The Santa Ana winds are fueling wild fires in California. Draught is threatening to cripple the Southeast. The Turkish and Iranian boarders with northern Iraq have become a tinderbox where rebel Kurds threaten to throw the only relatively tranquil area of the country into turmoil. John McCain makes the rounds of talk shows calling for fiscal conservatism and then goes on stage to acclaim Ronald Reagan whose tax cuts and defense spending produced record deficits. Oil, thanks both to demand and the collapse of the once almighty dollar, has hit $90 a barrel. It turns out that we have more than twice the armed forces in Iraq than most of us realized, more than half of them hired guns. The Republican candidates supported by the media have decided on the Democratic Nominee even though not a single ballot has been cast. Voting machines continue to malfunction calling into question how accurate a tally we can expect in the 2008 election. Democrats on the Hill, left largely with oversight as a tool for influence, fail to penetrate Blackwater Chief Executive Prince’s veneer of patriotism or to really expose the shadow military that he and other contractors have created with our tax dollars.
This is but the tip of the iceberg in what appears to be a perfect storm run totally out of control. But what of ourselves? We, it would seem, are pretty much conducting our lives untouched by all that is going on. We sit by happily as an irresponsible Administration aided and abetted by a compliant Congress borrow billions to finance a misguided war while we eagerly await April’s potential tax refunds. Al Gore wins the Nobel Prize for truth telling, but most of us continue to function as if infinite resources will be at our command. Our priority is maintaining the lifestyle we see as our entitlement. SUV sales have come down, but only a bit. Wal-Mart is committed to selling compact fluorescents, but most Americans hold on to the glow of incandescent light. Perhaps worst of all, while occasionally thinking about all these things, and telling pollsters that we’re headed in the wrong direction, most of us seem more interested in avoiding inconvenient truths than confronting them. We don’t want to upset our dinner guests with unpleasant thoughts. We've added reality to the taboos of talking politics and religion in polite company.
It would be an inaccurate reading of history to suggest that all six million Jews could have been spared Hitler’s gas chambers. At the same time, there is no question that large numbers, particularly of German Jews, perished because they simply refused to accept the reality of their situation. With roots planted centuries deep, they saw the increasing compromises in their daily life and diminishment of freedom as a passing episode not inevitable disaster. Likewise we live the illusion that “it couldn’t happen here.” I am not suggesting that we are heading for a Holocaust, or that events unfolding before our eyes mirror those faced by my parents and their generation in Berlin of the 1930s. But make no mistake this is a time when many of the values we take for granted and hold dear are being eroded. Contemplate, for example, the potential of that huge and growing paramilitary run largely by right wing conservatives at the moment when they decide the country is headed in the wrong direction.
As so often happens, truth emerges more powerfully in the metaphor than in any direct expression. This struck me as I listened again to that John McCain campaign speech on C-Span. It’s not the straight talk (often more a slogan than a reality) that keeps McCain in the game, but his compelling life story, which he unabashedly repeats much as Rudy wraps himself in 9/11. McCain, a third generation military man, proclaimed that we didn’t lose the Viet Nam War on the battlefield, but on the streets of American cities. We’ve all heard that before from conservative politicians, but think for a moment about what those streets represent. Yes, something called democracy where civilians, meaning officials elected by us, have control over the military. To be sure, McCain would deny that he was challenging democracy, but if so he is either deaf to the underlying meaning of his words or he is disingenuous.
Tom Brokaw made a fortune in writing about what he called “the greatest generation”. I question his premise, because there has been no single greatest generation. Moreover, it’s hard to claim that those who fought in World War II were any more dedicated or personally courageous than those who fought in Viet Nam or are now in Iraq. Equally so, the very idea that the conflict he considered can be characterized as a “good war” is in itself flawed. Wars can be necessary and fighting them can be noble, but they can never be characterized as good. To me, the greatest generation of the twentieth century were not those who landed at Omaha beach, but those who marched on our streets in the name of righting America’s wrongs and getting us our of Viet Nam. People were energized and people power was exercised to change the country’s course were it ending segregation or stopping an ill-conceived conflict. It is said that our streets today are not filled because we have no draft or because lunchrooms are now integrated. Perhaps so, but the sad fact is that most of us are simply averting our eyes and hoping it will all go away. It won’t, and in the end we’ll have no one to blame but ourselves.