Where Have all the Flowers Gone?Posted: July 5, 2012 | |
I want to share the op-ed of Kurt Anderson in the NYT that is a think piece on the idea of American Liberty. There were several reasons I was drawn to it. First, he talks about growing up in a time and a place that we share. We went to high school together. He was the yearbook editor the year and a senior as I started my sophomore journalism class. I had a good friend that had a big crush on him and she would use me to get into the J-room just to get the chance to “accidentally” bump into him. He also hung out with those of us that frequented the social studies IRC which was a hot bed of political discussion at the time. Anderson’s experience–as voiced in this editorial–is basically my experience. Also, he writes on a question that I’ve asked myself a lot. Why has the myriad of movements and self-expression of the so-called “me” generation translated into this current philosophy of unfettered economic free marketeering that seems to betray the experiences of the 1960s and 1970s? Why the return to a gilded age by folks that grew up during a time that seemed in rebellion against all greed and power hoarding? I admit I saw most of the 1960s from grammar school but I still got the point.
Periodically Americans have gone overboard indulging our propensities to self-gratification — during the 1840s, during the Gilded Age, and again in the Roaring Twenties. Yet each time, thanks to economic crises and reassertions of moral disapproval, a rough equilibrium between individualism and the civic good was restored.
Consider America during the two decades after World War II. Stereotypically but also in fact, the conformist pressures of bourgeois social norms were powerful. To dress or speak or live life in unorthodox, extravagantly individualist ways required real gumption. Yet just as beatniks were rare and freakish, so were proudly money-mad Ayn Randian millionaires. My conservative Republican father thought marginal income tax rates of 91 percent were unfairly high, but he and his friends never dreamed of suggesting they be reduced below, say, 50 percent. Sex outside marriage was shameful, beards and divorce were outré — but so were boasting of one’s wealth and blaming unfortunates for their hard luck. When I was growing up in Omaha, rich people who could afford to build palatial houses did not and wouldn’t dream of paying themselves 200 or 400 times what they paid their employees. Greed as well as homosexuality was a love that dared not speak its name.
Anderson goes on to explain that maybe what ties the greedy to the bohemian is 1967. I find this an odd assertion but I’m willing to entertain it.
“Do your own thing” is not so different than “every man for himself.” If it feels good, do it, whether that means smoking weed and watching porn and never wearing a necktie, retiring at 50 with a six-figure public pension and refusing modest gun regulation, or moving your factories overseas and letting commercial banks become financial speculators. The self-absorbed “Me” Decade, having expanded during the ’80s and ’90s from personal life to encompass the political economy, will soon be the “Me” Half-Century.
People on the political right have blamed the late ’60s for what they loathe about contemporary life — anything-goes sexuality, cultural coarseness, multiculturalism. And people on the left buy into that, seeing only the ’60s legacies of freedom that they define as progress. But what the left and right respectively love and hate are mostly flip sides of the same libertarian coin minted around 1967. Thanks to the ’60s, we are all shamelessly selfish.
I’m not sure that that was my take away from the 1960s. It certainly does not explain my life choices that were made to escape the repressive conformity that’s so admired in Omaha. My desire to express myself does not take on the tone of oppressing other people in the process. I do not make decisions that actively advance my own interests at the cost of others. I have a difficult time equivocating the kind of get-ahead-greed-at-any-cost that I feel is typified by a Willard Romney and the desire to live life on your on terms as found in the denizens of the country’s gay and boho enclaves. You are not going to find the same kinds of “values” on Castro Street that you find on any street of a gated community. How exactly is being yourself on your own terms the same as doing everything possible to collect stuff and money including ensuring laws favor you at every turn?
I am reminded of a very famous phrase used by many writers through out the ages. That would be “comparisons are odious”.