The Great Generation Hoax
By Alan Bisbort

First posted: 6-18-01

If Generation X is tired of hearing about Baby Boomers, imagine what Boomers feel when they have to hear, and genuflect before, yet another homily/tribute/burnt offering to the "Greatest Generation" that preceded ours. After countless bestsellers by news anchors, documentaries, A&E Bios, Stephen E. Ambrose hagiographies, and the corporate tie-in love-fest Pearl Harbor, the Greatest Generation now seems beyond reproach, the perfect embodiment of Godly attributes.

But was the Greatest Generation truly great? Can any generation make such a claim and have it go unchallenged?

The gnawing sense that a giant disconnect from reality is taking place—that nostalgia, not reason, guides this selective remembrance—occurred to me recently while watching Berkeley in the Sixties, a documentary that captured the widening gap between the Greatest Generation and their Boomer progeny as reflected in the Free Speech Movement on the University of California campus in 1964-1965. To sense this gap, one need only listen to the eloquent speeches by student leader Mario Savio ("There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part"), and contrast them with the bluster of U-Cal president Clark Kerr or Governor Ronald Reagan.

Don’t get me wrong. I loved my dad, who died two years ago, and I love my mom who, thankfully, is alive and well. They believed in hard work, brushing teeth, regular bowel movements and the American Way. But they had their blind spots, and our suburban split-level was filled with the sounds of arguments between my hippie brother and my retired Colonel father. I kept my mouth shut but inwardly sided with my brother. Sure, my father did pull himself up by his bootstraps, the first and only kid in his family to go to college. Sure, he beat the odds and became a decorated officer in the Army. Sure, he invested wisely and kept a roof over our heads. But he never let us forget that his generation suffered so that we could have such comfort. And with that comfort came a tacit ultimatum not to rock the boat.

My friends’ parents were the same way. Loudly certain of their views, they forbade dissent and were obsessively paranoid about any gray area in their black-and-white worldview. That my friends and I could not square what we were seeing—from (still) unexplained presidential assassinations to police dogs biting peaceful civil rights demonstrators to escalating wars in Southeast Asia—with this view of the world was beside the point. That we did not possess the language or mental agility to articulate our fears andconfusions worked in the Greatest Generation’s favor and strengthened their hand. Any questions were swept away with, "When I was your age, I blah, blah, blah…"

As I grew into teenhood, I began to educate myself about American history. As most adolescents do, I took my few bits of newly obtained knowledge and constructed elaborate, devastating verbal assaults on the Greatest Generation’s smugness…in my mind. I never actually tried them out on my father.

The greatest claim to the Greatest Generation’s greathood is that they survived the Great Depression. Did they have any choice? I mean, do Boomers sit around bragging to their kids, "We survived the gas crunch of 1974" or "We somehow got through the breakup of the Beatles and Yoko Ono’s solo albums"?

Another gleam on their halo is that the Greatest Generation stood united in World War II. While this may be so and their wartime courage an indisputable and ongoing inspiration, the truth is that they only reluctantly joined that war. France fell, Britain was bombed, Hitler grabbed nations like a glutton at an All-U-Can-Eat buffet, Pearl Harbor was bombed and American economic interests were threatened before they budged.

Indeed, two of the Greatest Generation’s heroes, Charles Lindbergh and Henry Ford, tried to talk them out of getting involved in World War II. Both admired Hitler; Ford even underwrote the publication of an American edition of Mein Kampf.

Is it completely churlish to suggest that the Greatest Generation had some obvious faults? They, for example, stood still while black folks were oppressed, brutalized and denied civil and voting rights (poll taxes were still in place well into the 1960s); never questioned the insane escalation of nuclear weaponry that we now haven’t a clue what to do with except pray the whole pile doesn’t spontaneously combust; did not offer women equal treatment in the office, in politics and elsewhere; concocted a destructive consumerist society; polluted the water and air and fought attempts to redress the damage; labeled anyone who dissented a Communist; allowed the government spying apparatus to infiltrate every aspect of American life; and let demagogues like Joe McCarthy run roughshod over the principles upon which this country was founded. Need I go on?

Only when the Boomers tried to melt the ice of the status quo—as in the Berkeley Free Speech Movement—did the Greatest Generation loose the dogs, tear-gas, cops and National Guard.

So, what is my point? Only this: be careful when you proclaim your greatness. It is still legal in this nation to disagree with you.

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