The America We Grew Up In

Back in June of 2010, John Boehner, in the context of talking about the Tea Party movement, stated that the Democrats are “snuffing out the America I grew up in.”  Boehner and I are nearly the same age, so the America he grew up in is also the one I grew up in, though of course specific details of our individual lives differ.  He was one of twelve children, I was one of only four; he was a high school athlete, I was not; and he chose a career in politics, while I chose one in education.  No doubt there are other individual differences as well.

But we did grow up in the same America, particularly the America of the Midwest.  That was a post-Great Depression, post-World War II America in which a sense of pride and identity had been formed from our victories in the war but in which the threat of Communism, both overt and subversive, and nuclear war sometimes made us paranoid (e.g., Joseph McCarthy and suburban bomb shelters).  It was an America in which we manufactured what we now import; in which savings rather than credit cards were the norm; and in which “outsourcing” was not yet a word.  It was the time of family-oriented sitcoms and Lawrence Welk on television, and police dramas in which victims spilled little blood.  It was also the time of the Korean War and the Vietnam War.  It was a time when a man’s wages or salary was sufficient to support a family, when unions were strong and corporations were patriotic, when women didn’t cuss and comedians did not refer to private body parts by name, when people went to church and the rich paid higher taxes than the middle class or the poor.  It was a time when a heterosexual white male could hold his head up with pride.

Until, of course, the notorious sixties, when African Americans asserted they were men, too; when women asserted they were as good as men; when bohemian college students at elite colleges and universities challenged their own privileges, and blue-collar verities of hard work and loyalty, while dodging the draft, when drugs and the pill changed recreational activities of the young.  When music left behind its saccharine sentiments for the rawness of rock music and political protest.  It was also a time when the countries which had been devastated by World War II began their recovery and challenged the economic supremacy of the United States and we began the process of importing more than we made ourselves. 

It can seem to those that are nostalgic for that era, as most Tea Partiers are, that much has been lost and little has been gained since that time.  They may be right, but regardless of right or wrong on this point, that era is gone and will not come back.  We cannot solve the problems of today by resorting to the solutions of the past, for not only has America changed, demographically and otherwise, but so too has the world.  If present population trends continue, whites will soon be the largest minority in the country—although it might be more accurate to say that the idea of “minority” will become too old fashioned to be meaningful.  The artificial economic preeminence of the United States will end as other populous countries, particularly China, become approximately as productive and prosperous as we are (or perhaps were), and our ability to consume a disproportionate percentage of global resources will be reduced as other economies demand more of a share. 

These are realities that American politics cannot change or deflect; we cannot prevent the rising tide of global demand for prosperity and national status with a rifle barrel in the dike (contra Trump).  Nor can we turn back the historical clock to the springtime of post-World War II America.  Nor should we want to.  To those for whom that world was neither pleasant nor prosperous, the world in which Boehner and I grew up holds few attractions.  Yes, perhaps, the Democrats or vague others are snuffing out the America that John Boehner and I grew up in, but we had snuffed out the America our fathers and grandfathers had grown up in.  My father, despite the poverty of his family and the arduousness of his early years during the Great Depression and his service during the War, was as nostalgic for those years of the America he grew up in, and as dismayed by the world of the fifties and sixties (and seventies—the Vietnam War didn’t end until 1975, after all), as Boehner is for the America he and I grew up in and by the America he sees today.  Apres moi, le deluge—this is what each generation thinks of the future it sees unfolding around it as it ages.  But time always moves in only one direction.

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