Regarding “Greatness”: A Baby Boomer’s Lament

The following is a beautiful essay written by my friend Susan Chase. I think it brilliantly captures the moment were living in and the danger of not standing up to the forces of evil a lesson we seem to have taken for granted from generations past. Susan has spent a lifetime working to leave the world a better place for the next generation as a mother, as a therapist, as a teacher, as a performing artist, writer, and director. I believe, as she once did, in the greatness of America. I would like to think we still have what it takes to embody that greatness as she remembers her fathers generation doing. But. Only if we heed her warning…

 

My father was a WWII veteran, which makes me and my sisters Baby Boomers. I grew up in a home in which we raised the flag on national holidays. Sometimes my dad would accompany this with the “Call to Colors” on his old Army bugle. Daddy had played that bugle in Europe and Japan. There’s a dent in it now — from one of us kids — but I still keep it in a display case in my living room.

My father taught me that America was a great country, and I only came to doubt that years later when I learned about slavery and genocide in our past and witnessed mass incarceration, homelessness, and income inequality in our present.

Yes, I grew to doubt the myth of American Greatness, but I never questioned the epithet “Greatest Generation” for my father and his buddies. Many of them — including my father — were only high school kids. But those kids did nothing less than save the world from Hitler.

My father enlisted in the Army after Pearl Harbor. He did not wait to be drafted. He and his friends eagerly joined the effort to defeat tyranny and preserve freedom.

I wish I knew more about my father’s WWII experiences. Typical of his generation, Daddy was reticent on the subject. I only managed to drag a few reluctant comments from him over the years…

On releasing prisoners from a concentration camp:

We didn’t understand what we were seeing.

On finding a stash of fine wine while on patrol in France:

We sang all night.

On digging latrines in occupied Japan:

I’ll never forget the smell.

No great insight to be gained from his words — just documentation. He was there. He was one of the heroes. I don’t think my dad ever thought of what he did as heroic. He just did it; he and his chums — many of them the children of immigrants — saved the world. And in saving the world, they ushered in an era of peace, prosperity, and great hope for Americans.

My father was superlatively patriotic. The son of Jewish immigrants, he thought of America as the bold experiment in democracy that would illuminate the world. He taught me that the actual name of the Statute of Liberty is “Liberty Enlightening the World.”

Quite frequently, Daddy’s patriotism seemed corny, even embarrassing, to us kids. Once, at a family wedding, a discussion of the Vietnam War became overheated. To diffuse the situation, Daddy started singing “God Bless America.” This was years before “The Deer Hunter” film premiered. I always wondered if Michael Cimino had gotten the idea for the ending from my dad.

Daddy saw America as great and wanted to play a role in elevating that greatness. During my childhood in the 1960s and 1970s, ”greatness” meant sharing American rights and freedoms with those who had been denied these rights. Some eloquent moments from my childhood endure.

In the mid-60s, school busing was explored as a way to achieve educational equality across income and racial divisions. Not only were disadvantaged Black children bused to White middle-class neighborhoods, but in my predominantly White middle-class school, some of our students were bused to a struggling urban school across town. My father’s response to this:

If that’s what it takes to make a better America, I am happy to do it.

(This memory is particularly heartbreaking now because it shows how far we’ve withdrawn from the ideal to “make a better America.” Today no one will even consider busing students — “Such an intrusion! Such a governmental over-reach!” — yet studies indicate that moving struggling students into successful schools is one of the best way to bridge the achievement gap.)

I also recall a Sunday afternoon when three neighbors paid us a call. My sisters and I were in the living room when the doorbell rang and my parents quickly wrangled us into the basement playroom. We knew something was up, but had no idea what. Later, my parents explained to us that a Black family was trying to buy a house on our street. The neighbors were raising money to donate to a White family, so the White family could outbid the Black family. My parents refused to contribute to the fund and told our neighbors that they wanted a Black family to move into the neighborhood. (Knowing my father, he probably added, “It will make a better America!”)

Another memory from this period: After Martin Luther King was assassinated, I saw demonstrations by white people, carrying posters that said, “We are ashamed.” I was too young to understand the complexity of this moment. My parents explained:

Well, we ARE ashamed — ashamed that a white man killed Martin Luther King, a man of peace.

So — that is the Daddy, and the America, I grew up to cherish. Contrary to what the Alt-Right would have you believe, it was not the picket fences, not the stay-at-home moms, and certainly not the lack of diversity that made this era great. It was the idealism, the shared sense of purpose. I will not say that America was great during my childhood because too many people were still denied their rights. But I will say that the America of my childhood aspired to greatness. The president of my childhood — a decorated hero of The Greatest Generation, who knew something about sacrifice — exhorted us, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” And members of my generation responded by creating the Peace Corps, Southern Poverty Law Center, Habitat for Humanity, Public Broadcasting System, Greenpeace, and Environmental Protection Agency.

One more memory about my father and then I’ll conclude. As a little girl, I had nightmares about the Holocaust. My dad would reassure me that “it couldn’t happen here,” and my fears would be assuaged. America had been built by immigrants, he insisted. Demonizing a minority would never work in this country because Americans were such “good people,” people of “decency.”

I still want to believe it couldn’t happen here. But last month Americans witnessed our first violent demonstration by homegrown Nazis. Despite the current uproar, this event was inevitable once we elected a president who demonizes Muslims and Mexicans, who states that transgender people are not worthy to defend our country, who encourages police brutality and who limits immigration — even legal immigration of refugees from war-ravaged countries.

If you still think “it can’t happen here,” I suggest that you chat with a Holocaust survivor. I suspect most German Jews believed that “it couldn’t happen here” until it suddenly did happen there.

I would also suggest that you listen to your president’s speech at his July 25 rally in Youngstown, Ohio. (It’s easy — the entire speech is on Youtube.) Perhaps you have assumed — as I have — that the excerpts of Trump speeches that we hear are edited to make him sound worse than he really is. I now understand that the so-called “liberal media” actually cleans up his speeches and makes him sound far less extreme than he is.

Below is an excerpt from Trump’s Youngstown rally, followed by a similar passage by Adolph Hitler. If you swap the word “Jews” for “illegal aliens,” you will have a hard time determining which speech is which.

At 53:30 of Trump’s Youngstown speech:

Our people are tougher and stronger and meaner and smarter than the gangs. One by one we’re finding the illegal gang members, drug dealers, thieves, robbers, criminals, and killers and we’re sending them the hell back home where they came from.

The predators and criminal aliens who poison our communities with drugs and prey on innocent young people will find no safe haven anywhere in our country. And you’ve seen the stories about some of these animals. They don’t want to use guns because it’s too fast and it’s not painful enough. So they’ll take a young, beautiful girl, 16, 15 and others and they slice ‘em and dice ‘em with a knife because they want them to go through excruciating pain before they die and these are the animals that we’ve been protecting for too long. Well, they’re not being protected any longer.

From Hitler’s Mein Kampf,

With satanic joy in his face, the black-haired Jewish youth lurks in wait for the unsuspecting girl whom he defiles with his blood, thus stealing her from her people. With every means he tries to destroy the racial foundations of the people he has set out to subjugate. Just as he himself systematically ruins women and girls, he does not shrink back from pulling down the blood barriers for others, even on a large scale.

So here we are — in the country saved by The Greatest Generation, in the country hailed as liberators by the entire world just 70 years ago. And here in that same country, I see a man who never defended America, a man who could not tell you the date or place of a major battle in America’s history — could not tell you anything about World War II or the Greatest Generation — and that man, elevated to the presidency, is gleefully retracing Hitler’s footsteps by facilitating White supremacists, demonizing the free press, emboldening a militarized police force, and placing the blame for our national woes squarely on the shoulders of disadvantaged minorities.

My father — and most of his generation — have passed on. And now, after all these years, I feel the need to tell my dad that he was wrong in his assessment of America’s goodness and inherent decency. But more than “you were wrong, Daddy,” the main thing I need to say to my father is “I’m sorry.” I’m so sorry that America has been defiled by a group of people who know nothing about the history and principles of this country. They don’t know or care that America was founded by refugees fleeing religious oppression and that American Greatness — if it ever existed — was the alluvium of generations of immigrants who found freedom and welcome in this country.

As a country, we all need to say, “I am sorry” to my dad, to all the members, living and dead, of the Greatest Generation; to all those people who made America an international model of goodness and greatness for so many years.

For myself, here is my apology to them:

All of you risked and many of you lost your lives to preserve a Great America. That Great country should have survived and flourished for many more generations. But it has been destroyed by a man and his supporters who are not fit to wipe your boots. I am sorry that I did not do more to stop this.

I believe that all of you made your sacrifice willingly, perhaps even eagerly. But I wonder if you would have surrendered your lives — so young, so precious — quite so eagerly if you had known that a mere 70 years later, America would give its heart and soul to another Hitler.