“You are the crown of creation
And you got no place to go”—Jefferson Airplane
Flashbacks, like a cut from “Let it Bleed” course over the American airwaves. Old hits from the 60’s played to an aging generation 40 years past the promise of that time when America was pregnant with possibilities; when all things seemed possible.
Children of, in Tom Brokaw’s phrase,” The Greatest Generation”, we were the rightful heirs to the “American Century”. Born in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War at the height of American global dominance, the best educated, most affluent, most promising generation in human history poised to change the world. Unfortunately, we were also the most self-absorbed.
The hits of the ‘60’s are played now with diminishing regularity on the country’s airwaves. Hits by the Beatles or the Stones or Jefferson Airplane are now four decades old. What is odd about this is not that one has occasion to relive the fantasies of youth by putting one’s life on rewind, but that this has become a novel experience in this culture. In parts of the Asian steppes one can still witness a tribal elder reliving the battles with Alexander the Great as the oral history of the tribe gets passed down to the next generation. So it has been throughout human history, the tribal talisman revealing mystic myths of origin from the Song of Roland to King Arthur, to Ulysses and Penelope, to tribal myths defining a people on the American plains, long before it could be written down. Succeeding generations sat in rapt attention as the mystery and purpose of life were revealed. Not so in America. In the 1960’s one did not hear the hits of Rudy Valee, or the greatest hits of the early Bing Crosby or Frank Sinatra. One discovered Billie Holiday only in the movies made of her life. In the 1960’s one did not, anywhere on the radio band, hear the hits of the 1920’s being replayed.
Query: Why is this?
Answer: Because music did not exist before the boomers discovered it.
With near absolute arrogance, the “boomers” manifest self-absorption displayed itself in the singular way we behaved as if nothing whatever existed before we arrived. And, armed with money to spend and a growing numerical presence, the generation proceeded to elbow aside virtually everything that preceded it, with consequences that have reverberated down through the last half of the twentieth century, and now threaten our own.
We acted as though we not only discovered music, sex and culture, but politics. History held no lessons and our elders had nothing to teach that we felt obliged to learn. We took to the streets and terrorized the hated “establishment”, forcing an end to a war and a president from office. We re-invented the presidential nominating system, we fooled with tax limitation amendments, term limits, invented new and novel causes for impeachments, stood constitutional law on its head by allowing the Supreme Court to appoint a president; ripped the ‘safety net’ to shreds and dismantled the last firewalls of the New Deal. Foremost we heeded the siren song of greed.
Much has been made of the altruism of the early boomers; the freedom rides, the civil rights movement, the Vista and Peace Corps volunteers. One must be careful here. The Boomers began arriving in 1946 so they would have been a mere 14 when John Kennedy issued his clarion call to “ask what you can do for your country”, and would not have reached the age of majority by mid decade. By then the Johnson Administration was confronted with an entirely different youth movement, one vehemently and sometimes violently against the war, demonstrating and rioting in the streets. But something interesting happened on the way to the forum. Nixon, ever prescient about such things saw through the alleged “altruism” knowing that the movement was not motivated by conviction but by fear. Nixon understood that here was a generation that would not “pay any price” nor “bear any burden”. Nixon saw the naked fear behind the pretense and knew that the country was presented with a generation of Americans who were so self-absorbed that they truly did believe in their own immortality. A generation whose life had mystic origins (since it had itself invented sex), no boundaries and promised to be a long magical mystery tour.
“A true nature’s child
We were born
Born to be wild
We will climb so high
Never gonna die” ----Steppenwolf
Nixon saw the brazen hypocrisy and the cheap courage of those who believe only in themselves; he also saw a cheap altruism born of fear. Behind the façade of protesting an ‘unjust’ war, of demonstrating against the slaughter of the innocent, Nixon saw the naked fear; fear of a mortality that would belie the ‘boomers’ deepest confusions. Nixon was not the first, nor would he be the last to understand that where there is fear there is opportunity. Nixon understood that if he eliminated the draft he could quell the disturbances: without the draft there would be no more moratoriums. Without the fear there would be no more principles.
I have not been understood: the antiwar movement was never so much about saving Viet Nam as it was about saving ‘Boomer’ ass. So beginning in early 1971 he first instituted the lottery which immediately peeled away those who were clearly not going to be called from the antiwar movement. Those who clearly would be called enlisted so as to get the best possible military assignment (somewhere far from the rice fields of Southeast Asia---the Texas Air National Guard will do). The result: an end to the “principled” opposition by the young to the “unjust war”. Indeed the war went on for several years after the demonstrations subsided becoming of little concern to the “boomers” so long as it was fought with aircraft safely dropping bombs from fifty thousand feet and with another people’s ground forces. So much for the boomer commitment to “end the war”. No it was people like newsman Walter Cronkite and Sen. William Fulbright talking over our heads to our elders as well as the spectacle of Tet and the crumbling of the Saigon forces and finally the shooting down during the Christmas bombing of North Vietnam of 25% of our B-52 bombers that led this nation to call an end to the debacle—long after the boomers had fled the streets into the self-absorption of the Woodstock nation.
“I almost cut my hair
Happened just the other day
Gettin kinda long.”—CSN&Y
We became the “Me” generation lampooned on “Saturday Night Live” by comedian Al Franken when he declared the 80’s the “Franken Decade”. “Because remember” he would say to uneasy laughter, “…it’s all about me….Al Franken”. In 1968 Jerry Rubin, heading up the Youth International or Yippie Party would nominate a pig duly dubbed “Pigasus” for president. “Pigasus” would, to the delight of the assembled, squeal in earnest when asked a pointed political question. Pigasus, pig as us. Got it Jerry, very poignant and excellent street theatre. But street theatre is not revolution or even the means to significant political change. It is, merely, in a word, theatre. Alas the boomers were not revolutionaries, for revolution or any significant social change requires sacrifice and commitment. To the “Boomers” revolution meant, for the most part, singing songs, wearing Mao jackets, attending wine and cheese fundraisers, engaging in street theatre and impressing the image of Che Guevara on t-shirts. Most telling of all was that Jerry Rubin had gone from the street antics at the Chicago convention and his trial as one of the Chicago seven to being a stockbroker at the time of his death in the early 90’s. Rubin justified this “transformation” by saying that “the 90’s are the 60’s turned on its head”; but had we traveled all that far or had we been mere swine all along?