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Goodbye to the Way We Were

by Gerard van der Leun (19 April 2006)

A friend with whom I have a daily correspondence takes great pleasure in needling me on my, shall we say, adamantine position that we need to start fighting the First Terrorist War in a way to win it, and not as if we are engaged in a game of patty-cake. In March of 2004, after the Madrid bombings, while I was trapped on a Cruise Ship somewhere deep inside the sixth circle of Hell, he decided it was an ideal time to convert me to his policy of reasonable accommodation. It was the moment in which, as he put it, "... the common citizens of Spain and France are saying Tell us again what this got us, other than lots of angry teenagers with bombs?"

I replied that I'd lived for years in France with months in and about Spain, and most of the common citizens of those countries would surrender to anything and sell out anyone if it meant they could shop in peace for a few more years. Vichy and Franco came to mind as examples.

group of 1966 Berkeley protestors
My Back Pages: Debating on the step of Sproul Hall, UC Berkeley, 1966: [left to right] me (somewhat younger but just as strident), an Iranian friend named Jaz – worked with me in the UC library, a refugee from the Shah's Iran, and probably went back after the fall of the Shah – (foreground right) he lost his eye in the Hungarian Uprising and had to run for the border, and on into the West to stay alive. In this picture he's attempting to convince me that communism is an evil ideology; I'm not buying it then, but I buy it now.

Yesterday, in Tel Aviv, the angry teenager with a bomb on his body came again, as he has so many times over the last few years, and as he will in the years to come. Maybe Spain was right to see the effort as futile. Maybe Europe as a whole should just roll over and not just play dead, but be dead. Perhaps Israel should just shrug and say, "Okay, you win. We'll move."

After all, what's really in all this fighting and dying for anyone? None of the countries that are engaged in this war against terror seems to be ready to do the terrible things necessary to end terror. ("Don't you see? That would make us just like them!" "Perhaps, but we would be alive to repent and reform.")

I once admired the subtle thought, the careful parsing, the diplomatic pas de deux of policy, but lately I seem to have taken up a taste for straight talk. It seems to me that if you don't go to war ready to achieve victory by any means necessary – by any means necessary – why would you bother to go at all? And of late, I'm only hearing the weasel word win. I'm not hearing a lot about victory, which is quite a different thing.

It seems to me that if you are actually in a war, victories, big and small, are what you seek to achieve. Once you have the final victory, and that means that the enemy and all that supports the enemy, is so destroyed and laid waste that there's no fight left in him, then and only then can you say you have won. Absent a drive for victory, there seems to be nothing in this war for any one fighting terror on any front, other than pain and death – and the added insult of an unremitting disparagement from many of the citizens for whom they fight.

That's certainly true when it comes to the United States of late. We seem stalled at the stage of the struggle that brings to mind Churchill's proclamation that he had nothing to offer except, blood, sweat and tears. We've had those three things constantly for years – as our media are so keen to remind us every three minutes of every day.

Another factor in the dumb-show called Bringing Democracy to the Middle East seems to be that our leadership has become, shall we say, less than inspiring, and more like Monty Hall emceeing Let's Make A Deal, with contestants and a studio audience packed with crazed and crapulous mullahs. Finally, we're seeing a host of our fellow citizens so immersed in their hatred of the current president that the impression we are hip-deep in demented traitors is getting hard to shake.

All of these things conspire, on a daily basis, to shake our belief in ourselves, our institutions and our commitment to rid the world of the scourge of terrorism. Lately we seem to be living on a daily drip feed of despair for our future and estrangement from our past. It's not a new diet in this country, but it is starting to assume the proportions of a runaway fad diet, a political Pritikins. And yet this thin gruel is what's being poured into us from Seattle Washington to Washington D.C.

If you look closely at this diet for a diminished America you see a familiar list of ingredients. The list is composed of the ideological stock and trade of a significant segment of Americans to whom this nation, as conceived by our founders, and struggled for for more than two hundred years is merely one long, large joke. And I should know. After all, that boy in the picture up there – that boy that thought communism was something we could live with – that was me.

In my small way, I took part in the crafting of The Joke on America. For years I thought there was nothing funnier. Conceived during the waning months of World War II, I had no idea I was a Baby Boomer, but that, in the end, was what I was. And being a member of this large and fortunate generation gave me the leisure to develop quite a sense of humor when it came to basic human values.

When I was a student at the University of California at Berkeley in the late 1960s, we were the brave new world's social engineers. We were the innovators. We were busy innovating the brave new world where everything about the old world of our parents seemed either hilarious or evil. Our program was quite clear early on and it hasn't changed a jot, it has simply gotten more pervasive and elaborate. After all, we're older now and we're in control. We can finally fund these things. With your money.

God, if he didn't emerge from 500 mikes of pure Sandoz LSD, was just a funny old guy, a little bit like Santa Claus, but with less of a user base.

The Bill of Rights was okay as long as you could figure out someway to erase a few of the amendments involving guns, and add a host of new ones involving groups.

The Constitution? Too long and too arcane to really read with care. It was a given so what did we care?

History? The only really happening history was the future, man. Ours.

The collective United States? They were really Amerikkka – Satan incarnate.

The US military? Baby killers and agents of Satan.

The police? Pigs.

The Viet Cong, Fidel Castro, and a host of other evil dictators and fascists? Heroes of The People.

The people? Really wonderful as long as you didn't really have to hang out with them.

Voting in political parties? Stupid. We were into participatory democracy, which involved really long meetings. (This is now known as emergent democracy and involves really long online discussion threads.)

We believed in sex and drugs and rock an' roll.

We were determined to resist the man on all levels.

We were young.

And we were very, very stupid for college kids. Check that. We were stupid because we were college kids.

Many of the most committed of us, decades later, are still in college and even dumber. We're professors now and our ability to be dumb has never been deeper.

Others of us are well ensconced in the various parts of what passes for the media. We're there with a lot of others just like us and, even if we thought differently, we'd never say it for fear of losing regard, position, grants, or promotion. Besides, we've been around others who think like us for so long its no problem at all to top up the latte and nod in blind agreement.

Nope, we never sold out. We bought in. But we kept the Che poster pinned up forever in our hearts.

In our aging but fitness-crazed hearts, we hate what we've become and, like any good group of neurotics, transfer that hate to the country that gave us everything, including the Long Peace in which to enjoy it. We're the first to bitch and moan and hate a country that makes our freedom possible. More than that we're also in love with the privilege, comfort, money and safety that makes it possible for us to mouth-off without limit. And finally, we're coming to understand that we are not our parents generation, we're The Not-So-Great Generation, and we're afraid.

We say we're afraid of losing our cherished freedom to the jackbooted legions of BushHitler Brownshirts that stifle our dissent from every street corner. That's really what a lot of us think. That's really just how bull-moose looney we've become. We're so afraid that we can't look at what scares us, but instead pull the covers over our heads and dream of the BushBoogeymen. Why? Because they're an illusion. They are not really scary at all. Why? Because they are all just pretend, and we know it. What many of us simply cannot face is the real terror of the times: terror.

We're really afraid of the wrath of those who, unlike us, who believe in nothing, believe in something so deeply that they'll kill us for it and willingly die doing it. The bomb in the baby carriage wired to the radio. The teenager in the Army sweatshirt with three pounds of C4 wrapped inside of two pounds of ball bearings showing up at the mall for a Big Mac Attack. The Muslim-American who decides one afternoon to park his Jeep on top of as many of our kids as he can find in a group. That guy sitting next to the window at 36,000 feet with fuses coming out of his Nikes and wearing a t-shirt that says, Just Do It. The Imman with a plan who is so tense that he decides to walk into downtown San Francisco and unwind with a small shooting spree. All these realities disturb our dreams and threaten to pull the covers off our heads.

As a result, we like the slogans, books, movies, TV shows, and publications that confirm for us the deep liberal dream that if we are just understanding enough, long enough, and offer enough in the way of bribes, the oppressed of the world will come to love us ... and then just leave us alone. Like the Spanish in 2004, we believe that by selling-off our ideals, we'll receive, in return, peace and cheap vacation rentals in France and Greece for the rest of our lives. Like the Spanish, a lot of us believe that by just being nice, we'll be left alone to wallow in our prosperity. Like the Spanish, we've come to believe that there's nothing in war for us except teenagers with bombs.

Like I said, people of my 60s generation are very, very dumb. And, it would seem, we've now bred children who are even dumber than we are. We are now, as far as dumb liberalism is concerned, deep into the third generation of the soul dead and the dumb, and its clear that not a lot of us are coming around soon enough to avoid another massacre on American soil. To paraphrase a slogan about working with heavy machinery: You get stupid around terrorism and it'll hurt you real quick and real bad.

How can we get off on being stuck on stupid when it comes to this First Terrorist War? How can we prevent another 4/20, another 5/14, a 7/4, or 12/25? Pick a number, any number, there are 365 to choose from. But before that we might want to consider, seriously and carefully, taking some measures which are not merely careful campaigns to bring the fruits of democracy, but things that fall, instead, under the general heading of draconian. A modest beginning in this regard would be to convince many members of my baby-boom generation to simply shut up and eat their tofu.

You don't have to look very far to see that while the dumb teenager might be the Terrorist's first choice when it comes to delivery vehicles, that teenager isn't the one choosing the target, setting the timer, or buying the bomb. That sort of thing is left to the leadership which is far too valuable to expend itself on direct attacks.

Nor do you have to look very far to understand what the goals of that leadership are. You are told in sermon after sermon throughout the Muslim world, week after week. But those of my generation who are still mired in the ideological foolishness of their youth cannot hear these words and, even if they did, would not believe them. Since they come from a culture where words seldom have any consequences, as long as you choose the right ones, words don't seem like weapons to them. Words, to my generation, are merely poses at cocktail parties at best, or the latest glib lyrics of some pot-drenched rock idol who believes that having a hundred voice choir screech out Impeach the President is the latest iteration of cool.

The Terrorist War scares my generation more deeply than teenager bombs in Tel Aviv frighten the Israelis. The Terrorist War is something that is in ernest and it is something that will not go away. What scares them the most about it all is that the conflict, at its deepest core, is actually about something my generation understands only as one of the great standing jokes of our youth: religion.

You see my people don't really grok religion unless it comes with a lot of New Age claptrap or a hefty dose of Zen. pure Christianity or orthodox Judaism or traditional Islam is far, far outside our ken.

Where previous generations could write, as late as 1927, the sentiments found in the Desiderata:

You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Therefore, be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be. And whatever your labors and aspirations in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams; it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.

My generation was the one that came up with the variation called the Deteriorata:

You are a fluke of the Universe. You have no right to be here, and whether you can hear it or not, The Universe is laughing behind your back.

Therefore make peace with your God, whatever you conceive him to be, Hairy Thunderer or Cosmic Muffin.

With all its hopes, dreams, promises and urban renewal, The world continues to deteriorate.

Give up.

I believe these to be The New Commandments of the 60s Boomers. The bible of our generation, the National Lampoon, first came up with them. I remember how funny we all thought they were. A laugh riot and, well, so true too. So right on. Words to live by.

But when you get a little further down the road and look back, if you have learned anything at all, you'll have learned to cherish the sentiment of the first and despise the mocking nothingness in the latter. They are not words to live by, but words to die by.

But my generation, being eternally drenched in a mindless nostalgia for its weird youth, refuses to learn that. It believes that the cool answer to the great crisis which has been brought to us in the last five years is to make a sign that says I heart New York more without the twin towers, parade about in the streets and, when confronted with the death of your fellow citizens, to stand firmly in solidarity with the sheep of Europe and say: Give up.

When I look at the spectacle that my Boomer generation has made of itself, a generation that had everything going for it, that had every opportunity, and could only come up with the John Kerry, caramel lattes, and Impeach the President campaigns, all I can say is:

"I resign the Revolution. I'm joining the Resistance."