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From Idealism to This! A Baby-Boomer Laments How the Future Ain't What it Used to Be

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Andrew Schmookler
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It's a couple-three years since I was teaching American studies to a bunch of bright but surprisingly ignorant 16-year-olds. One part of that course brought me into contact with some of my own past, giving me a perspectice that illuminates some of how I --and I believe many others of my generation-- experience the darkness of these Bushite times.

It was when I did a unit on "The Sixties." (I paired it with the 1860s, which we studied first, as part of a section on which we examined American history through the lens of the concept of "Social Conflict.") In my eaching, I used a video series by that name --"The Sixties"-- that I thought was quite excellent. I'd play some of the video, stopping frequently for discussion and for commentary.

"The Sixties" showed well how the 1960s grew out of --as a reaction against-- the 1950s. And then the video did a good job of showing how (many of) the children of the 1950s entered into their adolescence in the 1960s with a devotion to idealism and with a sense that history offered hope that the realization of the ideals they cherished was a real possibility, one worth striving for.

The young people depicted in this documentary were basically my age cohort-- the one's who wore 'coon-skin hats out of enthusiasm for Disney's David Crockett, who were taught how to "duck and cover" in case of a nuclear attack, and of whom a large proportion found inspiration in JFK's portrayal of the ruler of Camelot and sat around campfires singing gentle songs of protest that we'd learned from Peter, Paul and Mary albums.

And then things started to fall apart during the sixties.

It is in the context of that refreshed memory that I can see what a long way downhill it has been even from those days of "Hey Hey, LBJ, How many kids did you kill today."

It was deeply disillusioning to me, and to a lot of others of my age cohort who embodied the idealism of that generation, to live through the time from the assassination of JFK to the full flowering of the Vietnam protest movement and on into Nixon's time.

It was the disillusionment that went from hoping that the ideal might be achieved to discovering that the reality was falling markedly short of the ideal. One could see that LBJ had some of the qualities of a good person. But "some" wasn't nearly enough, and we could also see that he was also a sleazy guy, a crude guy, and not reliably noble or honest in the way he played politics. We wanted a paragon, but instead we got a very flawed and human figure for a leader.

And we found that contrast ugly. But now....

Now it is not a matter of finding too much that isn't goodness. Today it's a matter of a regime that (at least so far as I can see) NEVER manifests goodness, but is ALWAYS playing a basically despicable game.

From the present, those all-too-human leaders from the time ofI our previous disillusionment look strangely appealing. In the face of an America ruled by a regime seemingly devoid of genuine humanity, it is no longer only the ideal I long for. Now, even a leadership tht's flawed for being "all-too-human" --like the disappointing leaders of our earlier disillusionment-- would seem like a kind of redemption.

Even Nixon, who was a very shady character, was not like these Bushites. He often did bad things, but he did them in relation to a concept of the right thing, which was also sometimes part of what guided him. He was not an honest man, but the lies he told --unlike those of the Bushites-- he came up with in relationship to the truth, which he did not lose sight of. It was part of his aspiration, I believe, to be a leader who succeeded in creating things that a decent American might be proud of --even as he would cheat and lie to achieve them-- unlike this Bushite group that seems to want to create the very things that we, in post-World War II, were brought up to abhor.

My generation went to the movies and were stirred by Ben Hur, which gave us not only the thrill of victory and vengeance over the Bad Roman but also the hatred of brutal empires such as such films showed Rome to be-- the empire of might makes right, standing in contrast to the humble rabbi whose death of the cross changes the world.

Now look at America: we act very much like the Rome of that Cecil B. DeMille film, and even like the vicious character played by Stephen Boyd.

We were brought up on World War II films in which --for all the inevitable brutality of war-- Americans were shown to be firmly on the side of decency and to be playing by the rules while fightng against the criminal regimes seeking to subjugate the world.

And now look at America-- with the Congress ratifying the power of the president to redefine torture so that we can do many of the same kinds of things that --when we saw the Gestapo do in the movies-- it made our blood boil.

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Andy Schmookler, an award-winning author, political commentator, radio talk-show host, and teacher, was the Democratic nominee for Congress from Virginia's 6th District. His new book -- written to have an impact on the central political battle of our time -- is (more...)
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