A Chinese curse goes, “may you live in interesting times.” The fulfillment of that curse has been the unending culture war begun on the home front during the Vietnam War. In this war at home like that war abroad, objectives and tactics shifted with changing circumstances. Opposition to the war first expanded to opposition to the “system,” then narrowed to opposition to the draft.
There were life-style protesters: hippies refusing to bathe, boys growing facial hair, girls not shaving their armpits and legs, many smoking pot or doing drugs, the more dedicated retreating to communes famous for naked kids, lousy food, and unsanitary conditions—the Woodstock Nation.
There were political protesters: young men, mostly white and middle-class, who burned (or pretended to burn) draft cards; and students who staged take-overs at universities, marched in large demonstrations, burned the flag, wore it on the seat of their pants, or fled to Canada.
There were civil rights activists: many black and some whites who conducted sit-ins, rode buses, canvassed for voters, marched in protests, and extolled posturing militants who mostly ran food kitchens in their ghettos.
And there were academics who inflated grades so that college boys could avoid service and let others take their place and the risks (the poster child of this stratagem is Dick Cheney). Responding to Johnson’s and Nixon’s manipulations and lies, these academics attacked the “system” of traditional educational structures (think grammar and the canon; think historical revisionism) and substituted doctrines of intellectual, political, and moral plasticity.
As a result, we lost much more than the war; we lost our way.
I anticipated a conservative reaction to counter-cultural, draft-dodging, civil-rights-crusading, and cynicism-sponsoring types. When a leading campus radical challenged me to say on which side of the barricades I would be when the revolution came, I said that there would be no barricades, for there would be no revolution. I knew most Americans to be reluctant and slow to change, to resent and resist those demanding it.
I did not anticipate—delicious irony—that radicals on the left would create radicals on the right. Conservatives—are some aging hippies, war protesters, civil rights activists, and liberal academics?—have slowly changed to become the new radicals attacking the “system,” now relabeled “tyrannical government.” Those who once rallied to support the federal government now rally against it. Newt Gingrich tried to shut it down. John Roberts and Samuel Alito lied to Congress about their impartiality and their respect for precedent; then, once seated on the Supreme Court, proceeded as activists to decide cases, even overturning settled law, to reduce government authority. Mitch McConnell and John Boehner advocate a politics of “no.” Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Andrew Breitbart, and others have become purveyors of reportorial fiction or editorial smarm. As liberals have taught them, so conservatives have learned that truth is plastic and decency optional.
Less ironically than hypocritically, conservatives decry liberals for the self-indulgence of the “me” generation, on the pretense that they are not part of the same generation and every bit as self-indulgent. Liberals tend to personal indulgence like pot, drugs, and casual sex; conservatives, to political indulgence like corporate greed, environmental abuse, and regulatory abandon. But I suspect that not a few liberals and conservatives have skeletons of the opposite persuasion in their closets. My suspicion explains why their children share a lifestyle once liberal, now conservative as well, with dyed hair, tattoos, and body rings and studs—outward manifestations intimating inward similarity. More important, the youth of both sides share something else: a greater tolerance of personal differences of ethnicity, race, religion, and sexuality.
That tolerance gives me some hope that the young, though ill-educated, are less ill-tempered and narrow-minded than their parents and grandparents, hostile opposites still fighting the old culture war. It gives me some hope that they, though less informed, are more inclined to work with one another. In that process, they will have to teach themselves and each other what their parents and grandparents have failed to teach them about times before their time, about persistent questions which each generation of Americans must answer for itself, and about the subjects relevant to developing their answers. Otherwise, they, too, will lose their way.
My prayer is that they will reject unrestrained selfishness and accept some public service and personal sacrifice as more fulfilling than unstinted self-indulgence. If so, they will recognize that government cannot do all things but can and must do some things. They will realize that all resources are limited and must be prudently conserved and fairly allocated; and that social programs—Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid—cannot serve if they cannot survive, so that their benefits must be distributed on the basis of need, not—wonderful word decried by moralists—entitlement. When they match realism with tolerance, they will end the culture war which need not have been fought but, having been fought, needs no winner.