Howard Zinn died last week, having the media misfortune of passing away the same day as J.D. Salinger. Though I doubt Zinn’s death would have garnered much more notice had he died without being overshadowed by someone else’s passing. As the New York Times’ Bob Herbet put it in a column a couple of days ago: “His death this week at the age of 87 was a loss that should have drawn much more attention from a press corps that spends an inordinate amount of its time obsessing idiotically over the likes of Tiger Woods and John Edwards.”
Maybe it was that Zinn felt comfortable presenting himself as a radical, whereas I never thought of, say, my own personal favorites Studs Terkel or Nelson Algren that way. Maybe it’s because, from what I remember from my very cursory knowledge of him, Zinn was about as subtle as a sledgehammer, and that approach worked for him.
Bob Herbert asks: “What was so radical about believing that workers should get a fair shake on the job, that corporations have too much power over our lives and much too much influence with the government, that wars are so murderously destructive that alternatives to warfare should be found, that blacks and other racial and ethnic minorities should have the same rights as whites, that the interests of powerful political leaders and corporate elites are not the same as those of ordinary people who are struggling from week to week to make ends meet?”
I’ve been thinking about Sunday’s excellent post on Whiskey Fire about the nature of and trend toward violence and individualism and the American psyche. A lot of people hearken back to The Founders, whether they’re justifying their latest wingnut tea party or just generally popping off about American ruggedness and enterprise. And ruggedness and enterprise are good things, they really are. But Jake T. Snake’s closing comments about our focus on the American individual spirit, rather than the communal spirit, go back as far as cowboy movies, but they truly don’t go back to the Founders. Seems like you can’t espouse a point of view about working for the common good of society and helping your fellow citizen without getting labeled as a socialist, or worse.
But the Founders, for all their focus on freeing themselves from British tyrany and fighting for their right to self-determination, decidedly came down on the side of working for the common good. What the hell is a successful Revolution is you’re going it alone? The spirit of Civic Life was what motivated the Founders, to a point where they scarcely mentioned it, since it was such an obvious and ingrained factet of their lives. It was so ingrained, I’d argue, that they perhaps overcompensated (to our jaundiced, hindsighted eyes) by focusing on the individual.
Even the Second Amendment, the right to bear arms, is written in the spirit of community and the protection of society, rather than of the individual. The amendment begins: “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free State…” says what it says. The right says nothing about protecting oneself, except for protecting this right itself.
Today, would you get enough people together to agree that George Washington would lead our Army? How about a veritable All-Star team convening to create a new Constitution, to create Congress and our system of checks and balances?
Sure, the Founders had their palatial estates, their Monticellos, their Mount Vernons, their Peacefields. But even there, they always seemed to be entertaining guests, engaging in civic discussion, planning the next movement, penning letters and books. They didn’t wall themselves off in their monstrous McMansions and get lost in American Idol and Facebook (ironically, the most social activity many Americans engage in on the Web, and it still amazes me how much Facebook is about talking at people, not with them; and I’m as guilty of this as the next Facebooker).
Even Washington, who, after the Revolution, just seemed to want to retire to his estate and be left alone, knew his duty lay with the people, for the betterment of society.
We’re a long way from there. We’ve collectively become a 130-year-old Me Generation.
The present now will later be past.
—Bob Dylan, The Times They Are A-Changin’
I think history, at least to me, provides some comfort of knowing that you’re not the first person, or first generation, to have gone through something — others have struggled and survived.
I write this because I can’t get the opening credits sequence from the Watchmen movie out of my head, easily the best part of an otherwise somewhat disappointing film. The damn sequence has stuck with me, especially the song, and I think my fellow Gen X’ers will drum me out of the union when they hear it’s Baby Boomer icon Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” It’s haunting — a haunting song to go with a haunting sequence, because the sequence presents an alternative — but not so alternative as to be unfamiliar — history of the United States since 1940 up until the mid-’70s. (Leave it to an over-marketed adaptation of the most influential graphic novel of all time to finally reveal the significance of Dylan’s song to this Gen X geek. But I digress).
I introduce this as a way to try to understand what we’re going through now — no, not damaged superheroes, or even the history (or alt-history) depicted in that five-minute sequence, but rather, an idea of the past as prologue. If we accept that we’re now in the New Depression, what did people my age do in 1929, in 1932, in 1941, and in 1945? What appealed to them, musically, stylistically? What movies did they watch? What themes did their novelists write about?
Obviously, we know these answers. But I wonder if they parallel what we listen to, what we watch, what we read, now, in a changing world. Is there reassurance in that? If not a guidepost, then at least a flickering but persistent flashlight, a sign that we’ll emerge from this tunnel?
If 2009 is akin to either 1929 (the year of the crash) or 1933 (FDR’s first year in office) — for this conversation, whether the answer is 1929 or 1933 doesn’t make a difference here, just pick one, or any year in that four-year span for that matter — then what did people my age do that year? What were their hopes, dreams, fears, likes and dislikes? Where did they wind up?
I turn 37 this year. I really want to understand the worldview as seen by someone born 37 years before the 1929–1933 span — born in between 1892 or 1896, inclusive. My baby turns 3 this year. What will the world hold for him? What did the world hold for a child born in 1926 or 1930?
And understanding that, and understanding those Americans’ struggles, makes life these days both more comforting and more worrisome.
Comforting, because Americans have been there before.
Worrisome, because the Great Depression was just getting started.
Worrisome, because does this mean that we have 12 years at most, and 8 years at the earliest, before we face another another Dec. 7, 1941 … and this one coming two decades or less after the horrors of Sept. 11, 2001? Or is history working backwards, with our Pearl Harbor having already occured on 9/11 and before our Great Depression?
The times, they are a-changin’. And the more they stay the same.
Update March 12, 8:07 p.m.: I swear I did not read this article in Sunday’s Times (didn’t buy it last weekend, and I usually skip the Week in Review section, anyway), but this is exactly what I’m talking about:
Generation OMG (link added above, too)
This is why I love history…
Poking around the White House.gov Web site and I came upon a this tidbit while reading about the White House’s history:
In 1829, a horde of 20,000 Inaugural callers forced President Andrew Jackson to flee to the safety of a hotel while, on the lawn, aides filled washtubs with orange juice and whiskey to lure the mob out of the mud-tracked White House.
I had heard the story about a mob of Jackson’s supporters trashing the White House after his inauguration, but the piece about the orange juice- and whiskey-filled bathtubs is new to me. Hopefully, they weren’t mixed in the same tub — either the celebrators or the whiskey and orange juice, that is.
I also love that this story appears on the President’s own Web site.