I was thinking about what I wrote here, and what Studs Terkel actually said, v. what I remembered he'd said:
Studs would win the Pulitzer Prize for his oral history of “The Good War,” about WWII. But while many have called that “America’s Greatest Generation,” he would tell the Chicago Tribune there was even a greater one.Because I'd remembered something a little less focused just on civil rights, and a little more aware of the importance of economic justice. I realized it wasn't in Terkel's comment, because it wasn't in the history books. When I said "No one, after all, remembers that Dr. King died trying to fight for economic justice" I was already noting, to myself anyway, that Dr. King fought for more than civil rights; but civil rights is all that the '60's really accomplished.
“It was in the ‘60’s; there was the civil rights movement, it flourished, at least for a time, and the rise, resurgence, of feminism; the gays and lesbians coming out as free people. So that’s the generation, I think the greatest.”
Which is in no way a bad thing, but it got me wondering: whatever happened to economic justice? And why did the conversation turn away from that topic so quickly and decisively? I always understood the response to advances in civil rights, especially the fight in the '70's and '80's over "affirmative action," as a reaction (the ol' equal and opposite one) to the gains won in the '50's and '60's. But there was more to it than that; "liberalism" as practiced in America, both political and social and even theological (hey, it's my background) as well as legal, began to withdraw sometime after 1968, it seemed to me. Turns out, I wasn't entirely wrong about that:
According to Edwards, Reagan’s real achievement was to take advantage of a transformation that predated him. Edwards quotes various political scientists who found that conservative attitudes peaked, and liberal attitudes plateaued, in the late nineteen-seventies, and that Reagan was the beneficiary of these trends, rather than their instigator. Some of Reagan’s closest allies support this view. Martin Anderson, who served as Reagan’s chief domestic-policy adviser, wrote, “What has been called the Reagan revolution is not completely, or even mostly, due to Ronald Reagan. . . . It was the other way around.”I had a vaguely gut feeling that liberalism began to decline after the '60's, and I cast about for reasons why. I also realized that, in general, American history hasn't been all that kind to populism and the working class. The Founding Fathers were slave owners and men of business; they weren't small farmers (despite Jefferson's pre-Romantic romanticism) or laborers, and they weren't terribly sympathetic to such people. There's a reason they limited the vote to male landowners, and they thought it a very sound reason. It's much the same reasoning today that continues to try to restrict the vote away from minorities, college students, the elderly, etc. Such people, the argument more or less goes, have too little to lose, too much to gain, and don't really have "skin in the game." In the 18th century, that meant land; today, it means economic power. Which is pretty much two different ways of saying the same thing.
Populism only thrived in America when it was organized and when the populists wielded their economic power. We remember William Jennings Bryan as a religious goof who opposed science, or a man who made a silly speech about a cross of gold; when actually he was a populist who opposed Social Darwinism and all it represented (especially when it would be represented by Oliver Wendell Holmes). We may praise populism in blessed memory, but our memories of it are rather selective; far more people praise the odious Holmes than recognize the value of Mr. Bryan. As ever in American culture, money talks; and Mr. Holmes was a reliable defender of America's monied interests.
So, in my thesis of recent history, the long post-war economic boom finally began to ebb in the '70's. Inflation reared its ugly head and while Nixon tried to impose wage/price controls, the only cure for it, finally, was high interest rates which Volcker imposed over Reagan's strenuous objections. When Volcker finally broke the back of inflation, Reagan gleefully took credit for the economic rebound which followed. But much like the rebound from the financial collapse at the end of the Bush Administration, that recovery proved beneficial to them what's got; they got, and them what's not got, got a great deal less. And thus the pattern was set for the next 40 years.
And what has declined in that 40 years? Any interest in the plight of others, especially if those others are poor (poor whites are even more invisible than poor blacks in America) or "minorities." The decline of liberalism in America has followed almost exactly the decline and fall of the "American Dream," which itself was largely a fiction of the post-war decade in the '50's, when it was actually possible to imagine every family owning its own house, rather than living with Mom and Dad and Grandpa, or moving in with the in-laws until you, by death and default, became the "head of household." How much that has been erased from communal memory is a tribute to how much we all think the world existed just as we found it, and could never have been any other way. That truth is a two-edged sword: my daughter's generation takes the post-racial world after the '60's as a given, and that's a very good thing. Unfortunately, her generation also takes the economic world after the '70's as a given, too; and that does not leave much promise for the future; if it is indeed money that matters.
I've always thought the "Reagan Revolution" wasn't so much a revolution, as a return to status quo. That's actually the usual track of revolutions: the American revolution left the upper class in power, it just removed the authority over them that came from Britain. We have always had a 'special relationship' with Britain because we are essentially an English culture. Lenin and the rulers of the USSR were just czars without the title. The French Revolution did not discard French culture, social or political. Of course, the "Reagan Revolution" was never a revolution in those terms, so it even more solidly put things back to where they had always been, with economic powers firmly in charge of important matters. The economy never recovered it's post-war egalitarian boom; nor was it meant to. Some people got rich, but that wealth was concentrated more and more in the hands of a few, and more and more that concentration was accepted as a good thing, when it was noticed at all.
And now, we learn that maybe 80% of Americans will face dire financial straits. The Germans are sure that will make American politicians panic, but the political news is still about Obamacare and the sequester and whether or not the GOP Congress can halt an increase in the debt ceiling when they get back from recess (all connotations of elementary school being appropriate here). Even political commenters are noticing it:
Because when I see that out of only three people willing to speak on the record one is a columnist who spends half his quote talking about Lyndon Johnson and the rest on a labored metaphor, I get to thinking. Not just about the state of media and my ulnar and radial arteries and whether it might still be possible to get into medical school and spen my mortal time doing something worthwhile, but also about whether Politico's time might have been better spent not on this ridiculous distraction of a story but rather sending a reporter out to, say, Franklin Square, to look at the ballooning homeless population in the capital of the richest country on the planet.The homeless? Does anybody even notice the homeless anymore? That's so 1980's! Kind of like all those free-health clinics I used to see on MSNBC, back when Keith Olbermann was still there. That's all as gone as his political commenting career is. Do they even hold those clinics anymore? Isn't the only question about healthcare in America about how bad Obamacare is gonna suck?
We don't notice because we pretty much figure we can't afford to. Things are tough all over, it's hard on everybody, who can afford to help you out, I can't pay my way as it is. If there is a reason for the decline in American liberalism after it's '60's heyday, I think it's right there. The affluence that allowed college students to protest the Vietnam War, rather than be forced to fight it as the non-college bound had to; and to ride for freedom and march for civil rights, finally played out, and everybody had to get back to the hard task of earning a living. And then that task gradually became harder and harder and harder, and absence doesn't make the heart grow fonder, it turns the heart to stone. Too much of nothin' makes a man feel ill at ease, but not enough money makes almost everyone first think about how to get a bit more, and only later to possibly share from their abundance, if they feel they have any. Same, in the words of yet another song, as it ever was.
The koine Greek word "ptochoi" (which means the destitute, those with nothing at all) is pronounced, not with a silent "p" as we do "pneumatic," with with a hard "p." It has always, to my ear, sounded rather like the onomatopoeic word for spitting: "patooie!" Because the sentiment connected with both words has always been pretty much the same; at least in mainstream America.