I was looking back at some of my earlier posts that mention Aldous Huxley in light of a recent article insisting that Huxley’s predictions are much more accurate than were Orwell’s — an article that is well worth reading, by the way. In doing so, I came across the following post which I reblog in the hope that this time someone will actually read it. I do think it speaks to our current malaise, which spans a broader terrain than simply the recent election and the dangerous machinations of a narcissistic president, though history has some important lessons to teach us even in this regard.
The student protests in this country during the turbulent 1960s led by well-intentioned, idealistic young people, seem to have marked the death-throes of the American spirit. Directed as it was, unsuccessfully, against the “establishment” of materialistic, commercial, and militaristic power that increasingly controlled this country, the effort sought in its blind way to breathe life into the spirit that had once made this country remarkable. But blind it was, led by uneducated zealots who lacked a coherent plan of action, confused freedom with license, and targeted education which they barely understood and were convinced was turning into simply another face of the corporate corruption that was suffocating their country. In their reckless enthusiasm they decided that the core academic requirements at several of America’s leading universities were “irrelevant” and they bullied bewildered, frightened, and impotent professors and administrators into cutting and slashing those requirements. Other institutions were soon to follow. One of the first casualties was history, which was regarded by militant students as the least relevant of subjects for a new age they were convinced they could bring about by force of will and intimidation.
Had they been inclined to read at all, they might have done well to heed the words of Aldous Huxley when, in Brave New World, he pointed out that the way the Directors of that bizarre world controlled their minions was by erasing history. One of Huxley’s slogans, lifted from Henry Ford, was “history is bunk.” By erasing and re-writing history those in power could control the minds of the population and redirect the nation and determine its future. In the end, of course, the students who led the protests in this country and who thought history irrelevant were themselves (inevitably?) co-opted by the corporations and eventually became narrow, ignorant Yuppies, running up huge credit card debt and worried more about making the payments on their Volvos and their condos than about the expiring soul of a nation they once claimed to love. Or they became politicians tied to corporate apron-strings thereby rendering them incapable of compromise and wise leadership.
In 1979 Christopher Lasch wrote one of the most profound and informative analyses of the cultural malaise that resulted in large part from the failure of the protests in this country in the 1960s. In his remarkable book The Culture of Narcissism: American Life In An Age of Diminishing Expectations, to which I have referred in previous blogs, he warned us about this attempt to turn our backs on history:
“. . .the devaluation of the past has become one of the most important symptoms of the cultural crisis to which this book addresses itself, often drawing on historical experience to explain what is wrong with our present arrangements. A denial of the past, specifically progressive and optimistic, proves on closer analysis to embody the despair of a society that cannot face the future. . . . After the political turmoil of the sixties, Americans have retreated to purely personal preoccupations. Having no hope of improving their lives in any of the ways that matter, people have convinced themselves that what matters is psychic self-improvement: getting in touch with their feelings, eating health food, taking lessons in ballet or belly dancing, immersing themselves in the wisdom of the East, jogging, learning how to ‘relate,’ overcoming the ‘fear of pleasure.’ Harmless in themselves, these pursuits, elevated to a program and wrapped in the rhetoric of authenticity and awareness, signify a retreat from politics and a repudiation of the recent past. Indeed, Americans seem to wish to forget not only the sixties, the riots, the new left, the disruptions on college campuses, Vietnam, Watergate, and the Nixon presidency, but their entire collective past, even in the antiseptic form in which it was celebrated during the Bicentennial. Woody Allen’s movie Sleeper, issued in 1973, accurately caught the mood of the seventies. Appropriately cast in the form of a parody of futuristic science fiction, the film finds a great many ways to convey the message that ‘political solutions don’t work,’ as Allen flatly announces at one point. When asked what he believes in, Allen, having ruled out politics, religion, and science, declares: ‘I believe in sex and death — two experiences that come once in a lifetime.’ . . . To live for the moment is the prevailing passion — to live for yourself, not for your predecessors or posterity.”
If there are any questions about the spiritual health of this country, then the loss of hope, the rejection of religion, history, and science, and the abandoned expectations of viable political solutions provide clear answers. We do seem to be a vapid people, collecting our toys and worrying about how to pay for them, wandering lost in a maze of our own making, ignoring the serious problems around us as we follow our own personal agendas — and remaining ignorant of the history lessons that might well show us the way to a more promising future.
Hugh, this is a really good blog, and gets to the heart of something I see or feel often: the self-centeredness of the Sixties and Seventies (in different ways) has fueled the every-growing shift toward self-centered/self-preservation we see really amplified by Trump and the super-wealthy today. (There’s a nauseating story in the New Yorker of last week about the survivalist compounds and shelters built by the super-rich, some of them resembling underground luxury condos already staffed with fully-armed security guards, etc. — the ultimate, “I’ll always get mine” example.) It’s self-centeredness compounded by an abandonment of what used to be called the common good.
As you know, I continue to look for and find glimmers of hope in today’s young people. And as I do, I find less and less to respect in the Baby Boomer generation (of which I am at the very tail-end). When you think about it, the Boomers inherited an America at its greatest or at its peak — an abounding international goodwill after World War II, a hugely productive economy in which the nation’s wealth was applied to a vast array of investments in public infrastructure, schools, a soaring national spirit in which it seemed like anyone could achieve anything.
The Boomers blew it all, to borrow from the Seventies, like disco partiers snorting coke with rolled-up $100 bills. Blew the good will, blew the understanding of the importance of investing in infrastructure and community and the opportunity to use America’s national wealth to do good in so many capacities (“oh, no, I can’t pay taxes like that, not 30 percent.” Never mind that tax rates were in the 70 percents in the 1950s or that the same people who say that — like a couple of uncles of mine — drive mammoth SUVs that get 10 miles per gallon.) They got co-opted by corporate America, as you mentioned, turned into Yuppies and gave us this mess. I really think that. While I see some good in America yet today, I lay so much blame for what’s wrong with today’s America on those my age and older.
Right now, I’d trust those age 18-27 more than I would 50-70. The kids have the promise, they understand the importance of reaching out across cultural lines, they’re downsizing how they live (opting for small-houses/apartments instead of the sickening McMansions) somewhat because it helps them live within in their means and also because it helps the environment, they get that the income gap is brutalizing average Americans. The Boomers had their chance, and failed. To paraphrase a Bob Dylan song from the Boomer hey-day, it’s time for them to get out of the way. Yet, sigh, we elect a 70-year-old president who still lives like it’s 1975, we get an administration that’s intent on rolling back the clock on the environment, race, workplace safety, etc.
Pass me the soma.
Very refreshing comment, which suports Hugh’s concerns as well as expands on the history of ‘that era’ that produced so many who got caught up in the (spoiled) life of plenty… “…we elect a 70-year-old president who still lives like it’s 1975…” so true….
Great comment, Dana. And, as always, it advances the discussion as it should!
Good, thought-provoking post, Hugh. Now you have started my mind spinning in yet another direction … one which I shall have to ponder for a bit. 🙂
Excellent post and comments, especially Dana’s. I think we Baby Boomer got too sefl-centered in the “me” decade of the 1980s. I recall a reunion tour of Crosby, Stills and Nash, where the now safer BBers were complaining about the remaining relevance of the protests songs.
We continue to make mistakes that we made before. We invade Afghanistan and Iraq and forget the lessons of Vietnam. I think it was Senator (and former Marine and Sec of Navy, Defense) Jim Webb who said before the Iraq invasion that if we do this, we need to be prepared to be there 30 years. Well, that was 13 years ago.
I do have more faith in some of our younger folks, but they also need to recognize the good and bad lessons from history. Like Nixon, Trump is a secretive and neurotic President. And, Nixon had an enemies list, as well, and turned out to be a crook with over twenty subordinates going to jail. We need our media to watch our President, as he has shown similar tendencies, without Nixon’s understanding of global affairs.
Unfortunately the data suggest that the millennials are even more self-centered than their parents and grandparents. Perhaps we should just ignore the data!
Hugh, you know me better than to ignore data. I inserted the word “some” as our hope lies with the more egalitarian and humane millennials. I have been greatly disappointed in how easily we baby boomers believed a con artist who became President who is the most self-centered person I can recall.
I was speaking to Dana’s comment more than yours. You seem to have a better grasp of the nature of these young people. In many ways they appear to have their eye on the prize, a better world. But if you look deeper their vision appears to be clouded by self-interest.
We are a selfish lot to begin with.