Nazis, surely it could put a man on the moon. And we did! Our politicians worked together. They ended the Jim Crow Era, implemented the Great Society programs, and created the Environmental Protection Agency. Equality of wealth in this country was never greater than back in those days. Nor were expressions of cultural unrest. We saw the Summer of Love, the rise of the feminism, and a powerful Anti-War movement. To be sure, that generation wasn’t perfect – they gave us the debacle of Vietnam. But all and all, the “Greatest Generation” as they are now called will be remembered far more for what they did right than what they did wrong. And my cohort – those of us who grew up in the 60s and 70s – were among the beneficiaries.
Obviously, as that older cohort faded away and my own came to power, we have seen national deterioration. I was born in the latter part of the Baby Boom generation. The earlier Boomers were the ones who were born shortly after World War II. When it was the new generation’s time to serve, the war (Vietnam) wasn’t nearly so compelling. The richest families figured out legal ways to evade service, and the poorest families took on casualties for no apparent reason. In the mid-to-late 70s, we saw one politician get caught committing a crime, and two more who were clearly not ready for prime time. So then came the Election of 1980, the ascendancy of Ronald Reagan, economic policies based on a combination of rugged individualism and social Darwinism, and an uptick in economic inequality that has been growing for decades. Also in the 80s, we saw the beginning of right-wing talk radio, where liberal Americans are vilified on a daily basis and conservative Americans receive their talking points. That phenomenon begat similar cable news outlets on the left, which can be equally dismissive of conservatives and their motives.
By the turn of the century, with the Baby Boomers firmly in power, we no longer saw the same kind of common values inform our political discourse. America had become tribal. The Presidential Election went to the guy who won fewer total votes but was a member of the party with a slim majority on the Supreme Court. The public lost confidence in that court. It already had lost confidence in the Congress. Now, people just lined up with their own tribe in an everything-goes battle against their domestic enemies.
Rural vs. Urban, Red versus Blue, Men versus Women, White versus Black. To the people on the political right, the New York Times became the “New York Slimes,” feminists became “Feminazis,” and ethnic and gender studies departments became un-American symbols of political correctness. Meanwhile, to the people on the political left, conservatives came to be seen either as evil hypocrites or knuckle dragging morons, the former moniker being used for the leadership and the latter for their followers.
E Pluribus Unum (Out of Many, One) had morphed into E Pluribus Duo. And we owe most of these trends to my cohort, the Baby Boomers. Apparently, too many of us grew up fat and happy – guzzling beers in high school, guzzling beers in college, and then walking into a job market that was pretty sweet and forgiving. The Gospel of Luke taught that “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required.” But in the case of my cohort, we were given a lot, we expected to receive just as much, and we became indignant whenever someone asked us to share money or power. What took our predecessors centuries to build up, we have squandered in one generation.
... which leads me to the spectacle at the Senate on Thursday.
On the one hand, we’ve all seen something similar before. I vividly remember feeling incensed during the so-called “high tech lynching” of Clarence Thomas 27 years ago. But somehow, this past week’s spectacle was even more difficult to experience. This time, I didn’t feel enraged so much as wounded. At times, I was near tears, and I’ve never even big a victim of sexual assault.
I won’t take a position in this blog about the guilt or innocence of the nominee. The FBI is about to investigate, so I am not going to comment about that. But whatever happened at that Bethesda party back in the early 80s, I want to know what is happening in the backrooms of the Senate in 2018. I want to know what it means for us today to have a “Separation of Powers.” I want to know whether, when then candidate Trump joked that “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters,” he was talking about people like the Republican leadership of the U.S. Senate.
Do we really want to deny Democratic Presidents the right to nominate people to the Supreme Court and then “plow right through” when serious questions are asked about a Republican nominee? Do we want, in other words, to apply a beyond-a-reasonable-doubt standard whenever Republican nominees are being accused of misconduct, after denying a Democratic nominee the right even to be considered for the job? Are these the principles that the Greatest Generation would have applied when they came to political power in the 60s and 70s? Or are they signs that American governance has fallen prey to only a single principle – might makes right?
The Greatest Generation, once they returned from World War II, came to be known as Cold Warriors. They battled Marxists and Marxism, especially its idea that even totalitarianism can be justified by the idea that “the end justifies the means.” To me, as to these Cold Warriors, that notion is a disgusting abdication of values -- for situational ethics are no ethics at all.
The Greatest Generation fought against such “ethics” – on the battle field, in the realm of geopolitics, and even in the halls of Congress, They sought bi-partisan agreements, expressed genuine affection for politicians across the aisle, and reached principled results. They accomplished big results. And they did so together.
Unfortunately, those days appears to have left us. The old Cold Warriors are dying, and a new Cold War has returned. This time, it is not America against foreign enemies. It’s one group of Americans against another. This war is no holds barred. We wait until someone screams across the aisle, and then we salute that screaming. We have come to see civility as a sign of weakness or cowardice. Even our would-be judges are encouraged to spew partisan passion.
I look for the next generation to get things right. Clearly, my cohort can’t be trusted with power.