Friday, November 5, 2010


I've been reading Jules Witcover's book about 1968 and it has brought it all back, not just the turmoil in the nation but my own pesonal turmoil. That was the year my first wife and I bought our big old house in Shrub Oak, the year I almost left her and did, actually, stay away a couple of nights, and... well, not a good year. Mid-life crisis? Hardly; I was only 31 years old. The mid-life crisis came later. But otherwise, out there in the world, a huge crisis. The protests against the war in Vietnam were getting bigger and bigger, blacks were continuing to march, demanding a chance to live the life the rest of us took for granted, the pressure on Lyndon Johnson to end the war was growing unbearable, finally forcing him out of the race for the Presidency, and then the assassinations: first Martin Luther King, Jr., then Robert Kennedy. Unrest on a scale not seen in this country since the Civil War.

If you look at a crisis as a teaching tool, however, you can learn a lot from it. I had grown up as part of the Silent Generation, so dubbed in Life magazine, I think it was, or maybe in Time, because we didn't speak out about much of anything and stayed out of politics. But there wasn't much to speak out about. Our elders had invented and used atomic weapons, we were raised to dive under our school desks when the sirens went off, and when the Beats came along most of us watched from a distance. I was a child during World War II. My brother and I read the papers, two of them in the house every day, and thus at an impressionable age learned something about the world and what kind of place it was, and what human beings were capable of. In college I went by myself to see the famous Holocaust documentary Night and Fog and there were the piles of human skin destined for lampshades, the living skeletons in the camps and the horror, all of it sickening beyond belief. I think we all collectively concluded that the private life was best. Human beings are irredeemable. We retreated into ourselves.

Then the Sixties came and we watched the draft age kids march and riot and occupy university buildings and demand change and reform and freedom. Freedom, the old cry. And I, for one, thought, what is this? Freedom? In this country we're all pretty much free already. At bottom, I believed, what they wanted was to be free of the draft. And I was right. When the draft ended, so did the marches and the protests. The war went on, but the Sixties and all they supposedly meant were over. The net result of the Sixties was Sixties style, blue jeans, a whole new kind of music, and the nostalgia for those things that crops up in revivals like Hair. Otherwise little had happened in this country. Our politics was the same. No significant portion of the population retreated to countryside communes. It was all about the draft. After the Sixties came the Me Decade. I wrote about this for GQ in the late '80s, and made enemies among the editors; but they printed the piece. We do not live in a revolutionary country. We live in a rather staid, commercially minded, conservative country where most citizens just want to make money--as much as they can. The rest is relatively superficial.

So it remains today. I try to tell my liberal friends, hey, guys, we live on the East Coast among our kind and the rest of the country is different. The novelist and poet Jim Harrison calls New York and the West Coast the "dream coasts." In between, the "real" America. It's actually no more "real" than the dream coasts, but it is definitely different, another country, really, and it is a miracle we've stayed one country for so long. Right now things look very bad for liberals, and I am one, but I think in the long term not much will change. What will the result of this election be? Stalemate. Gridlock. The sentiments of the country will remain deeply divided, the human chain saws on the cable channels will rev up and do their absolute best to make as much noise as possible, and volcanoes will continue to erupt and floods come and the news will be dire.

But hey: they've got nothing on the Nazis. Injustice of all kinds is prevalent and the people are ignorant and delusional, but that's always been the case, here and everywhere. It's contentious, but so far it's not killing, and we've been relatively lucky: no recent assassinations.. And yes, there's Abu Ghraib, but even there they didn't make lampshades out of human skin. We should all calm down. My brother was a Republican all his life and you couldn't walk into his house without Fox News being on the tube, but I loved him anyway. His kids are mostly Republicans, I suspect, but I love them, too. And with luck the economy will improve and Obama will wise up, having learned lessons from this particular crisis of his own, and next time things will go better for those who believe that it is possible to bring a little more justice into the world, even though this world is pretty much out of anybody's control.