200. Can’t Happen Here

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I was raised in the shadows of major events. We forget that the ’60s spilled over into the ’70s: Vietnam and Watergate, school bussing, the Equal Rights Amendment, Tiny Tim’s Tonight Show wedding to Miss Vicki. The early ’70s were every bit as tumultuous as the ’60s, just with a Carpenters and John Denver soundtrack.

While all of that was going on outside, inside my red brick elementary school we pledged allegiance to the flag and sang songs that taught us how great America was. Many of these were Woody Guthrie cuts, songs like “Roll on Columbia,” “Grand Coulee Dam,” and the definitive reminder of American community, “This Land is Your Land.” We learned about Martin Luther King and the Kennedys, too, their deaths still an open wound. There was a sort of schizophrenic duality to the messages sent to children during the ’70s: protest and compliance, chaos and order.

During that same decade my grandfather and his generation were still grappling with their war. He was my current age when the seventies dawned, and I imagine that piles of corpses still haunted him. He saw firsthand the horrors of Nazi Germany. As a skinny 24-year-old corporal, my grandfather’s platoon liberated the Mauthausen concentration camp.

“How could the Germans let that happen?” was probably the longest shadow cast by a war some 25 years past. As a culture we processed it in myriad ways. From the Nuremberg trials to Hogan’s Heroes, our institutions comforted us. They assured us that what happened in Germany was an anomaly, that we were the good guys and they were the bad guys and their day of reckoning would come. If we couldn’t punish the guilty in court we’d punish them in pop culture, portraying them as buffoons or cannon fodder.

I guess it wasn’t just the ’60s that spilled over into the ’70s, but the ’50s, too. When my grandfather and his brothers in arms came home from the war, they made a good run at denial. The chaos of war was replaced with the calm predictability of order: tract homes, traditional gender roles, and institutions that worked. Whether they really did was beside the point — what mattered was the belief that calm and order had supplanted the moral ambiguity and chaos of the war years, the conviction that what happened in Germany couldn’t happen here.

That was the institutional ’70s: civic pride, patriotism, calm, order. As a child I strongly believed in our institutions, both public and private. Cowering in the darkness of my bedroom, I’d imagine being chased by bad guys. In these scenarios I always ran to my house, or a police station or church. The bad guys were always left outside of these sanctuaries, shaking their fists like Snidely Whiplash. I was a tiny person searching for comfort in a world that I couldn’t control, the smallest nesting doll cocooned inside of home, church, community, government. In retrospect what’s funny about that is that we weren’t even churchgoing people, but that’s another story.

What rankled the grownups in my world were the people who demanded more than the pretty nesting shells of institutions: the goddamned hippies, the trouble making blacks, the fucking feminists, any group who questioned how we could oppress people while touting our American values. It wasn’t enough to sing “This Land is Your Land,” they insisted that we live it.

My grownups didn’t like this. Those who didn’t support President Nixon were bad Americans. Those who didn’t support the Vietnam War were bad Americans. Women who worked or burned their bras were bad Americans. In the world of my grownups, you were either with them or against them.

Even Muhammad Ali made the shit list. In seventies kid land, Ali was 1/3 of the hero triumvirate rounded out by Evel Knievel and Fonzie. Not to my grownups, though. They hated him because he refused to go to Vietnam, yet they told me to stand up for what I believed in.

Protest and compliance — it was all very confusing. This is the duality of growing up in Generation X. During our formative years we had strong role models both for believing in our institutions and for challenging them. Some of us internalized that to mean that being a good citizen means both pledging allegiance and pointing out injustice. They aren’t mutually exclusive to us; in fact, taking the former seriously mandates the latter.

And the long shadow of Germany remained: How could they let that happen?

WIMbot_Web_BW_smI was living a quiet, normal life in a suburban tract home located in the long shadow of all of the above when the events of 9/11 occurred. I defaulted to my institutions for comfort. Public servants were heroes, pop culture assured me that Americans were resilient, and our president vowed that everything would be okay. More people turned out on my street for tricks or treats that Halloween than any year before or since. We all found comfort in our institutions, it seems.

Then things got weird. The president started talking about “evil doers” and an “axis of evil.” A new institution, the Department of Homeland Security, was founded, and they established a color-coded threat level so that we knew how afraid to be each day. We were told to buy rolls of duct tape and plastic sheeting in order to defend ourselves against terrorist attacks. Bridges were closed to auto traffic. I was kicked out of a movie theater for having a backpack due to “9/11 security concerns.” My buddy, who for years used to park on the shoulder of a road in the flight path of the airport and eat his lunch while watching the planes, was questioned by the police.

The airports were where the shit really started. I was traveling quite a bit back then, and the institutional shift in American life was easy to see in airports. Each individual change seemed harmless enough — no more non-passengers at the gates, take off your shoes, keep your mouth shut, fuck your toothpaste, put your hands over your head and submit to an x-ray. Why are you looking at that Army man with the assault rifle? Keep moving, keep moving. In airports we were guilty until proven innocent, but we accepted it because 24 psychos who should have been caught with existing security measures squeaked through unnoticed. By the time all was said and done, the only civil right left in an American airport was the right to a Cinnabon.

Next we were told that we needed to send troops to Afghanistan to fight the terrorists. The Taliban were allegedly harboring Bin Laden, and by the way here is all of the other evil shit that they do. No doubt about it — the Taliban were bad guys. I trusted my institutions and believed that intervention was justified.

Then our institutions sold us on Iraq. They tried the same playbook — terrorism plus a bunch of other evil shit — but this time we weren’t so quick to bite. Many of our representatives even balked until they were shamed into support with accusations of not supporting the troops, and with assurances that the executive branch knew more than they could say and urgent intervention was necessary to protect America.

Protests broke out, but they didn’t matter. Our president repeated variations on “you’re with us or you’re with the terrorists,” no room for ambiguity. Pop culture failed us, falling into the party lines of one camp or the other. Our president was either a Hogan’s Heroes-style bumbling idiot or a flight-suited, flag pin-wearing superhero.

You’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists was the new tenor of American life. We were asked to spy on each other and report anything suspicious. Questioning anything was analogous to not supporting the troops. Tax rebate checks that nobody asked for appeared in mailboxes for no apparent reason, even though our country now had two wars to pay for.

Over the next ten years I witnessed the institutions into which I’d placed my trust since childhood erode. My country detained people indefinitely without due process and tortured others. We killed as many as one million people in a war that still cannot be justified. We allowed the rise of militarized police forces and an out of control security agency that monitors every electronic thing that we do. Our economy melted down in the wake of widespread corruption, and the highest court in the land played Orwellian word games like “money is speech” and “corporations are people.” We killed American citizens without due process, both by drone and by cop, and refused to hold anyone accountable.

Well, the shit has finally hit the fan. The last ten years in American life have been so egregious that the international community — the biggest nesting doll of them all — is calling for action. We’re on the wrong side of the United Nations right now, both for our police brutality and our record of torture during the Bush era. At this moment in history we are not “a shining city on a hill,” we are Germany. No, that is unfair: “Germany is now the world’s favorite country, according to the Anholt-Gfk Nations Brand Index, which measures the image of 50 leading nations,” sayeth the USA Today.

We’re witnessing a level of activism not seen since the ’60s bled into the ’70s. From the peaceful demonstrations of “Hands Up Don’t Shoot” and #ICantBreathe, to the torching of Ferguson to whistle blowers like Snowden, to insiders like Senator Elizabeth Warren, demands for better from our institutions are blossoming. And just like when the shadow of the ’50s loomed over the ’70s, those who fight for a country that walks it like it talks it are being labeled goddamned hippies, trouble making blacks, and fucking feminists. The language might be a bit more gentle this time around, but that’s the gist.

Forgive me. I know this essay is a mess. It can’t be otherwise, because I’m a mess. The institutions that have surrounded me for nearly 50 years are crumbling faster than the roads and bridges that we refuse to fix. This isn’t a new complaint — I’ve heard variations on this my entire life — but it is one that is too acute to ignore anymore.

Loving our country is a bit like loving our children. We must love it unconditionally, but we must correct it when it has been naughty. We don’t do this because we’re vindictive, but rather because like our children, we want our institutions to be the best that they can possibly be. Letting corporate malfeasance, fraud, torture, murder, and violations of civil rights remain unpunished is like mussing our institutions’ hair and saying, “Go on outside and play, you little ragamuffins.”

I am tiny and helpless. I love my country, and I want to see my institutions be the best that they can possibly be. I want to see the individuals who undermine those institutions held accountable for their actions. I want to believe that people are people and that corporations are corporations, and that a bill becomes a law the way that Schoolhouse Rock taught me rather than because palms were greased. I want my country to live up to its promise again.

But I don’t know what to do. I’m just an ant crawling on the steep slope of the shining hill, unable to affect change.

The long shadow cast by Germany has finally lifted. I finally understand how complete moral collapse happened there, because for the last ten years I’ve watched helplessly as it happened here.

photo, Wikimedia Commons

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11 thoughts on “200. Can’t Happen Here

  1. Thank you for putting into eloquent (no matter if you say otherwise) words my own thoughts and rants and the thoughts and rants of so many others. Please submit this piece to other publications – just the fact that you wrote it makes you less tiny and less helpless. Getting it further out there, getting a dialogue going, which will probably end in shit slinging – you are doing something while the rest of us stand here, not knowing what the fuck to do, outside of purchasing an #ICantBreathe tee-shirt and wearing it as we make plans to leave the country.

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  2. James, this piece is insightful and very well written. I too have felt those same frustrations for the past many years. I protested against Iraq (just as I protested Vietnam), the overkill of the Patriot Act and asked why nobody was joining me in rejecting false imprisonment and torture. I’m a “Good American.” I proudly say the Pledge of Allegiance and tear up at the national anthem. But how can we oppose repression and torture in China and Russia and the Middle East and still seek to justify our actions? I will continue to speak up, protest and vote for candidates I hope see the world as I do. I can do no less.

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  3. James, this is an amazing piece of writing. By putting it all in historical context you show the reasons for the angst that is today. How did it all unravel? Or maybe it was unraveling all the time but we pretended not to see.

    I am a better person for having read this. I feel as if I understand things in a way I hadn’t before. Thank you.

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