Monday, January 7, 2008

Days of Rage, Years of Backlash

I'm thinking maybe I should extend my comments from yesterday, because I don't want to leave the wrong impression. The culture wars that began during the 1960s have been, at least over the past thirty years, largely one-sided. The three important battles of the hippie era—civil rights, women's rights, Vietnam—were all won by the left. Winners typically move on; losers never do.

Defeat and humiliation are powerful emotional forces, and these forces are often spent in destructive ways. Hitler's terrible rise to power came, at least in part, as a result of Germany's humbling failure in World War I. After the Second World War, the new German government wisely proscribed the free speech rights of those who wished to celebrate or even rehabilitate the Third Reich. This remains an extreme case, of course, and censorship is rarely the answer to what ails a defeated nation, but after two catastrophic wars in less than half a century, nobody wanted to face the risk.

Certainly, the American South took decades to recover from their loss in the Civil War. By the turn of the Twentieth Century, northerners had moved on. In some respects, southerners never did. For over 140 years, the memory of that horrible conflagration has been kept alive, at least outside of academic circles, primarily by the descendants of the Confederacy. Even today, when you conjure up the slogans, the heroes, and especially the symbols of that tragic era, most of them probably come from the Rebel side (though perhaps Ken Burns' documentary has evened that playing field a little bit). By and large, the only people still obsessed with the Civil War live below the Mason-Dixon Line.

To be sure, nothing happened during the 1960s that could compare with the horrors of either slavery or the Nazi holocaust. Nevertheless, of the three great issues of the day, history has clearly taken sides on at least two. Except at the fringes of American society, nobody today defends George Wallace or Orval Faubus, much less the terrorist tactics used against civil rights demonstrators. Further, outside of a few remaining fundamentalist sects, the argument that women should be denied equal pay or professional employment opportunities is rarely broached in polite society (though the mothers-should-stay-home-with-their-kids banner does get raised every now and then). The opponents of racial equality and women's rights during the 1960s, conservatives all, not only lost the early battles of the Culture Wars, but are now treated retrospectively as the pariahs they never were during their heyday.

Even today, however, many conservatives attempt to justify, if sometimes allusively, their behavior—or that of their ideological ancestors—during the days of Johnson and Nixon. Those who gratuitously drag Dr. King's name into any conversation about infidelity or plagiarism are, in their own way, attempting to mitigate conservatism's culpability for its one-time attitudes toward civil rights. (Indeed, recent arguments involving the relative intelligence of different races suggest that these attitudes may not have changed all that much after all.) Attempts to caricature early feminists as howling bra burners and man-hating harpies serve a similar purpose. Attacks on Hillary Clinton nearly invariably emphasize such imagery.

It is, however, the Vietnam War and the accompanying protest movement that gives rise to the shrillest expressions of resentment from those who "lost" the '60s. The humiliation of that defeat has still not subsided, even thirty-three years after the last helicopter departed the embassy roof. Unwilling to face the reality of failure, revisionists variously blame the media, weak willed (Democratic) politicians, and especially the protestors and flower children who somehow, from thousands of miles away, turned the War in the Communists' favor.

There are those who live vicariously through their nation's military and feel empowered by national victory. These same people are diminished, in a very visceral way, when they perceive that their side has been defeated. Humiliation is one of the most destructive forces known to humankind. It motivates some of the children who murder their classmates in school shootings. It lives in the hearts of suicide bombers as well as the empty, unfulfilled men who drove a rental truck loaded with explosives to the front door of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. And, in a less virulent strain, it drives the rage still felt at a clueless young actress who once sat gullibly, but inconsequentially, atop a North Vietnamese tank.

It is, in short, the losers who invariably make the most noise and hold the longest grudges. Sure, the ex-hippies and the one-time student revolutionaries are annoying. Their stories are stale and they often stink of undeserved self-righteousness. All of them were at Woodstock or Monterey, they all marched on Washington, and every one of them had more sex than a video porn star. The endlessly overexposed Dennis Hopper shows up almost hourly on various commercials to remind them—and us—just how cool they once were. Nobody ever lived life more vigorously, challenged authority more aggressively, or came closer to pure spirituality and self-realization. If a more annoying generation ever walked the Earth, merciful history does not make record of it.

But ultimately, the Culture Wars that so perplex and frustrate today's young people are not being sustained by the veterans of either Haight-Ashbury or the Weather Underground. Instead, they are being prosecuted by the losers, the Pat Buchanans and Karl Roves and Pat Robertsons, as well as their political geek descendants who look at their own uninspiring, subservient, sexless lives and transform their self-loathing into a hatred of people who stopped being cool decades ago. Listen to Newt Gingrich and marvel at his ability to sustain a forty-year old grudge against people whose youthful courage to experiment he could never summon.

The Culture Wars continue to soil political discourse in this country, and they fuel the younger generation's distaste for the Baby Boomers, their enduring symbols, and their political leaders. The generation gap does exist. But the primary responsibility for it does not rest with the former Flower Children.

Rather, as is the case with every war, it is the losers who just won't let it go.

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