The popular American narrative relative to World War II is that the United States dedicated its troops and might to defeat fascism. We helped lead the Allies to victory over Germany, Italy and Japan.
There is little doubt and volumes written about the merits of that war, and the credit for winning it is given to what is now called The Greatest Generation, known for their sacrifice of life and dedication to a vital cause.
One could argue that necessity breeds heroes, just as it is the mother of invention. When the need arises, Americans are well known as first responders (or as in the case of World War II, best responders.) We shook our fists in murderous fury at the perpetrators of 9/11, yet the people we initially chose to celebrate were indeed, the first responders.
Those two moments in American history, World War II (1941) and 9/11 (2001) are bridged by a period in American history some self-described patriots would vehemently prefer to forget. We are talking now about the evolution of dissent and protest that began in the 1960s. The social liberations that took place were the result of very public protests against America’s trenchant racism, sexism and discrimination of all kinds. We are about to explore whether the 1960s were also about America’s inability to wrestle with its own insecurities, its penchant for fear-mongering and a nation’s seemingly godly but ultimately misguided tradition of boasting Christian-only values.
Let’s talk about what really happened in the 1960s
We must commence with some basic facts that are demonstrably true as proven through time.
The first is that racism in America persisted even after the nation’s nobly grand effort to stop fascism abroad through the battles of World War II. So while we must thank the generation that fought that war, we must also acknowledge our nation’s failure to liberate our own citizens even as we stood proud in protecting the world. Sadly, America’s own values did little to bring the needed changes about. That meant leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr., were forced to take great risks using the words of the bible against people wielding the same book in support of racism–to point out how badly America had failed in its responsibilities toward its own people, millions of whom did not enjoy even the basic rights of citizenship, much less equal opportunity.
It is interesting indeed that in classrooms across America during the 1950s and 60s, millions of schoolchildren were required to recite a Pledge of Allegiance that ends with the words “…with liberty and justice for all” Millions of those kids grew up to take the actual meaning of that pledge seriously, piling into the streets to demand liberty for people of all races and backgrounds. That same generation of people also turned its sights on an unjust war in Vietnam, a violent venture that was initially engaged in fear over communism, and that ultimately evolved into a consuming effort to prove that the military-industrial complex was right in its motives, tactics and increasing commitments of expense and reputation. Thus the Vietnam war was executed to the precise prediction of one Dwight D. Eisenhower– himself an heroic general in World War II–who had warned against the dangers of the military-industrial complex, and what it could do to America.
So we see that the arc of the 1960s was not all about liberal values, nor sexual liberation and freedom from responsibilities. The 1960s were about a generation taking its pledge to the flag and the America for which it stands quite seriously. But instead of being acknowledged for this effort, and its pursuant victories for civil rights and all that has come to represent in freedom for America, the 1960s are maligned by some as a period of social decay and destruction of American values.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The 1960s not actually represented America’s second major attempt to eradicate its brand of internal (racist) fascism, the first attempt being our own Civil War, by a new generation discovering that ideals really mattered.
America had President Kennedy inspiring the nation to fly to the moon, and to “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for the country.” Well, what better answer to that question than to stand up for liberty and justice for all. But it appears not everyone believed in those virtues as they were written, or spoken. The represented an inconvenience to a status quo that was seemingly desperate to maintain its self depicted superiority. Thus the tone was set for a struggle over what America represents. That struggle would produce not only violence, but economic and social upheaval.
Turncoats try to kill actual American ideals
Of course Kennedy was murdered in cold blood on that November day in 1963, sending the country into a spiral of introspection and self-recrimination. Some fingers pointed out dark quarters in our nation’s own infrastructure, and many still speculate that figures tied to the military-industrial complex carried out the hit on Kennedy, who actually had the nerve to negotiate a temporary backdoor peace with Kruschev and the Soviet Union, thereby averting a potentially catastrophic nuclear war.
But it may also have been simple lust for political power that killed Kennedy, for some posit that it was LBJ himself that masterminded the unthinkable violence and intrigue of the JFK assassination. That would mean it was an inside job. So many circumstances around the treatment of JFKs body after the assassination and the lone video record of the incident tend to raise more questions than they answer. But even these questions begin to help us arrive at our main point. Because after the JFK murder came the assassination of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.? Are we to assume this was all just coincidence? The odds are too far against it.
Fortunately the 1960s were a time of idealism as well as the enactment of the painfully evident cynicism that rained death on the decade. There certainly were an abundance of people who thought they knew better the direction the country should take. Conflicted men like J. Edgar Hoover, who could not confront his own identity with any degree of honesty, and so pursued anyone who breathed a sniff of truth while evidencing flaws of their own. Hoover had the goods on Kennedy, for sure, a devout philanderer if there ever was one. But Hoover had the goods on everyone, and that turned into a corruption of its own sort. But that is how America operated then and likely continues to operate in many respects today. As a nation we simply cannot bear to unearth the fascism that undermines our own government. There are people who make millions and billions of dollars off the murderous guarantees of military profiteering, violent deregulation of markets, insider trading, health care exploitation and limitless extraction of resources without tax or compensation to the nation. That is the inside game. But it all starts with flawed personalities and frankly, a form of psychopathy that at once disgusts and seems to fascinate Americans just the same.
The byproducts of exceptionalism
Our collective psychopathy is why America raced off to fight a war in Afghanistan Iraq rather than face up to its own tortured foreign policies that once funded the very people we now had to go kill. Saddam Hussein. Osama bin Laden. Manuel Noriega. All these people, like it or not, were once “friends” who became enemies once they recognized the hypocritical state of American virtue.
And just look what the nation has chosen to do: fight the so-called War on Terror. As one pundit expertly put it, how can you fight a war on terror when war itself is terror? We require double-speak to cover up our patent greed and imperialistic desires. But the purported protectors of American integrity like to point to a phantom ideal called American Exceptionalism as the reason why we should be able to do what we want, when we want, to whomever we want.
Our trickle-down brand of exceptionalism resulted in Iraqi citizens being hung up on metal bed frames and tortured with electrocution, because we needed to know more about who our enemies are. It is a vicious cycle, and a selfish game for selfish gain.
Time to look within
Well, it seems like we should start to look within, does it not? Is that not what the Judeo-Christian God tells us to do. Secular humanists seem to know more of such inner light as those who claim to be on the side of religion. So let us take a look inside America to see what we can find out about concepts like The Greatest Generation. How we once fought for good, and how we do that at home as well as abroad.
For starters, America can’t seem to get around to admitting our own flaws, and that causes us to lash out in anger at those who point them out for us. America goes out out of its way to invent enemies when we can’t find them organically. The CIA is good at that, for example. They’ve created four decades of boogeymen to fight on behalf of America because it feeds their system of beliefs, which are the same arcane, ascetic and conservatively-inspired beliefs that told us America was perfectly in the right while chasing all over Vietnam shooting and bombing human victims while defoliating millions of acres of land using a chemical we called Agent Orange. Or was it Clockwork Orange? It’s so easy to confuse the two.
It’s really only a question of scale, which is how people behaving like self-justified thugs see fit to castigate and kill those we fear for being ideologically different (and sometimes defiant) of American aims. As if our aims were the only aims that matter.
That’s what some people in America genuinely believe: that only their beliefs matter. But that is precisely why racism has been allowed to persist for so long in America. Those of us raised by the parents from the Greatest Generation do recall, however, the often “colorful” yet uncomfortable jokes about niggers and spics and chinks and fags. These are all dehumanizing terms, and their horrific power remains intact today, obscured perhaps by political correctness, the liberal attempt at correcting the problem without truly recognizing what the problem is. Which is the fact that some people refuse to change and will use any means possible to prevent you from making them change. It is all a self-protective device to feel superior to someone, somehow.
Deconstructing American exceptionalism
That is ultimately what so-called American Exceptionalism is all about, for it has become a political ideology expressed in conservative, and not progressive terms. Therefore it is has become less and less about America’s tradition of charity and leadership in the world and has become more about our will to imperial doctrine. And that’s a shame, because it is true that America often leads the way in freedom and democracy.
But we lost focus somewhere along the way, and waltzed into Iraq (for just one example) under the banner of American exceptionalism while completely failing to anticipate what it really takes to accomplish democracy, much less protect that country’s antiquities or its people. In fact we rather grossly set about plundering Iraq’s oil resources under a thinly guised contract that said they should pay us back for invading their country. We did them a favor, we assured them. But it’s always about the aims, folks. Which is another word for money.
Killing our own, and not just euphemistically
Even at home, we aim to kill our own. There’s even been a slogan invented to describe that phenomenon. And listen to it: Guns don’t kill people. People kill people. Have you ever heard such pathetic double-speak? As if guns were ever invented to do anything but kill. The fact that they are used for sport is but a valorous distraction. Remember that when protestors against the Vietnam War swarmed the campus at Kent State, they encountered fearful yet gun-bearing militia, who shot four students dead. And what did it prove. That guns don’t kill people? That is a dark-hearted farce.
We know that the NRA holds enormous sway in American politics whilst hiding behind an interpretation (a rather liberal one, ironically) of the Second Amendment that blatantly ignores the phrase “well-regulated” in relation to the term “militia.” This is known as selective intelligence. Or perhaps that’s too forgiving a term. You could substitute “stupidity” for intelligence and get the same result. That’s how euphemism works.
We should also point up the fact that the NRA was instituted in the same year as the Klu Klux Klan. That is likely no coincidence. It illustrates that any organization with a conflict of aims at its heart does require considerable force to uphold, and look at how those two organizations have managed to survive, and even thrive. The KKK has long used God to justify its racism while the NRA choose to ignore the term “well-regulated” whilst promoting its considerable lust for term “militia.” Both organizations have made claims to stand for what’s right in America.
Is idealism dead? And if so, who killed it?
The 1960s did expose the ugly sides of such organizations, but there’s one hard, fast rule in politics: Ugliness never quits. And so the NRA and KKK, and organizations like them, right on up to far right political parties in many instances, have plotted and planned in concert for four decades, carefully conducting back door meetings to establish allies with religious factions whose interpretations of scripture are conveniently hateful, discriminatory and conflicted. And so the claim to God, Country and Flag has been co-opted to the controlling interests of our most fearful factions in America.
A word about the power of words
America has become a nation where politics is being used increasingly to enforce the aims of those who bear the most fearful, controlling and self-righteous aims. It is not surprise then, that they have become most cunning and deceptive in their use of words.
We need only look at the term Citizens United, the euphemistic organization that took its case to the Supreme Court in a fight to establish the right of corporate personhood. Some portray the case as an heroic act to protect free speech in America, when in fact action essentially sold out the value of free speech to giant, moneyed and often faceless conglomerates with no responsibility to reveal their motives or identify. Citizens United was essentially the legacy of J. Edgar Hoover, writ large. But how is that the rights of individual citizenship, which were written into the Constitution and protected by the courts for more than 200 years, were suddenly erased in a period of a few months. It is because a group of activist judges beholden to such interests felt they were suddenly much wiser than the Founders were about what it means to be human.
A great generation, in deed.
And that puts an exclamation point on the real purpose of the 1960s, and how that period was a step in the right direction for America. But that step has since been waylaid by jealous, angry souls who cannot admit they have flaws, and thus cast aspersions and project their own worst tendencies into all they distrust for questioning, and thus refining, the real legacy of America.
We should remember perhaps the ideal so familiar to Christians that the divine force we call God seems to see value in our personal and collective trials, and that Christ and Ghandi and every moral being who ever walked the earth do too.
But for America, it is up to us to recognize that the foundation of this nation is not based on one religion or one creed, but on tolerance, acceptance and equal rights for all those who believe in honest, forthright aims. The Greatest Generation is the one that upholds those virtues. It may be seen that a current generation succeeds in fulfilling that dream, or it may be that a future generation will earn the right to be called our greatest yet, by having learned to appreciate in full that citizenship, and individuality, and equality in the laws of the republic shall forever be the highest aims of human endeavor.
Now that will be a great generation. In deed.