Published on Tuesday, December 6, 2005 by CommonDreams.org
Greatest Generation? Here’s Our Chance to Rise to the Occasion
by Andrew Bard Schmookler
At times over the past year, I’ve felt resentful at having to deal with the terrible challenge posed by the rise of evil forces in America. Why can’t I just lead the life I want to lead, I’d ask myself at such moments?
Before late summer of 2004 –before I was awakened to the depth of this danger by those lying Swiftboat ads, and by the Republican National Convention (with its vitriol and its phony postures of righteousness)—I was focused on such lovely things. I was writing a book that explores those pathways that take us into our most deeply meaningful experiences, weaving together such elements as John Muir’s description of the “radiant beauty” he saw pouring out of the earth at Yosemite and as Beethoven’s spiritual vision in the first movement of his 7th Symphony.
But then the menace of these Bushite forces called me away from looking at the good, the true, and the beautiful, as I became aware that, for the sake of the future of America and of the whole planet, we had to confront the evil, the false, and the ugly—for these had taken control over the greatest power on earth.
Muir and Beethoven and all the rest of those who have shown us the way to what is wonderful in life then became for me like the scene depicted on the famous shield of Achilles in The Iliad—a scene of human life blessed by bounty and justice and wedding celebrations, a remembrance perhaps of what is worth fighting for, but of what one has had to leave behind to go off to battle.
Which leads me into the answer I’ve found for those moments when I feel sorry for myself for this burden of having to battle against the Bushites: I remind myself of what my parents’ generation had to sacrifice to meet the challenge of World War II.
They, too, had lives they wanted to be living—work they wanted to be doing, sweethearts they wanted to stay with—but were instead compelled by what history had dealt them to set all that aside. Men of my father’s generation not only had to interrupt their lives, they had to risk having no life at all –and hundreds of thousands of them never returned-- in order to meet the threat posed to all they valued by the rise of evil.
Looking at their example, I am able quickly to silence the voice of that inner baby-boomer who feels somehow entitled to have things the way he wants. The ease of our lives –all that we’ve been able to take for granted for so long—is the exception and not the rule in human experience. We have no good reason to suppose that we were promised a rose garden, that history would not some day call upon us to deal with dark and dangerous things.
For Americans more than sixty years ago, it was the rise of fascistic forces in Berlin and Tokyo that demanded such sacrifice. For us today, it is the rise of such forces in our own capital.
The challenges of these two eras have their differences, of course.
Millions of those compelled to sacrifice for World War II had to leave home and family for years to wage their struggle. Our struggle does not require that of us. The men who fought the ugly forces of fascism in Europe and in Asia were required to put their lives on the line. So far at least, we face no suck risks.
In those ways, we have it so much easier. But there are also ways in which our challenge is greater.
Though many volunteered to serve in World War II, service was nonetheless compulsory. The battles we must fight are ones for which we must draft ourselves. We have the option –and thus the temptation—of evading our responsibility to keep history from going down the road to hell.
The generation that sacrificed for victory in World War II enjoyed the inspiriting support that comes from national unity in times of crisis. We, by contrast, are compelled to confront the painful divisions in our own land, sometimes even between ourselves and people we’re close to.
Sixty-four years ago, a nation of 150 million people was summoned to the struggle by their duly constituted authorities. In our moment, it is against our authorities that we must struggle.
Those who fought in World War II enjoyed the advantage of having great leaders from still earlier generations to follow. For our struggle, we are forced to search for and create our own leadership.
But the stakes in our struggle are no smaller than those for the generation that fought against fascism across the globe.
Never in the history of America has so much power been wielded by forces so evil, and therefore at stake in this moment of history is nothing less than the soul of America. Not only future generations of Americans, but also all the peoples of the world, and indeed the very systems of life on earth, depend upon us to rise to the challenge of defeating these forces.
Some years back, Tom Brokaw named the generation that came of age around World War II “The Greatest Generation.” I do not begrudge them that label (though when that generation matured into positions of power they committed their share of blunders and crimes --like Vietnam and Watergate). That generation did learn early an ethic of self-sacrifice that many in my baby-boom generation have not previously had to take to heart.
But history has come round now to give us Americans of this era our own profound challenge. Will we rise to the occasion, setting aside the lives we might otherwise wish to live in order to defeat the evil forces that have taken control of our country?
There is room in history for another greatest generation.
Andrew Bard Schmookler has recently launched his website NoneSoBlind.orgdevoted to understanding the roots of Americas present moral crisis and the means by which the urgent challenge of this dangerous moment can be met. Dr. Schmookler is also the author of such books as The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution (SUNY Press) and Debating the Good Society: A Quest to Bridge Americas Moral Divide (M.I.T. Press). He also conducts regular talk-radio conversations in both red and blue states. Schmookler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org