NOSTALGIA: YEARNING FOR THE IMPOSSIBLE OR LESSONS LEARNED?

BOOMERS BLINDED BY THE HALCYON HAZE

CHICAGO 1968


It’s not often that I read an article that is so terribly misguided, filled with vitriol (or envy) and manages to relegate one of the largest segments of American society to the dustbin of history.  And makes me angry.  Well, at least outside of some right wing rag but not in the Washington Post.  But Heather Havrilesky’s Sunday Baby Boomer hit piece has done exactly that. 

A sampling of choice words and phrases from her opening, set-up, paragraphs:

“Baby Boomers clearly take the prize in the nostalgia sweepstakes; those feisty, postwar babies have demonstrated a singular talent for foisting their remembrances on the rest of us; Somehow, as boomers age, their commitment to dragging that dusty 60’s archival reel out of the basement yet again seems to grow exponentially; the cultural impact of that nostalgia transcends mere annoyance; every war is compared to the Vietnam war; every plea for peace dredges up 50-year-old songs and slogans, every civil rights protest is held up to those legendary marches on Washington and Selma of half a century ago.”

Quite an indicting set-up wouldn’t you agree?  

Here are a few of the passages in her piece that somehow I found somewhat less than enlightened and more than a tad objectionable:

1.  Dealing with the Kennedy assassination and Woodstock 50 year memorials (not sure how she managed to put these two seminal events together) she writes:  “It might be refreshing to see footage of a black family saying something like:  “We didn’t pay much attention to Woodstock, honestly.  We were too worried that our church would be bombed by the Klan.”

Indeed.  And those Black churches being fire bombed today down south by – who knows? – maybe still the Klan?  Isn’t this the point?  We Baby Boomers call it “unfinished business.”

2.  More nostalgic examples:  “We’ve seen footage and photos of every major event from 1960 to 1969: Jackie Kennedy waving her pink pillbox hat…”

“Waving” her pink pillbox hat? Right. What we remember Heather, is Jackie’s pillbox hat and pink suit stained blood red and lumpy with the shattered brains of her husband who had just been shot.  That’s what we remember about Jackie’s pink pillbox hat.

3.  “It’s perhaps jarring for boomers to admit just how little has changed or that many of them gave up the good fight a long time ago.  Yet here we are:  The wealth gap between the rich and the poor is wider than ever; the gender pay gap persists; benefits and support for working mothers are paltry to nonexistent and many of our cities and towns remain functionally segregated.”

Functionally segregated?  No, actually still segregated.  But she’s right, it is “jarring” although I would say tragic, instead, about how little has changed.  Yes, after the fights of the 1960’s we Baby Boomers, believing (wrongly, as it turned out) we had done our job, set the country on a path where all the issues she cites would never assail us again.  As we were busy working 60 hour weeks, buying houses, raising our families, what we hadn’t anticipated was the conservative backlash that started with the election of a Grade-B Actor to the Presidency in 1980, Ronald Reagan, the inhumane institution of conservative social and economic policies (the Culture Wars and Friedman/Chicago Free Market Economic Theory) that would basically undo over the next thirty years what we had fought so hard for. 

4.   Another offensive rant:  “- then we need to stop thinking of these events [the tumult of the 60’s] as echoes of some far more authentic revolution immortalized by the Beatles decades ago.”

Wow!  The genesis of the entire "60’s Revolution" relegated to the release of “Sargent Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band?”  Well, Heather, the reality is that the 1960’s revolution wasn’t the result of a sea change in pop music.  It was built on the backs of burned Freedom Rider busses, on the backs of dead voting rights workers like the white New Yorkers Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwermer gunned down in Mississippi for daring to fight racist Southerners for the Constitutionally guaranteed right of Black folks to vote, on the backs of young students murdered by National Guardsmen on the campus of Kent State University, on the backs of Black men, woman and children lynched in the South and, dare I mention it, on the backs of 47,000 American service men and woman who died in Vietnam for no just cause. These, Heather, are the real causes that undergird what you call “some far more authentic revolution immortalized by the Beatles decades ago.”

5.  “The nation has faced heartbreak on an unimaginable scale since the 1960’s and 1970’s.  The 70’s served up an oil crisis and the seizure of hostages at the U.S. Embassy in Iran.  The 80’s and 90s’ saw a crack cocaine epidemic, more embassy bombings, riots in Los Angeles, New York and Washington.  The horrors of 9/11 unfolded on live TV as the nation watched, paralyzed and stunned,”

With the exception of 9/11 (she does not mention the disaster that is Iraq) her imagination is lacking if she thinks that the 1979 oil crises or the taking of 52 hostages in Iran somehow are “unimaginable” compared to the thousands of lives that were lost fighting for equality and freedom prior to the Civil Rights movement and the fact that during the 1960’s each summer for nearly a decade city after city erupted in flames that make the Ferguson fires look like a Boy Scout campfire to say nothing of the eruption of “unimaginable” violence and death across the country following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.  And dare I mention what was THE heartbreak of the 1980's?  The AIDS crisis, one that still plagues us today.  Damn.

Heather’s entire article is here:BLINDED BOOMER


I can’t figure out if Heather (a New York Magazine author) is being willfully ignorant in order to gain massive online hits or if she really believes what she’s written.  Certainly I have no problem with the debunking of nostalgia (The Tea Party, Ronald Reagan) but as the Invasion of Iraq made crystal clear, there is real value in learning the lessons of the past and applying them to current situations.  One of the major problems with the War in Vietnam was not that we had a draft, but that our “interests” in pursing that long, deadly and ultimately futile war were not justified – the U.S. had no “strategic interests” there - just as the invasion of Iraq was equally, if not more, unjustified.  One lesson that was learned by the Bush Administration in the pursuit of its Iraq adventure, was that the nightly newscasts showing dead bodies of American service men and women arriving at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware during the Vietnam War kept us Baby Boomers dedicated to our cause.  Bush?  He banned the media from covering the arrival of dead soldiers to the same Air Force Base from the Iraqi battlefields.

I am a Baby Boomer, born at the start of this lump in our population growth and I feel very fortunate that I count a dozen Millennials and Generation X-er’s among my short list of friends.   They are educated, intelligent, thoughtful people (Would I have any other class of friends?) and a few can be very funny.  The overall theme of Heather’s hit piece, is that “nostalgia” for the era I grew up in – the 60’s and 70’s – doesn’t address the problems and issues the country faces today.  And I would agree with that.  I am very conscious of not wanting to tell my stories out of a desire to return to some Golden Age (the Tea Baggers win that prize) but rather as an attempt to impart some morsel of knowledge and experience that might help explicate why America is in the state that is in today when my friends have no idea what life was like when 33% of the American workforce was unionized compared to today’s 11%.  Or that they only know the crushing impacts of conservative Chicago School economics that have so devastated America’s working and middle classes.     

I have no longing to return to the turbulent, violent 60’s and 70’s (save for the even temporary results they produced) no matter how much we either did or did not accomplish (Heather’s slant is toward the latter).   But the flagrant ignorance of the impacts of our public policies over the past thirty years (ignoring problems do not make them go away as all the happy post-racial talk after the election of Obama in 2008 has ultimately proven) will continue to sap the American spirit and suck the life blood out of ordinary Americans unless and until they are changed.  Nostalgia won’t do this, but learning from our own recent history just might.  Is it instructive to note that in 1980 the differential between your average CEO compensation was around 40 times that of his average worker and today that figure is nearly 400 times?  Frankly Heather, I think that it is.  Less than forty years have passed  and so much has changed for the worse.  It’s the comparisons that are important, Heather, not the nostalgia. 

It is ironic that Heather ends her Baby Boomer hit piece with this:

“Looking back is important and instructive.  But nostalgia can also be a way of pretending that our work is already done.  As King told the crowds in Washington in 1963, “We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America that the fierce urgency is now….Now is the time to make justice a reality for all God’s children.”

What Heather doesn’t seem to realize is that Martin Luther King’s admonition to address the “now” is precisely what’s been missing, not in Baby Boomer recollections or nostalgic yearnings, but in the political reality that we all suffer from today.  She can characterize these as being nostalgic forays and useless story telling and relegate us to some historical wastebin.   But from the end of the 1960’s and 1970’s era of great social upheaval, this country's leaders have pretty much ignored all the issues that she goes on and on about.   And that's a problem that has only been recognized, let's say, since the Worldwide Economic Collapse of 2008 and the killing of Trayvon Marin in Florida.  Heather, it wasn’t until the Occupy Wall Street folks just a few of years ago broke the mold of endlessly ignoring the real issues facing the country since 1980 as opposed to the “present urgency” of Facebook, MTV, Twitter, Pamela Anderson and the Kardashians that paved the way for Bernie Sanders and his electric “present and urgent” message to America over the neglect of most of us for the past three decades.  And how did OWS accomplish this goal?  By using the very same protest techniques we Baby Boomers used half a century ago, the ones that you so casually dismiss.   

Prior to the Occupy Wall Street protests (and making a mess of public property) the nation wasn’t talking about “income inequality.”  It didn’t exist.  It hadn't existed for thirty years.  And now it's become one of the defining issues of the 2016 Presidential campaign.  Most of the OWS folks weren’t Baby Boomers but apparently these young folks took a chapter from what Heather would call the  “Baby Boomer Nostalgia” book and used it pretty damned effectively. 

Heather, I don’t think it’s us Baby Boomers who are bedazzled by the haze of nostalgia.  No, we are very much aware of the crappy times we’re living in and we don't want to go backwards.  That's not possible even though the Tea Party believes whole heartedly that this is somehow doable.  But after all, we lived through a time when things were different.  When the America Dream was real.  And when we believed in the promise of America:  equality, liberty, freedom and justice for all, which sentiments are so co-opted today through re-definition and misapplication (the NRA, the GOP, Ted Cruz, Sarah Palin) that folks no longer really know what this dream looks and feels like except for by winning some state lottery.  “The American Dream” has become a cliché in 2015 – no one believes it’s possible any more.  It’s just a nostalgic remembrance of times past.   Nostalgia.  But for us Baby Boomers, we lived in a time – as did our parents – when the America Dream was achievable, was real.   Our blithering stories, our history lessons, our endless looks back and our celebration of times past, is our way of fighting for the renaissance of the lost American Dream.  Our way of reminding younger folks that there was a time not so long ago - pre- $8 and $10 an hour part-time wages - when it was possible.  Our nostalgic backward glances are our efforts to revive the America we fought and died for.  We know that we are no longer in the forefront of social and cultural change.  It’s no longer the Baby Boomer era.  We know it.  We know that you feel as if we have sucked up the last scraps of opportunity and advancement that this country will ever know.  We get that too.  Who knew that Bill Clinton would be just as conservative on economic policy as was Reagan and every Republican and Democratic Administration since?  

Because we lived when public policy encouraged the American Dream, we also recognize that it's not some "invisible hand" that has resulted in the state of affairs we find ourselves in today.  We know that this has been the result of enacted public policies.  To us, there is no mystery about this.  We do feel that if we can show you younger Americans that your lives don’t have to be ruled by the wholesale corporatization and monetization of life and living, and that, yes, there are ways of making sure that your lives and the lives of your children will be better than ours were and we know from real world experience – real experience, not online, Wi-Fi, Facebook cyber experience, – that it’s not an easy task but one that must be undertaken if we Americans are going to live up to our own ideals. Either that or we simply give up trying to "perfect" America's promise.  It's no secret that those in power do not relinquish their power without a fight.  That’s what we were fighting for in those "nostalgic" 1960’s and 1970’s.   And it can be a messy undertaking.   It’s not peaceful.  It’s tumultuous.  Sometimes violent.  But in the end it’s worth it.  It helped that when John F. Kennedy told us:  “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” he was speaking to us, we Baby Boomers, and later on when we were changing diapers and mowing the grass, we never forgot his plea.  As far as I can see, there is no politician today – nor has there been since JFK - who has asked us to sacrifice not for our own selfish well-being and personal interests, but for the good of the country.  All of us.  Together.  As Americans with a shared history and a shared future.  In 2015 sacrifice for the common good is considered naive, un-patriotic, weak and downright Communist.   

Times have changed and all of us Baby Boomers know it.  But by and large they haven’t changed for the better.  In fact, they’ve actually gotten worse.  Sure, you can argue that the 1960’s and 1970’s were violent, indulgent, fractious and divisive, and you would be right.  But no one can deny that the results of all that tumult – civil rights, women’s rights, the environment - had a profound impact on American society for the better and today folks like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren understand from that history that the status quo simply cannot continue.  They know that things can change and they are willing to fight for those changes just as we were willing to do. 

I don’t feel insulted or hurt when Rush Limbaugh calls me a “Commie Librul.”  On the contrary, I feel proud.  To me, it means that we liberals and progressives are doing something right.  After all, he’s just a conservative radio talk show host and blowhard entertainer.  But a New York magazine contributor?  Heather, I for one, expect more.  I would expect a bit more insight, a bit more clarity about the genesis of historical events (no, it wasn’t the Beatles), and maybe just a tad more appreciation for the legacy of America’s seminal social movements – Civil War, Women’s Rights Movement, the Labor Movement, FDR – and how they can still inform us as we struggle to effectuate change.  This assumes, of course, that you are not uber wealthy and you believe that the Koch Brothers ought not to be able to pour endless largess into Scott Walker's anti-union, anti-intellectual, conservative, right wing campaigns.    

Frankly, Heather, I’m not so sure that it’s us Baby Boomers who are blinded by halcyon nostalgia but rather the glib, superficial, sloganeering and propagandizing of the Rush Limbaugh’s, Tea Party, Freedom Caucus and, yes, so many elected officials at every level of government from local city councils to Congress.  Maybe they the ones who can’t recognize that profound change is needed.   Seems to me, Heather, that these are the folks you ought to be mocking with their yearnings for a Golden Age past that never was and a Golden Free Market Utopian future that will never be yet all the while consciously or unconsciously duping so many Americans into believing one or the other.  Or both.  Us Baby Boomers weren't about personal enrichment, weren't about anarchy as Rush accuses us Liberals of fomenting,  weren't about the destruction of government like the Tea Party or the Freedom Caucus. Call us naive, if you will, but we believed that the future could be better for all Americans than the then-present.  The 1960's and 1970's.  We believe the same today in 2015.  

If there is any singular lesson we Baby Boomers can impart to the younger generations it’s this:  Significant societal change in this country (anywhere for that matter) has never been achieved without violence, death, tumult and risk.   Look back at our history.  It’s all there for those who care to see and to understand, rank patriotism and revisionist history notwithstanding   And even today this remains a truism.  While Heather Havrilesky might believe that celebrating events decades past is useless, I would argue that sometimes nostalgia is useful if we learn lessons from it.  Remember too, that if we don’t learn the lessons of the past, sometimes those historical, nostalgic events can sneak up on you and kick you straight in the ass to finally get your attention and maybe get you off your ass or away from your keyboard to do something constructive to change things.  And just maybe, had the Bush Administration cast a collective glance back at the “nostalgia” that was the Vietnam War, the Middle East might not be in the mess it is today or maybe if Alan Greenspan  (“The Markets Are Self-Regulating”) had cast a “nostalgic” glance back to the Great Depression, the Worldwide Crash of 2008 might have been avoided.

Sorry for the long winded piece but I had to get this off my chest.  Thanks to you all. 



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