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Tomgram: Rebecca Gordon, Mind the Gaps

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Okay, here's an exact quote from my youth, a bit of homespun wisdom from another generation, and believe me, at almost 76, the number of more than half-century-old sentences I can quote from memory is small (to vanishing): "It's the whale that spouts that gets caught." My mother wrote that to me in a long, distressed (and, at the time, distressing) letter and I've never forgotten it.

It seemed like absurd advice and made me angry. It also left me -- another sign of that moment -- derisively mocking her in my mind (and possibly to my friends). She wrote me that during the Vietnam War years, the moment, as TomDispatch regular Rebecca Gordon reminds us today, of this country's initial "credibility gap" and the "generation gap" that went with it. It was a time when I found myself out in the streets protesting that grotesque war, organizing draft resistance against it, and implicitly resisting the generation who were sending my generation to fight it.

At some point, just to underline the absurd context of my mother's line, as an "antiwar activist" I was invited to take part in a photo shoot for a teen magazine (whose name has long vacated my brain) with young fashion models. Never again in my life was I in the presence of a model, but when it appeared, my mother -- disturbed by my antiwar activities -- wrote me that bit of advice. And that moment certainly qualified as my (somewhat comic) version of the generation gap of that era.

So many years later, as it happens, I continue to "spout" at TomDispatch, but, as Gordon makes clear today, in another era of crisis and no longer from the younger side of that gap. Tom

How the Credibility Gap Became a Chasm in the Age of Trump
... And a New Generation Gap Grew Wider
By Rebecca Gordon

These days, teaching graduating college seniors has me, as the Brits would say in the London Underground, "minding the gap." In my case, however, it's not the gap between the platform and the train I'm thinking of, but a couple of others: those between U.S. citizens and our government, as well as between different generations of Americans. The Covid-19 crisis has made some of those gaps far more visible than usual, just as my students leave school with many of their personal expectations in tatters.

The chasms illuminated by the coronavirus are many: the gender pay gap; the wealth gap between African Americans and Latinos on one side and white Americans on the other, not to speak of the gap in their healthcare access and health outcomes; the gap in the amount of domestic work and childcare done by women and men; and that's just to start down a longer list. Covid-19 has exacerbated all of these gaps in very concrete ways. To take just one example, the children of families with the fewest resources will be the ones most affected by missing almost half a school year or more.

The generous resiliency of my racially diverse students continues to surprise me. They know it's a bitter world out there, but many of them seem determined, gaps or not, to change it.


Born in 1952, I was too young for the "missile gap," which animated John F. Kennedy's 1960 run for president. On the Senate floor, as early as 1958, he began claiming that the U.S. was falling behind the Soviet Union in the production and deployment of nuclear missiles. In reality, that gap was all in the other direction, but it did help get him elected and spurred a major escalation of U.S. nuclear development and testing.

Eventually, a series of agreements would reduce Cold War nuclear tensions, although it now looks as if the Trump administration is going to withdraw from the last of those pacts early next year. It's already pouring staggering amounts of money into further nuclear arms development, while contemplating the first U.S. nuclear test since 1992. So prepare for a new "missile gap."

The first national abyss I personally became aware of was the "credibility gap." That phrase signified the distance between what the U.S. government claimed was happening in Vietnam and the country's doomed war effort there. As that conflict lumbered on, the gap only grew. Reporters in South Vietnam were, for instance, regularly treated to what came to be known as "the Five O'Clock Follies." These were, as Susan Glasser recently wrote in the New Yorker, "nightly briefings at which American military leaders claimed, citing a variety of bogus statistics, half-truths, and misleading reports from the front, to be winning a war that they were, in fact, losing." The Follies featured daily "body counts" of the dead presented like so many football scores, except that winner was the team with the fewest "points."

Somehow the visitors always won and yet, after apparently taking every game, we lost the war. In 1975, the United States finally turned out the lights on the war effort, having lost more than 58,000 soldiers, while killing millions of Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians -- another less noted gap. (In recent months, headlines like this one from Reuters became commonplace: "U.S. coronavirus deaths surpass Vietnam War toll" -- quite true if you don't count the dead from the countries where that war was fought.)

As others have pointed out, President Trump's coronavirus press briefings were contemporary Five O'Clock Follies, complete with bogus victory statistics on how this country leads the world in Covid-19 testing. It's worth remembering, however, that modern presidential dissembling hardly began with Donald Trump.

Sadly enough, the credibility gap is associated with Lyndon Johnson who, from 1963 to 1968, actually presided over the country's greatest efforts to end poverty since Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Great Depression-era New Deal. He also oversaw the first organized federal-level challenges to racial injustice since Reconstruction. If it weren't for the Vietnam War, Johnson might be remembered today for another "war" entirely, his War on Poverty, which gave us Head Start, an academic and nutritional enrichment program for poor children, and Medicare, guaranteeing healthcare for people 65 and older. And it was Johnson who finagled -- through a Congress that still contained a host of white supremacists -- passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and the 1968 Fair Housing Act. None of those laws dismantled institutional racism, but each provided legal leverage for those seeking to ameliorate its worst effects.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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