New and Different Same-Old
Michael Ubaldi, July 14, 2004.
Lately I've been writing about values, vision and principle. George W. Bush and the Republican Party, I believe, have got them, and progressive policies to match; John Kerry and the Democratic Party haven't. Over the past weeks I've watched a good number of similarly aged acquaintances standing to be counted with John Kerry (though, thankfully, more than a few supporting the president). At the same time I've realized that the Democratic candidate's life story and message match the mores, concepts and percepts our generation was brought up with, that which we were fed by the Me Generation; some of our parents, teachers and education, television and pop culture. We were told that cynicism is the highest refinement of intellect; that religion and absolutism are suspect while secularism and relativism are reliable; that America, capitalism, the Stars and Stripes, nationalism, judgment, competition, praise and shame are embarrassing relics from a time better left sequestered in TV Land's weekday primetime situation comedy. Insert laugh track, smirk at tradition.
I remember the lessons in grade school on global warming, that great hyperbole presented as gospel; that third-grade rap ditty we composed in the back of the bus about Helter Skelter bringing down Ronald Reagan; learning in an otherwise excellent seventh-grade American History class about the Roman decline of America; suffering endless heckling, if good-natured, by my high school Western Civilization teacher for the rightist values I'd miraculously adhered to; running away from those values beginning in my senior year of high school, a combination of ideological curiosity and exhaustion from noncomformity; extending that egress through my undergraduate years, arguing in favor of most of the positions I now oppose, culminating in this repugnant, all-too-common, Michael Moore-like, pinheaded ingratitude from 1998. I remember beginning to drift as some of the ideas trotted out by classmates defied even my own addled conscience. Then I remember the safeties snapping off of life in late 1999 and early 2000, when the self-pity I loved to nurse over fabricated worries ceased to be fashion and suddenly became dangerous vanity, indeed near-fatal. Graduating college in 2000, I returned to daily news — out of the barricaded cloister of "higher learning" — and swiftly began jettisoning the leftist credentials I'd accumulated over the past five years, proudly voting for Governor George W. Bush that fall.
I do not believe that the values I now hold dear are what my immediate forebears intended for me, a quiet rebellion against their own; taking a hammer and chisel to the thick stone of their Establishment that was once volcanic rage. I see the contrast between the children of the Sixties and the 'grups they said they'd never trust: Baby Boomers balk at my choice of formal dress to most occasions while those from the Greatest Generation find it gratifying, a delightful vindication of sorts. On morals, there is less plumbing for depths of grey among those who fought the Second World War than those who rioted to abandon the Vietnam War. Ask a Great about sacrifice; chances are, the answer will be a variation of "we just had to do it." With a Boomer, there's a good possibility you'll hear "we were forced to do it." The Boomers call the television they grew up with as quaint, simplistic and boring; the Greats turn off what they call irreverant, unsubstantive garbage.
It's the Greats with whom I usually feel a powerful bond.
But I came of age in a day prepared by the Me Generation, not their parents. Despite the endurance of traditionalism in the American heartland; despite the signs of youth rejecting socialism and reflexive, anti-American "activism" by turning libertarian or patriotic or both, young people my age face measuring themselves to standards created by the Boomers and enforced by their garrisons in the media, artistic, educational and political establishments. We should not require an introduction to the prevailing cultures of journalism, fine and performing arts; education associations, Hollywood, New York, Washington and speech correctness.
So it's expected, in all but the reddest of Red States, to nod in approval when the policy stances of one of the two major American political parties are spoken of; the other, you see, is peopled by hunchbacked monsters, terribly greedy, mottled creatures of the night but, thankfully, no one you know. Until it's discovered. Calling oneself a Democrat among a roomful of rightists is most likely to conjure benign, encyclopedic thoughts of Roosevelt, Truman and Kennedy in the minds of your unlike acquaintances. Calling oneself a Republican among a roomful of leftists is most likely to invite your dinner partners to set upon you, or, when luck or your own mousey qualifier prevails, generate an uncomfortable if brief silence.
And so I see friends and acquaintances follow what they believe is the natural, encouraged course of progressivity and openness without much hesitation. Others do as I once did, diluting principles for a respite of comfort, an almost unconscious act of intellectual self-preservation. Much of the confusion springs from mistaking loyalty to absolute values as intransigence, as if solidly believing in a principle prevented one from transforming it into different policies to fit evolving circumstances. Instead, the tenets of relativism — a rejection of an absolute moral scale, but offering a fairly rigid practical system — are celebrated as the end, the future. For all the trouble that churches and their mortal congregations experience, Christ saves; ask anyone who's humble enough to talk about it. But people quote Marx as if his theories had never been applied to the letter and succeeded in killing off scores of millions of people.
I found this contradiction at its most extreme listening recently to a rather pat excoriation of Iraq's liberation. War was terrible, pointless, and the benefits of removing Saddam Hussein nil; the challenges and complexities meaningless. What of the nightmare Iraqis had suffered for thirty years? That didn't enter into the monologue; conflict was bad, bad, bad, and all who fell under the shadow of the American Military-Industrial Complex were presumably living happy lives doing whatever until hellfire rained down. Shallow as the remarks were, their conclusion was unmistakable: toeing the well-established "what if they had a war and nobody came" brought not only indifference but opposition to Iraq's democratization. It was a mistake, and had to stop. I'd heard this amoral opposing argument so many times before, but the personal source gave standardized anti-Americanism a frightening new meaning. Thinking they were doing their duty to eschew violence and injustice, the person was looking forward to the same conclusion as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. And what brought the incident home was that I don't think they had the slightest idea that all this was so. They had, just like me — whatever our parents said to the contrary — grown up learning it.
But the Democratic Party and its prevailing leftist causes are old standbys, drawn from movements of the last century: wealth redistribution, tariffs, racial preferences and wage controls, monolithic support for public schooling, restraint in American power and the export of its virtues, moral ambivalence to the difference between democracy and authoritarianism, trust in government and contempt for business, attraction to populism and revulsion to schools of hard knocks. Compare that to the Republicans' "radical" and "ideological" nature of economic individualism, free trade, truly color-blind civics, wages based more on the market than sentimentality, experiments with private and alternative education, interventionism, militarily supported and ambitiously private philanthropy, pride in the self-made man. Even on matters of marriage and lifestyle, ask yourself: is it progressive, or merely a throwback to Free Love, before the people who wrote "Smash Monogamy" in frosting on their wedding cakes discovered just how liberating and painless infidelity, separation and divorce can be? Is you're-okay-I'm-okay-leave-me-alone the next horizon, or the lonely remainder of the Great Society?
Mid-to-latter-20th-Century "conservatism" deserves new light. When William F. Buckley stood athwart history, he wasn't trying to stop an express train. He was only trying to prevent it from running off the rails, so it could continue forward.
Goodness knows how many my age are turning to Kerry-Edwards because it's pushing hard for hip, not realizing what it is the ticket truly stands for. Not as many as in the past, I understand from polls and anecdotes, but enough. I don't think irony could be any thicker than two men who are eager to exude youth and energy for the White House peddling a reactionary platform against the liberal vision of their older, gruffer incumbent quarry. PJ O'Rourke was onto something when he quipped, and I paraphrase, "Nowadays protesters dress as if they were living in the Sixties. What gives? When we were actually protesting in the Sixties, we didn't wear clothes from the 1930s." It is your father's ticket. A vote for John Kerry, the bygone rebel, is a vote for the 'grups.