Saturday, April 12, 2008

Memoir of a Half-Life: 1968, Descent into Fear

This is a continuation of my slowly-unfolding Memoir of a Half-Life. A description of the work is here. Earlier segments: introduction and 1968 (Part 1).

In the 36
years that preceded 1968, the modern United States was born. Nearly every feature of society that we think of as characteristically "American" happened in this span. Our freedoms, our collective national wealth, our diversity, our international influence, our innovation--all of it followed the crash in '29 and the election of FDR. (To be sure, roots extended back before him; but it was the Democratic consolidation in this period that made it law.) And it wasn't just the individual accomplishments themselves--it was the shocking accomplishment of them as a collective. Individually, they were monumental; together they were revolutionary: defeating the Nazis, labor reform, Soviet foes, the ascendence of t he middle class and accompanying market revolution, civil rights, the space project, the Great Society.

These produced a dramatic psychology of optimism, generosity, ambition, and fearlessness that pervaded the collective consciousness. All of this is relevant, of course, because '68 is when it ended. For my generation, a new national mood was born, along with me, in 1968.

If a novelist were to include the events of 1968 in her story, critics would deride them as preposterous, overwrought. With the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy and the subsequent election of Nixon, the metaphor was too obvious--we exchanged light for darkness, hope for paranoia. But this was the reality, and it was more than a metaphor: in 1964, Barry Goldwater's campaign offered up a marker that Americans cashed in 1968. We killed the man who had brought the races together, we killed the man who had fought corruption and offered a vast vision. And then we elected Richard Nixon, the personification of darkness and fear. His spirit, paranoid, divisive, and corrupt has been the spirit that animated the next 40 years--and, sadly, my lifetime.

I don't think I was alone in thinking the world was doomed. I lived in a suburban enclave of Boise, Idaho, and a pack of us ran around the alleys and open fields of the neighborhood. That this was it, that the world was certainly doomed to a future of nuclear war, was our working assumption. As I started to get old enough to think about driving--at ten, say--I recall discussions with friends about how we'd never actually live that long. We not only felt doomed, but doomed in an immediate way. This was during the Carter years, which were suffused with lament and loss. Children don't have sophisticated critical apparati at that age, but I was well aware (if only generally) that things were bad.

All eras have challenging events, but in the 1970s, so many of ours came from the inside. Nixon was a national embarrassment and made us wonder about our government's moral core. The fading economy brought shame to families like mine, where my father bounced from job to job, business to business. My father had three successive business failures in the 70s. It's bad enough to struggle to make ends meet, but add failure on, and it takes a little of your soul. No doubt my sense of this was greater than others, but with the gas crunch and stagflation, it all seemed to be of a piece.

Then came the Iran hostage crisis, which was external. But Carter's approach, coming amid the difficulties of the decade, seemed to highlight America's impotency. (In retrospect, with the wisdom of the Bush doctrine having been fully tested, it may not have been such a bad policy.) Three-mile island, declining wages, the Olympic boycott--everything just seemed to confirm our decline.

The reaction to 9/11 was instructive. The US--not just the political class or the GOP, but everyone--slid into a defensive crouch. The events of the past six years have been the fruit of the collective spirit of this era--fear. Although I was unaware of them at the time, there were other currents in American life at play: reaction to Roe v. Wade, the rejection of the civil rights movement, the nascent plan to unite fundamentalist Christian doctrine and market-based right-wing politics.

When I pick this up again, I'll get a little more personal and describe how it felt to grow up in this United States, and how all of this personally affected me--not unusually, I think.

No comments: