This is not about my personal crises. It’s about the national crises I’ve witnessed in my seventy and three-quarters years as a human being and an American. Or maybe it’s all personal. Let’s see. And lets also see what perspective these crises give us today.
Soon after my fourth birthday, North Korea invaded South Korea, and then the United Nations sent troops (most of them American) to push back the invasion. I could see the worry on my parents’ faces, largely because my brother (15 years older than me) would be drafted. He did go, and returned unharmed, but I never understood what we were fighting for.
The bigger crisis of the 1950’s, one I felt in the fear around me and the bullying I saw on our new television, was McCarthyism. In my Philadelphia neighborhood of row houses filled with three generations of Jews who understood persecution, Senator Joseph McCarthy and his lists of American Communist traitors scared us more than the war in Korea. The working-class adults I knew merely whispered about McCarthy in their homes, but some more prominent Americans, like newscaster Walter Cronkite and Army lawyer Joseph Welch stood up to McCarthy, and he shriveled into history.
And then came the 1960’s. My cohort had been taught throughout the 1950’s and early ’60’s that the United States stood for what was good. We fought only just, legal wars and only when we had to. We believed that all were entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But by the middle of the decade, our government was sending troops halfway around the world to kill and be killed in a war that was neither declared by Congress nor authorized by the United Nations. Our leaders justified the war based on the domino theory: If we let one tiny nation in Southeast Asia dcecide to “go Communist,” the others would follow. So much for self-determination.
And on our televisions, we saw African-American men, women and children beaten and killed for wanting to vote, eat in restaurants, use clean facilities, and have equal access to education.
Many in my cohort felt betrayed, lied to, and we tuned in, turned on, and dropped out. Yet we never became so numb that we forgot about the Cuban missile crisis, the assassinations of Medgar Evers, James Reeb, John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, and those four students at Kent State. We were sickened further by the riots in the urban ghettos and the police response to them and to the Black Panther movement and the Chicago demonstrators.
The 1960’s also brought social change: women’s liberation, loosening of sexual norms, a wider acceptance of marijuana and psychedelics, and a clash of the generations. The photo above, in our daily papers and in video on our nightly TV news programs, shows a South Vietnamese officer performing a sidewalk execution on a Viet Cong prisoner. On the other hand, censors cut the video below, a Harry Belafonte medley set to newsreel footage, from the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.
It was a tough time to be living through one’s teenage and young adult years. Two of my friends from the counterculture neighborhood of Philadelphia, where I lived in the mid-’60’s, are now serving life sentences for different first-degree murders. Another, my cousin, pleaded guilty to two counts of fourth-degree murder and later hung himself in his jail cell. A close friend lost her life in a stabbing as she tried to do her part in the civil right movement.
So let’s move on to the 1970’s. As surprising as it was to learn that a pompous President had commissioned a cheap burglary for petty reasons and then covered up his involvement, Watergate was minor in contrast to the McCarthyism of the ’50’s and the general turmoil of the ’60’s. In retrospect, what Gerald Ford called a “long national nightmare” was more like a badly told joke.
What followed Watergate was a period that deceptively felt free of major crises. Of course, we fought more undeclared wars, but they are a crisis only for those whose lives are lost or shattered, and we had professionalized our armed services. We had economic upheavals, but they are a crisis only for those who lose their jobs or their savings, and the rest of us tend not to care. We covered the earth with more concrete and asphalt, dumped more waste into the air and water, and released enough carbon dioxide to begin changing the climate, but too few noticed.
Deregulation, along with pubic apathy, chipped away at many of the financial and administrative advances of the 1960’s, and that decade’s social upheavals still simmered below the surface. September 11, 2001, brought us briefly together, and then things fell apart.
To make a long story a little shorter, increased polarization led to the election of a narcissistic psychopath, a so-called President. And that brings us to the current crisis, which at first I thought I could endure with Buddhist equanimity. But the first few days of the Trump Administration led me more toward Engaged Buddhism, which calls on us to blend meditation and mindfulness with social action.
As I look back on our past crises, I realize two things:
- Despite everything the United States has been through since my birth, this seems worse.
- It seems worse because it has led me to reexamine what it means to be an American.
I had thought that most of my fellow citizens agreed on the core values of inclusion and mutual respect…that most of us welcomed our diversity. Maybe I was misled by the idealism of the 1960’s. Maybe our nation is still paying the price for never having come to terms with our genocide against Native Americans, with our enslavement of Africans, with our sexist and hierarchical roots.
In his op-ed article Who Are We?, conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat opened my eyes to a competing view of America based on a “settler culture, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant, that demand(s) assimilation to its norms.” Douthat was not advocating for that culture to prevail but instead suggesting that progressives need to understand and leave room for that part of our nation’s history as we forge a new American narrative.
That doesn’t change my commitment to an inclusive nation, but it does help me see why the way forward has become so much harder than I realized it would be.
— Mel Pine (Urgyen Jigme)
Copyright 2017 © Mel Harkrader Pine