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January 13th, 2007

I Forget Sometimes…

I forget sometimes how old I am.  This may sound surprising to someone younger, or it might not.  I don’t know.  When I was a kid, I always assumed the adults around me knew how old they seemed to me.  Most of them, certainly acted it.  But I keep forgetting. 

I’m 53, which isn’t all that old objectively.  My body is in good health.  I can see the age setting in on my skin, and in the increasing field of grey in my hair.  But just I don’t feel all that old.  And yet I find myself surrounded more and more by people who don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about.  Standing in the line during my draft pre-induction physical is a memory as vivid to me now as when I first lived it (they told me to go back home and put on a few more pounds…and then a few months later the draft was canceled so I didn’t have to go back for a second exam).  The race riots in the late 60s and early 70s.  Watergate…Nixon giving his resignation speech.  Seems like it happened only last week.  The world before the Internet and personal computers.  When the phrase "Made in Japan" denoted junk, not quality.  The local head shop.  The ERA battle.  Underground comix.  The unmitigated hassle of banking before direct deposit and ATM machines.  Ma Bell.  Black and white TVs with vacuum tubes inside.  Duck and Cover.  Cap guns.  The invention of skateboarding.  Meet the Beatles.  Soda cans before they put the pop top on.  Something keeps telling me I’m older then I think.

Mostly…things like this…via Glenn Greenwald

Rod Dreher is as conservative as it gets — a contributor to National Review and the Corner, a current columnist for The Dallas Morning News, a self-described "practicing Christian and political conservative."

Today, Dreher has an extraordinary (oral) essay at NPR in which he recounts how the conduct of President Bush (for whom he voted twice) in the Iraq War (which he supported) is causing him to question, really to abandon, the core political beliefs he has held since childhood.

Dreher, 40, recounts that his "first real political memory" was the 1979 failed rescue effort of the U.S. hostages in Iran. He says he "hated" Jimmy Carter for "shaming America before our enemies with weakness and incompetence." When Reagan was elected, he believed "America was saved." Reagan was "strong and confident." Democrats were "weak and depressed."

In particular, Dreher recounts how much, during the 1980s, he "disliked hippies – the blame America first liberals who were so hung up on Vietnam, who surrendered to Communists back then just like they want to do now." In short, Republicans were "winners." Democrats were "defeatists."

On 9/11, Dreher’s first thought was : "Thank God we have a Republican in the White House." The rest of his essay:

As President Bush marched the country to war with Iraq, even some voices on the Right warned that this was a fool’s errand. I dismissed them angrily. I thought them unpatriotic.

But almost four years later, I see that I was the fool.

In Iraq, this Republican President for whom I voted twice has shamed our country with weakness and incompetence, and the consequences of his failure will be far, far worse than anything Carter did.

The fraud, the mendacity, the utter haplessness of our government’s conduct of the Iraq war have been shattering to me.

It wasn’t supposed to turn out like this. Not under a Republican President.

I turn 40 next month — middle aged at last — a time of discovering limits, finitude. I expected that. But what I did not expect was to see the limits of finitude of American power revealed so painfully.

I did not expect Vietnam.

As I sat in my office last night watching President Bush deliver his big speech, I seethed over the waste, the folly, the stupidity of this war.

I had a heretical thought for a conservative – that I have got to teach my kids that they must never, ever take Presidents and Generals at their word – that their government will send them to kill and die for noble-sounding rot – that they have to question authority.

On the walk to the parking garage, it hit me. Hadn’t the hippies tried to tell my generation that? Why had we scorned them so blithely?

Question Authority.  Yes.  You cannot understand the 1960s, without first understanding the stifling, conformist 1950s.  We saw it all go down, the communist witch hunts, Viet Nam, Watergate, and we took away from it something ironically enough, John Mitchall, Nixon’s Attorney General and a central figure in the Watergate conspiracy, once said to reporters…

"You will be better advised to watch what we do instead of what we say."

No kidding.  Those are words that should be embossed in bold letters at the top of every ballot in every election.  Never mind what they say…pay attention to what they do.  And when they start hiding things from the voters, it should set off every alarm bell you have.  At minimum, we can’t govern ourselves if we don’t know what the fuck our government is up to.  Nixon was legendary for his secretiveness.  But Bush makes him look like he lived in a glass White House.

Sometimes I forget how old I am.  Not everyone remembers that past like I do.  Barbara O’Brien puts Dreher’s experience into perspective for me

The answers to your questions, Mr. Dreher, is (1) yes, and (2) because you were brainwashed. As I wrote here,

I noticed years ago that the rank-and-file “movement conservative” is younger than I am. Well, OK, most people are younger than I am. But surely you’ve noticed that a disproportionate number of True Believers are people who reached their late teens / early twenties during the Carter or Reagan years at the earliest. They came of age at the same time the right-wing media / think tank infrastructure began to dominate national political discourse, and all their adult lives their brains have been pickled in rightie propaganda.

Because they’re too young to remember When Things Were Different, they don’t recognize that the way mass media has handled politics for the past thirty or so years is abnormal. What passes for our national political discourse — as presented on radio, television, and much print media — is scripted in right-wing think tanks and media paid for by the likes of Joseph Coors, Richard Mellon Scaife, and more recently by Sun Myung Moon. What looks like “debate” is just puppet theater, presented to manipulate public opinion in favor of the Right.

In this puppet theater “liberals” (booo! hisss!) are the craven, cowardly, and possibly demented villains, and “conservatives” are the noble heroes who come to the rescue of the virtuous maid America. Any American under the age of 40 has had this narrative pounded into his head his entire life. Rare is the individual born after the Baby Boom who has any clue what “liberalism” really is. Ask, and they’ll tell you that liberals are people who “believe in” raising taxes and spending money on big entitlement programs, which of course is bad. (Read this to understand why it’s bad.)

Just one example of how the word liberal has been utterly bastardized, see this Heritage Foundation press release of March 2006 that complains Congress is becoming “liberal.” Why? Because of its pork-barrel spending.

But I want to say something more about betrayal. One piece left out of most commentary on the freaks (not hippies, children; the name preferred by participants of the counterculture was freaks) was how betrayed many of us felt. Remember, we’d been born in the years after World War II. We’d spent our childhoods dramatizing our fathers’ struggles on Normandy Beach and Iwo Jima in our suburban back yards. Most of us watched “Victory at Sea” at least twice. Most of our childhood heroes were characters out of American mythos, like Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone (who seemed an awful lot alike). Further, some of the scariest times of the Cold War unfolded during our elementary and middle schools years. We grew up believing the Communists would nuke us any second. Our schools (even Sunday School, as I recall) and media made sure we were thoroughly indoctrinated with the understanding that liberty and democracy were “good” and Communism was “bad,” and America Is the Greatest Nation in the World.

For many of us, these feelings reached their apex during the Kennedy administration. I was nine years old when he was elected. He seemed to embody everything that was noble and good and heroic about America. I remember his tour of Europe the summer before the assassination. I watched his motorcade move through cheering crowds on our black-and-white console television and never felt prouder to be an American.

But then our hearts were broken in Dallas, and less than two years later Lyndon Johnson announced he would send troops to Vietnam. And then the young men of my generation were drafted into the meat grinder. Sooner or later, most of us figured out our idealism had been misplaced. I was one of the later ones; the realization dawned for me during the Nixon Administration, which began while I was a senior in high school. Oh, I still believed in liberty and democracy; I felt betrayed because I realized our government didn’t. And much of my parents’ generation didn’t seem to, either.

The counterculture was both a backlash to that betrayal and to the cultural rigidity of the 1950s. And much of “movement conservatism” was a backlash to the counterculture, albeit rooted in the pseudo-conservatism documented earlier by Richard Hofstadter and others.

Just so.  I forget this.  More and more people I live and work with every day now, came of political age during Carter.  It always amazed me how they could idolize that cardboard right-wing conservative figurehead Reagan, who famously laughed at Bob Hope’s AIDS jokes during the re-dedication of the Statue of Liberty.  But Carter’s handling of the Iran Hostage situation probably affected a good many of them the way it affected Dreher, and Reagan’s theatrical posturing as a force for American strength and values probably inspired them the way Bush’s did after 9-11, and never mind that the families of tens of thousands of "disappeareds" in south America might view it a little differently.  You can’t trust a president who treats the lives of helpless impoverished people with indifference, if not contempt, to respect American lives any better.  The conservative juggernaut Reagan helped usher into American politics has been an unmitigated disaster for American democracy, and we can see that disaster’s culmination in Iraq…in Katrina…in Bush.

Nixon and Reagan were both notorious for the grandiose trappings of luxury and royalty they attached to the presidency, prompting the columnist Mary McGrory to say of the Reagan republicans that they were "Free, free at last from the loathsome hypocrisy of the respectable republican cloth coat", ironically a phrase Nixon coined back when he was Eisenhower’s VP.  Nixon’s nemesis on the editorial pages of the Washington Post, the political cartoonist Herblock, once averred that the proper degree of respect for the president was as public servant number one.  Because in this democracy, that’s what the president is.  But it’s a lesson lost to a lot of us now, because the right wing noise machine has deftly associated that basic principle of democracy with national weakness.  Kings don’t suffer questioning by the peasants, and we have a president now who seems to really think the office he was elected to was king, and not public servant number 1.  That’s no accident.  It’s taken them years to get us here.  But it’s starting to look as though one more Viet Nam might bring us back to democracy again.  Maybe. 

This is no hippy slogan.  This is how democracy works.  Ask the Watergate generation why this is so.  Or just sit back, and watch it all happening again.  I guess for some of you this would be the first time you saw it.  But not just democracy, this is how Life works, unless you aspire to be nothing more then someone else’s sock puppet.  If I could, I would put this on all our coins instead of the Christianist, "In God We Trust",  that became de rigueur for American currency by a law passed in the 1950s.  

 

E Pluribus Unum.  Question Authority.

 

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