"You'll never get ahead if you don't take care of what you have." - Doris Waddell, RIP

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn
The multi-ethnic building was the original home of the music department at UMM. (B.W. photo)

Thursday, October 7, 2010

A cartoon picks off an old scab

A fellow sat in a time machine in a syndicated cartoon that caught my attention one day.
"Set it to 1973," the associate standing next to him said.
Then came the gag line from the guy in the machine: "Why?"
That was it - that was the gag line.
"Why?"
We were supposed to feel amused at the idea of anyone wanting to go back to that year. I suppose I should take that personally because I graduated from high school in 1973.
None of us chooses when we are born or when we experience our formative years. Baby boomers look back at some particular hurdles that American society seemed to thrust at us - festering problems that would call on us to slowly but surely pick up the mantle of leadership.
The slow part was aggravating.
We can lose sight of the fact that we lacked power then. We lacked the really meaningful leverage but we could vent in socially unacceptable ways. We could be antisocial or self-destructive, and in a backhanded way we were delivering a message even through the foolishness.
Or am I just rationalizing?
Today we do have regrets. But such thinking is through the prism of the present. We have power and leverage now - each generation takes its turn - and we won the cultural wars which no one can dispute.
We still fight shooting wars, us Americans, but we don't force any of our own to take up arms. We just have a "back door" system of conscription in which we send National Guardsmen (unwittingly?) or young people from impoverished backgrounds who lack options.
The latter route has filled the ranks of the military around the world for eons. Lots of those "bad guy" redcoats from our American revolution were just young men lacking options.
We're fighting terrorism now, which seems like a noble cause. Fighting Communism (as in Viet Nam) was not.
Communism was a boogeyman invented by the 1950s version of the tea party in America. Communism ended up fading on its own. The people under its rule insisted on something better. We needn't have applied all of that Napalm.
It's human nature to see everything through that prism of the present.
That cartoonist wanted to jar us a little. He wanted to adjust that prism in an instructive way.
I suspect many of the cartoon's observers were puzzled in the fraction of a second that they probably devoted to the cartoon. They either didn't get it or felt it wasn't a point worth making.
"The past is past, let's move on. Let's devote a fraction of a second to a different cartoon, one that might make us laugh. Isn't that what cartoons are supposed to do?"
Consider the limited attention span of today. And the sea of information and opinion that is out there.
The time machine cartoon stayed with me because the artist didn't want to let go of what he remembered about that time. Most likely he was coming of age then.
"Oh, but we can all remember some bad things that happened years ago."
True, but the cultural things happening in the late 1960s and early '70s were far-reaching and traumatic for many people - the young first and foremost. The residue is still very much out there.
Chris Matthews of MSNBC is a pundit who remembers and understands well. Matthews reminds us often in a very knowing, sobering way. I suspect this is why William Ayers, a modern-day boogeyman in the eyes of the political right, was willing to go on Matthews' program.
Ayers had entered the vortex of the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign. He almost seemed like a comic book figure by the end. Today's media do that to a lot of people.
Matthews wasn't wholly sympathetic to Ayers but he at least could set the appropriate context. Matthews knew that the unique schism of that bygone time brought out some bizarre or destructive behavior.
Boomers know that Sara Jane Olson (a.k.a. Kathleen Soliah) wasn't just a pure criminal. She did things that we cannot condone, but as with Ayers the context has to be weighed. There were shades of gray.
I read an analysis of the Sara Jane Olson episode that acknowledged the boomers' perspective. To paraphrase: "Sara Jane Olson did some bad things, but people of a certain age know those were different times."
I'm a little more sympathetic to Ayers because the main thrust of his pushing-the-envelope behavior was to get the U.S. out of Viet Nam. This is what caused graduation ceremonies of the era (mainly in 1970) to get cancelled. This is what resulted in students shot dead on the campus of Kent State in Ohio.
Today's young people can read about this but they might have trouble relating. They can be forgiven because none of us can really step into that imaginary time machine.
I can't relate to what it was like being on the home front in "the good war," World War Two. Or to be actually over in Europe fighting, or in the Pacific Theater. I once read where WWII had a "dreamlike" quality in the eyes of many on the home front. We emerged from that war unified and convinced we could pretty much set the agenda for the whole world.
But it wouldn't be that simple.
Subsequent military engagements were clouded in terms of purpose and outcome. Perhaps we have always wanted to relive that "good war," but it's delusional. The delusion reached its most pathetic depths in our adventure in Viet Nam.
The youth of that time were bewildered by much of the legacy that we were on the threshold of inheriting. As all generations do, we gained power with time and instilled our values.
We have forgotten some of this today as we focus on our personal and parochial ends. How about stepping into that time machine? And setting it to 1973? And listening to Elvis singing "My Way!"
("I'm just an entertainer" is how Elvis answered questions about Viet Nam.)
A new young generation is coming along that will impress a true digital universe that will wipe out many of the cumbersome institutions, or fundamentally reshape them. The old models of industry and government could get virtually torn down and recreated.
The U.S. Postal Service will be just the start!
Systems with elaborate physical infrastructure, redundancies and paperwork will get wiped out. Oh, boomers will see a lot of this as drastic. We like to stick with things that are familiar, as it's human nature.
I once read of the "Greatest Generation" that these people "never changed." It was a compliment. It was reassuring. They were temperate people who took care of nuts-and-bolts matters that related to their own lives. They felt this was totally proper.
They felt unsettled by activist urges to actually yank the U.S. out of the Indochina conflict and push civil rights forward with active confrontation. Heaven forbid, no confrontation! They encouraged conformity in a way that their children found stifling.
"Conformity" was indeed a buzzword of the time. As in, let's reexamine it! It became conventional wisdom in most educational circles to reject it. This rejection sometimes got conflated into some counterproductive ideas. We laughed at Cheech and Chong rejecting conformity.
Young people became discouraged in a way that made them think that various types of antisocial or self-destructive behavior were actually an appropriate way to vent. This is a dirty little secret of the boomers. The scab gets ripped open when we hear of the likes of William Ayers and Sara Jane Olson.
Today we boomers must pray that past drug use and our over-tanning (in the sun, when a deep dark tan was most desirable) don't literally shorten our lives or cause infirmity.
Ah, it's a trait of youth to consider ourselves invulnerable. Today we see most vividly how vulnerable we are. We reflect on wild and unsettling times, when positive change was blended in with silliness, irreverence and actual blatant vice, and we try to blot some of it out.
That's why most of us might wince about getting into that time machine and going back to 1973.
I remember a scholar once observing that the conflict represented by the popular team "generation gap" was "as severe as the U.S. Civil War" but on a different plane, sans guns. Today's young people would surely think that's an exaggeration. They read in books about some of the conflicts of that time but it seems distant.
Living then would be a quite different proposition for them. That's why I thought the cartoon and its time machine were so memorable.
My high school graduating class at Morris High had the motto "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead." We had to have something provocative like that - it was a badge of the time.
Many graduation speeches implored us to question authority.
Today it's the opposite. Speeches today seem cliche-ridden and conventional, but I admit that's a generational bias on my part.
Maybe my problem is that I have a good memory or constantly feel the need for historical analysis.
Because those who forget the past might be condemned to repeat it.
Brian Williams - morris mn Minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

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