In 1998, Tom Brokaw wrote a book proclaiming that the generation that grew up during the depression, fought in World War II and went on to build the modern American superpower was the “Greatest Generation.” While quibbling about “great” “greater” and “greatest” may best be left to Stephen Colbert, we all should take note that this backward-look into the sepia mists of mythology is precisely the Valhalla to which the present-day Tea Party wishes to take us.
What was this time that makes it so attractive? It was a time of fear. Fear of the Soviets. The Red Chinese. Communists in government and the labor unions. It was McCarthyism. Witch Hunts. A time of blacklists.
This “greatest generation” had no compunctions against overthrowing elected governments in Iran, Guatemala and Chile. It unabashedly supported brutal dictators like Trujillo, Batista, Somoza, Duvalier, Pinochet, Peron, Syngman Rhee, Chiang Kai Shek, Ngo Dinh Diem, Ferdinand Marcos and the Shah of Iran. It underwrote fascistic governments — Franco’s Spain, Salazar’s Portugal and the South African apartheid regime.
This so-called greatest generation demanded loyalty oaths from its citizens. It barred leftists from labor unions, preferring that they be run by organized crime. It kept entertainers off the airwaves and out of films because of their political views. It tolerated the kind of censorship exemplified by the Catholic Church’s Index.
This was a generation that contributed its share to American lynchings. It bombed Black Churches. It murdered Black schoolchildren. It deprived Americans of the right to vote using poll taxes and literacy requirements. It taught that Native Americans scalped white people but not that several of our own state governments paid bounties for the scalps of Native Americans. It put American citizens of Japanese heritage into concentration camps but overlooked German and Italian-Americans. It treated German prisoners of war better that its own African-American soldiers.
This was a generation that loved our purple mountains and our amber waves of grain so much that it clear-cut our forests and created gaping craters of pit mines. It polluted our rivers so badly that Randy Newman could sing about one of them catching fire. It blew up coral atolls in the Pacific, displacing tens of thousands of Pacific Islanders and contaminating thousands of square miles with radiation. It made its own soldiers march through nuclear bomb craters. It used the mentally ill as guinea pigs for medical experiments. It decimated wildlife, leaving many large mammals such as whales, bears, tigers, apes and elephants on the brink of extinction.
The greatest generation gave us plastics and packaging that filled up our dumps and created a wasteland in the middle of the Pacific. It taught us to be consumers, encouraged us to buy a new eight mile-per-gallon car every year and to discard, not repair what was broken. It gave us strip malls and endless tract housing while destroying public transportation and an existing urban infrastructure.
From this greatest generation we inherited a war in Indochina and an implacable enemy in Iran. We have a military budget and consequent debt that, even in its nascent form, daunted the likes of Dwight D. Eisenhower.
This “greatest generation” considered itself rugged individualists, all the while taking the benefits of big government. It had no moral compunction against accepting Social Security, Medicare, Unemployment Insurance, public education … until it noticed that minorities were getting those benefits too. Then they became “entitlements.”
The greatest generation thought of divorced women as failures, little better than prostitutes. It assigned women to menial and low-paying work. Forced female teachers to resign when they got married. Shamed men whose wives had to work to make ends meet. It enforced laws prohibiting even non-Christians from working on Sundays. The “greatest generation interfered with birth control, told people how they must engage in sexual intercourse (if they had to) and with whom they could engage.
I’m not about to say “my generation is greater than yours.” Whatever generation we may identify with, we all have our faults. One of those faults is rendering judgment on who is the greatest. The greatness of the so-called greatest generation is open to dispute, Tom Brokaw notwithstanding. But now that we have a Tea Party that wants to take us back to all of that, this nostalgic mythology has to be outed for what it is, bullshit. As one of their shining stars has said, “Thanks but no thanks.”