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.”

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  1. Mark says:

    I was born in 1955, the son of a World War II vet. I read Brokaw’s book. The title is absurd. The conceit of the book was that this was an entirely selfless generation. Why? Because they rose to the occasion and did their part to save the world and defeat Hitler. So much was made of the storming of the beaches into enemy gunfire on D-Day. I have nothing but the highest regard and the deepest gratitude for all the Allied forces and for the ones (some 9,000 I think that June day) who paid the highest sacrifice. Only because Mr. Brokaw’s theme seems to hinge on that day in June, will I ask what would otherwise sound like a grotesque question: did the U.S. soldiers have any other choice but to leave their Higgins boats and go ashore? Yes people had a shared purpose back then. Yes, neighbor looked after neighbor. And, yes there was a shared sense of community. (Actually the ‘greatest generation’ inherited those facets of American life from their ancestors.) That’s all true. But, I think a lot of the men in uniform came home with an enormous sense of entitlement. They went to night school for their college degrees on the GI Bill. They succeeded in business–at any cost. They won political office at any cost. They won whatever they wanted to win at any cost. Ultimately I think it was a generation that took far more than it ever gave. I am very sorry, but raising a family actually involves more than the sense of duty that Brokaw and so many others applaud: more than putting on your fedora and boarding the railroad to go into the city to your job everyday, while the woman of the house stayed home and does everything else. I loved my father, so this is not an ad hominem attack, but, I think that the men and women Brokaw has exalted proved themselves during the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s to be a uniquely corrupt, angry, selfish, and nearsighted generation.

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