My father died last month, early in a new century to which he was * I'm proud to say * increasingly ill-suited.
He realized the degree to which this true before I did, perhaps because the 21st century had been growing ever more familiar to people like him, those alumni of the early 20th century, a period which they were mostly delighted to have left behind.
He * and my mom, who died a decade ago * were part of what some have called the Greatest Generation. I'm not so sure about that all the time. But I do know this: They were a damn-sight better generation than my own, the Baby Boomers. Too often we seem like just plain babies to me, forget the boomer part. For those in doubt, I submit the first two Boomer presidents, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, and the voters who elected them as Exhibit A, and rest my case.
I also know that the arc of my parents' generation's life stories * really, the story of America in the 20th century * was a lot more exciting than those of their children. Of course, as the Chinese remind us, living in interesting times can also be a curse, and I'm not saying I'd be anxious to trade my comfortable life history for some of their adventures. Still, it's astonishing to think of what they lived through, as individuals and as Americans. Depression, World War, Cold War, Civil Rights, Countercultural revolution, Vietnam, Watergate, Oil Shocks, AIDS, 9/11 and more.
Add to these events the profound social, political and economic changes of their time, and the scope of their lives becomes even more breathtaking: political swings to the left and back to the right, the New Deal and the wholesale change in the nature of American government, civil rights for racial minorities, women and gays among others, the rise of America in the world, the sexual revolution, the disorienting revelations of governmental deceit in Vietnam and Watergate, the decline of America in the world and at home, massive technological change, increased longevity, environmental destruction, environmental consciousness, and more.
Talk about riding the rocket of history. (Actually, my dad almost literally did. For a brief and exciting period during his heyday, he worked on the team building the Saturn V rocket which launched Apollo astronauts to the moon.)
Yes, these times were certainly interesting, but they weren't just randomly interesting, and this history wasn't just a rudderless bottle-rocket careening willy-nilly across the sky. In my father's lifetime, things got very much better, and then they got worse.
My folks were the children of mostly immigrant parents. Like many such first generation Americans, they hungered to establish a beachhead in the middle class. But by the time the Great Depression hit America early in their youth, they were instead among its many victims. My mother's mother had lost her husband early on after fathering four daughters, and she literally sewed garments deep into the night in order to try keeping them and herself afloat on what an immigrant seamstress could bring home. My father's family, meanwhile, shuffled around the East Coast, doubling up with relatives, while his dream of going to college went down the toilet. Their generation had profoundly real survival fears that neither I nor most of my mine can even imagine.
But this hardscrabble America with its nonexistent social safety net got dramatically better, and it did so because of progressive politics. Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal didn't solve the economic crisis of the Depression, but it did save the lives of perhaps tens of millions who would have otherwise been sucked under, including droves of the elderly, the unemployed, and vulnerable children. It also brought modernity to places where it had not yet existed. And, above all, it gave hope to the 'little folks' and showed them that the government could be their ally, not just the cold hired enforcer of the already prosperous.
Progressive politics also helped save the world from fascism, while conservatives of the era wanted to stand by in isolation. When that war was over, liberals again showed their wisdom in both foreign and domestic policy. With respect to the former, that meant enlightened post-war policies like the Marshall Plan, which prevented a repeat of the Versailles disaster. That the countries with the third and fifth largest economies of the world today (Japan and Germany) are former aggressors but contemporary pacifists has everything to do with the thoughtful successes of the Roosevelt/Truman rehabilitation policies.
Here at home, meanwhile, these same progressive politicians had the smarts to send to college a generation which otherwise would never have made it. In addition to fueling the intellectual infrastructure for America's post-war economic powerhouse, this policy choice changed dramatically the individual life courses of college grads like my dad, as well as those of their family members like me.
The progressive domestic policies of this period would go on to bring America through a painful transition into modern civil rights, sometimes * as in the Brown decision * even leading the way. Such policies would also bring large measures of equality to women. And they would make the civil liberties guaranteed in the Bill of Rights more real than hollow, as they had been previously. And they would make the ideas of the environmental movement into policy, measurably improving the quality of America's air and water. And they would protect and strengthen unions and the working people they represented. And they would bring some protection and power to consumers. And they would block the worse excesses of McCarthyist mania. And they would end, too late, the insanity of Vietnam. And they would preside over economic growth which lifted millions into the middle class for the first time. And they would provide women with sexual autonomy and choice for the first time in perhaps all of history.
To be sure, these post-war liberals made some huge mistakes, principally in the foreign policy domain, and always when they followed their conservative instincts instead of acting progressively. Just the same, this is one hell of a legacy, the proof of which lies in a simple comparison of America circa 1930 versus forty years later. Instead of depression there is unmatched economic prosperity. Instead of looming fascism there is crushed fascism. Instead of institutionalized racism there is institutionalized equality. Instead of women as legal, economic and sexual appendages to their husbands there is freedom and substantial equality between the sexes. Instead of rampant pollution there are limits on destruction of natural resources and heightened consciousness of 'the environment', a concept which by itself would have been foreign in 1930.
This list could go on, but the point is made. The flower of America's forty year experiment in liberalism was an America vastly improved, in ways that touched hundreds of millions of individuals' lives. It is an achievement * notwithstanding some serious deficiencies * which modern progressives would champion at every opportunity today had they not somehow lost their nerve and their conviction along the way. Even the failures may be excused, to some degree, for America is the most instinctually conservative of developed countries, and because any society can comfortably absorb only so much change at a time.
In his latter years, my dad used to tell me of his disgust at how things had gotten worse, not better. At first I would dispute this argument, reminding him about gains in civil rights, sexual equality, environmental protection and so on, compared to conditions during his earlier days. Sometimes I would also dismiss his complaints as those of every elderly generation which feels like a foreigner in their grandchildren's world, simply uncomfortable with change itself, whether positive or negative.
But over time I came to agree with him. America in the 1970s represented a substantial improvement over the America of the 1930s. But the same cannot be said comparing today's America with that of thirty or forty years prior. We're worse off today, not better, and that is because we as a country yielded to conservative policy choices in place of sensible and beneficial progressive ideas.
Now we are mired in another war, having learned nothing from the last time we allowed a president to lie us into invading another country. We are more hated in the world than we have ever been, by a long shot, and that hatred is breeding angry, animated enemies who badly want to hurt America and likely will. We used to be a beacon for human rights in the world. Now we torture and humiliate people, enraging a billion Muslims across the planet. We are moving backwards, not forwards, and not even standing still, on civil rights, civil liberties, women's rights and environmental protection. Our standard of living is static if not dropping. The polarization of wealth in American society could make any good banana republic proud. We are leaving our children the bill for more debt than a million drunken sailors could run up in a year of shore leave. Meanwhile, global warming looms like a tsunami off our coast, and we not only fail to act, but instead lay on the beach, blithely applying sunscreen.
And then, as if erasing the twentieth century isn't retro enough, the movement for regressive politics in America seeks to unravel the very pathways to knowledge themselves, and the miraculous achievement of the Enlightenment, of which America's Founders * ironically * were such ardent exponents. Did you like the 17th century? Now you can relive it in a biology class in Kansas. Were the Crusades more your cup of tea? Then there's a nifty little a war of aggression going on in Baghdad with your name on it. Secularism make you nervous? No problem, John Ashcroft was glad to be of service as Attorney General, and if that whole female empowerment thing gets you edgy, he was even thoughtful enough to cover up the exposed breasts of the statuary.
What the hell happened to my father's America? I don't know, but I do know two things. The first is that progressives need to ponder that question, long and hard. I suspect the answer has a lot to do with economically disenfranchised and existentially adrift American's looking for an outlet for their fear and rage, and finding in the cheap and simplistic answers provided by regressive conservatism an appealing heatsink. Easier to believe (and made so much easier yet by regressive, numbing and dumbing politics, framing and media) that it's the queers, the ragheads, the welfare queens, the terrorists, the secularist intellectual know-it-alls, the illegal immigrants, the evildoers, or whomever is the out-group du jour (Can't wait to see who Rove picks for 2006! Treasonous administration officials, maybe?), than it is to do the hard work of thinking through what is actually happening to them and their society. And, of course, making people work two or three jobs to keep the bill collectors at bay is also not a bad system for preventing reflection and thoughtful analysis.
Whatever the answer, progressives will never defeat this disease until we understand it correctly, anymore than Bush, Cheney, Wolfowitz or the rest ever had any hope of prevailing in Iraq given their two-dimensional cardboard cut-out understanding of the people and the region.
I also know, second, that we * or, more properly, Democrats * are part of the problem. We need to regain our conviction, proudly trumpet our proven progressive solutions, and give a massive boot to ridiculous candidates like John Kerry, or (the old) Al Gore, or (the new or old) Hillary Clinton who lose in part because of their utter failure to stand for something, anything. It cannot be said enough: conviction alone matters immensely in politics, particularly in an age of deep-seated fear, such as the one we now apparently occupy. Reagan proved this, as has George W. Bush. Americans will follow you nearly off a cliff * and certainly in contradiction to their own ideological commitments, such as they are * if a leader will simply lead. Rove understood this instinctively, which is why Bush has been so completely unyielding, and also why the core task of their broadside against Kerry was to turn him into a convictionless flip-flopper. Of all the ways they could have savaged him, it was no accident that they chose the one they did, perhaps without even suspecting that the buffoonish senator would assist them so avidly in establishing the fatal characterization.
Bold will win. Bold will especially win when it is backed by palpable truth. Paul Hackett showed the way in Ohio. Though he did not win, he came miraculously close against long odds by simply speaking truths, an act which by some bizarre twist of our times has been relegated to something between the impolite and the treasonous. The latter is essentially what right-wing mouthpieces are now desperately calling Cindy Sheehan * another simple truth-teller * in one of the most despicable acts of gutter politics since Joe McCarthy walked the planet. Imagine calling a mother of a dead soldier "phoney-baloney". Imagine doing that while ignoring the fact that all the top war advocates in the Bush administration skipped Vietnam, as all the children of privilege are doing today instead of going to Iraq.
Bold will also force the press to do its job for the first time in a long time. Washington reporters and editors cower in pathetic fear of the Bush administration while their corporate masters hover over the bottom line like protective lionesses, shielding their profits from threats of Republican legislative and regulatory revenge. Yet, even under these conditions, an opposition party which actually opposes (what a concept!) will force the media to present an alternative to the complete fantasy nonsense promulgated by the regressive movement. And seeing the two worldviews side-by-side, people will eventually figure it out.
In truth, the opportunities for a progressive blow-out have not been greater for a generation than they are for 2006. It is crucial for the Democratic Party to simply turn the election into a national referendum on the conservative experiment, and repudiate the entire monstrosity wholesale. The right has had a free run over the last five years and more, and now is the time to ask American voters if they like what they have to show for it. Do you like wars based on lies which cost 2,000 American soldiers, $300 billion, perhaps 100,000 Iraqi dead and the position of America in world opinion, or do you think that was a stupid decision? Do you prefer massive surpluses or massive deficits? Should we be creating good jobs in America, or giving corporations tax breaks for shipping them elsewhere? Ignoring massive environmental destruction causing global warming is smart, right? How about letting the guy who did 9/11 run free and not really thinking about him anymore? And isn't it good news that the rich in America are now the fantastically rich, while the rest of us work second jobs to stay afloat, credit cards maxed-out from here to the horizon? Should we let people suffer from horrible disease so that right-wing religious fanatics can block stem-cell research and even marijuana use to ease the pain and danger of chemotherapy? Should Bill Frist make (blundering) personal medical decisions for your family? And, hey, how about our whole market-based medical system, anyhow, with its 50 million uninsured and its endless loops of insurance industry red-tape? While we're at it, why not hand Social Security over to Wall Street?
We have, in short, seen the right-wing agenda in full bloom, and somehow, miraculously, there is still enough good sense left in America to recognize how utterly destructive these policies are individually. But that's not enough. A smart politics of the present would see progressives and Democrats vigorously tying these disastrous policies to each other, arc-welding the whole lot to the terms 'conservative' and 'Republican', and then throwing the entire repudiated bundle over the railings and watching it sink of its own weight, not to resurface again for at least a generation.
I don't know if that will happen, and recent history has not been encouraging (though even more recent history gives cause for hope). If it does transpire, one of my major regrets will be that my father won't be there to see the restoration of hope, truth, compassion and decency to the American body politic, all of which he unfortunately had to witness being brutalized in his latter years.
The quarter-century since Reagan rode into town has been an ugly disaster for those, like my dad, who grew up with national despair, saw it replaced by hope and progress and markedly improved lives, only to then watch all of those cruelly snatched away during this ugly season of fear, deceit, theft and violence.
I am, of course, delighted that my father lived his 86 years * a full, rewarding, long and mostly healthy life. But I'm sorry he had to see this.
David Michael Green is the proud son of Elizabeth and Elias "Bud" Green. She preferred the name David, and he Michael. They compromised, but since she was doing the heavy lifting at the time, he gave her the better part of it. That was how they were.