I often imagine somehow summoning my mother and father (who died in 1977 and 1983) back to this planet of ours. I'm curious to know what they would make of the almost unimaginable world we now live in -- not that they didn't live through their own threatening, topsy-turvy global moments. Both were only in their twenties when the Great Depression hit. Unfortunately, I know few details about their lives then. (When you're young and they're your parents, you're just not interested, of course, because... well, they're your parents.) I do know that times were tough for my dad then, in part because his own father's world crashed and burned in those depression years.
But my parents also lived through World War II. Right after Pearl Harbor, at age 35, my father volunteered for the Army Air Corps. He would become operations officer for the First Air Commandos in Burma. My mother -- and this I've written about -- was a theatrical cartoonist, known in the newspaper gossip columns of those years as "New York's girl caricaturist." During the war, when her workday was done, she put in endless time at the Stage Door Canteen, a cafeteria, dance hall, and nightclub on Broadway, where servicemen could eat, listen to bands, and relax -- for free -- while being served or entertained by theatrical types. Here's a description of my mother's role: "During the war, she was chairman of the Artist's Committee of the American Theatre Wing. She helped plan the murals, which decorate the Stage Door Canteen and the Merchant Seaman's Canteen. Miss Selz [she kept her own name professionally] remembers setting up her easel and turning out caricatures of servicemen. Some nights she did well over a hundred of these skillful, quick line drawings and many servicemen still treasure their 'portraits' by Selz."
All of this is a reminder that the years of economic collapse in the 1930s and the global war that followed were genuinely tough times, but in ways that seem almost unimaginable today largely because they were also mobilizing moments. In my own life, I, too, experienced a mobilizing moment (which I've written about): the 1960s and early 1970s movement against the Vietnam War, which took to the streets of this country.
Sadly, this moment of crisis is a demobilizing one, involving as it most necessarily does both "social distancing" (something, judging by his daily press conferences, our president seems never to have heard of) and "self-isolation." However, with the possible exception of the growing climate movement, it was largely that even before the coronavirus made its appearance.
Unfortunately, as retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, historian, and TomDispatch regular William Astore makes so vividly clear today, recalling a prophesy of his own dad, if demobilization remains our position in the tough times to come, we're going to be in deep, deep trouble. The question for the post-coronavirus world really is only: When will the rest of us mobilize to take this disintegrating planet of ours back from you-know-who and his corporate and "populist" cronies? Tom
Having It Easy in the Beginning, Tough in the End
How My Dad Predicted the Decline of America
By William J. Astore
My dad was born in 1917. Somehow, he survived the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-1919, but an outbreak of whooping cough in 1923 claimed his baby sister, Clementina. One of my dad's first memories was seeing his sister's tiny white casket. Another sister was permanently marked by scarlet fever. In 1923, my dad was hit by a car and spent two weeks in a hospital with a fractured skull as well as a lacerated thumb. His immigrant parents had no medical insurance, but the driver of the car gave his father $50 toward the medical bills. The only lasting effect was the scar my father carried for the rest of his life on his right thumb.
The year 1929 brought the Great Depression and lean times. My father's father had left the family, so my dad, then 12, had to pitch in. He got a newspaper route, which he kept for four years, quitting high school after tenth grade so he could earn money for the family. In 1935, like millions of other young men of that era, he joined the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a creation of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal that offered work on environmental projects of many kinds. He battled forest fires in Oregon for two years before returning to his family and factory work. In 1942, he was drafted into the Army, going back to a factory job when World War II ended. Times grew a little less lean in 1951 when he became a firefighter, after which he felt he could afford to buy a house and start a family.
I'm offering all this personal history as the context for a prediction of my dad's that, for obvious reasons, came to my mind again recently. When I was a teenager, he liked to tell me: "I had it tough in the beginning and easy in the end. You, Willy, have had it easy in the beginning, but will likely have it tough in the end." His prophecy stayed with me, perhaps because even then, somewhere deep down, I already suspected that my dad was right.
The COVID-19 pandemic is now grabbing the headlines, all of them, and a global recession, if not a depression, seems like a near-certainty. The stock market has been tanking and people's lives are being disrupted in fundamental and scary ways. My dad knew the experience of losing a loved one to disease, of working hard to make ends meet during times of great scarcity, of sacrificing for the good of one's family. Compared to him, it's true that, so far, I've had an easier life as an officer in the Air Force and then a college teacher and historian. But at age 57, am I finally ready for the hard times to come? Are any of us?
And keep in mind that this is just the beginning. Climate change (recall Australia's recent and massive wildfires) promises yet more upheavals, more chaos, more diseases. America's wanton militarism and lying politicians promise more wars. What's to be done to avert or at least attenuate the tough times to come, assuming my dad's prediction is indeed now coming true? What can we do?
It's Time to Reimagine America
Here's the one thing about major disruptions to normalcy: they can create opportunities for dramatic change. (Disaster capitalists know this, too, unfortunately.) President Franklin Roosevelt recognized this in the 1930s and orchestrated his New Deal to revive the economy and put Americans like my dad back to work.
In 2001, the administration of President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney capitalized on the shock-and-awe disruption of the 9/11 attacks to inflict on the world their vision of a Pax Americana, effectively a militarized imperium justified (falsely) as enabling greater freedom for all. The inherent contradiction in such a dreamscape was so absurd as to make future calamity inevitable. Recall what an aide to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld scribbled down, only hours after the attack on the Pentagon and the collapse of the Twin Towers, as his boss's instructions (especially when it came to looking for evidence of Iraqi involvement): "Go massive -- sweep it all up, things related and not." And indeed they would do just that, with an emphasis on the "not," including, of course, the calamitous invasion of Iraq in 2003.
To progressive-minded people thinking about this moment of crisis, what kind of opportunities might open to us when (or rather if) Donald Trump is gone from the White House? Perhaps this coronaviral moment is the perfect time to consider what it would mean for us to go truly big, but without the usual hubris or those disastrous invasions of foreign countries. To respond to COVID-19, climate change, and the staggering wealth inequities in this country that, when combined, will cause unbelievable levels of needless suffering, what's needed is a drastic reordering of our national priorities.
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