by Daniel A. Kaufman
I was almost eight years old when the American Bicentennial Hit, and I remember it well. It was all over children’s television and especially, Sesame Street, The Electric Company, and Schoolhouse Rock. The latter devoted an entire season to American history and government for the bicentennial, with the “I’m Just a Bill” episode being perhaps the most well-remembered.
There were Bicentennial quarters and postage stamps that I became obsessed with collecting, special celebrations and fireworks on July 4th, and even my favorite band expressed the Bicentennial spirit in a series of posters you could buy or find as fold-outs in rock magazines like Hit Parader and Creem.
I grew up reasonably patriotic, despite the fact that my first political memories are of Richard Nixon saying “I’m not a crook” on television, “Vietnamization,” Stagflation, and Abscam. It wasn’t that American did nothing terrible, because of course it did, but because my parents had established in me a firmly relativistic ethos. “Compared to what?” my father would always ask, when presented with categorical judgments, and from the end of WWII to the last decades of the 20th Century, America looked pretty good to Jewish Holocaust survivors.
My parents had come to the United States in the 1950’s from Israel. They came to Israel [then Mandatory Palestine] in the 1930’s and 40’s, after having been expelled from Europe: my father’s family from Germany, and my mother’s from Transylvania, via Bergen-Belsen. To them, the United States represented the opposite of everything they’d left. It was a place where they could be Jewish and not be persecuted or forcibly converted or imprisoned or murdered; where they could earn a decent living and enjoy an upwardly mobile lifestyle, and this did not require political connections; where they could raise a child and live in suburban comfort and even enjoy some luxury. Freedom, opportunity, and a live-and-let live ethos was what America represented to them and what it was to me growing up. The point was not that there was nothing wrong with the country, and in my schooldays in the 1970’s we were taught pretty unflinchingly about the history of slavery and segregation, the massacres of the American Indians, the Red Scare, and all the rest. The point, rather, was that when compared with other places at the time, the US seemed like a pretty good one.
My impression growing up was that political issues could be hotly contested; that there was a significant distance between our two major parties; and that this distance could cross over into antipathy and even hatred. [Read anything from Hunter S. Thompson back in the day, and you’ll see how much Nixon was hated by those on the political Left.] But there also was a strong sense that most of us were engaged in a common endeavor; that beyond a certain point, we were all Americans. The Republican Party had a liberal wing and the Democratic Party had a conservative one. Cross-aisle collaborations and friendships – like those between Reagan and Tip O’Neil; Ted Kennedy and Orrin Hatch; and Joe Biden and John McCain – were visible and productive and commonly known. Even Thompson could bring himself to board a campaign bus with Nixon and talk about football. There was a general aura of seriousness about the job of President, Senator, and Congressman, and a Nixon or Reagan could make enormous strides forward in foreign affairs with Chinese and Soviet counterparts so ideologically and politically opposite to them that one might have thought it impossible. This was the sense of the political landscape I had growing up in the third quarter of the last century, and it was consistent with my largely positive view of the country.
Now, at almost fifty-four years of age, forty-six years past the bicentennial, and contemplating another Fourth of July gone by, I no longer feel the same way about America. I can’t tell you how long it’s been like this, but certainly the last six years and likely longer. Undoubtedly many of the things I’m most unhappy about began much longer ago – I think the Clinton/Gingrich era is when things really started to go south politically in this country – but as my last twenty-plus years were spent building a family and a career, I haven’t been entirely paying attention.
If the Republican Party still has a liberal wing, it is invisible and impotent, seeing that the entire party has been compromised by Trump and Trumpism. [The handful of semi-reasonable conservative writers that remain, like David French or Jonah Goldberg, are entirely irrelevant in American politics right now, and have no capacity to reform the American Right.] The Democrats’ conservative wing also has all but vanished, and the rabble of liberals and barking-mad “progressives” that remain are much more interested in knifing each other than teaming up to take on the Republicans and Trump.
The Republicans have fallen so far that they will be unfit to govern for a generation at least. If you are skeptical, consider that the most recent crop of Republicans is by far the worst of the lot, whether the revolting teen-chaser, Matt Gaetz, or gun-crazed, certified Christian lunatic Loren Boebert. The Democrats, meanwhile, have fallen victim to their own whackjob wing and are unable to mount any kind of serious opposition, which would be pathetic at any time but is especially so, now. [If you can’t beat the likes of Trump, Gaetz, and Boebert, you should be too ashamed to show your face in public, let alone run for office.] This is why, at a moment when women’s social standing and rights have been set back fifty years, with the Supreme Court’s recent abortion decision, self-styling “progressives” in the Democratic party are more interested in telling everyone that “trans, non-binary, and gender-non-conforming folx [sic] get pregnant too” and avoiding any use of the word ‘woman’, than they are concerned with working alongside liberals in the party so as to win the next election.
Beyond being trapped in the narrowest and most extreme of ideological tunnels, then, the two parties seem to be suffering a catastrophic failure of maturity. That someone is more concerned about performing for and maintaining standing within his or her clique than the business of the nation or the well-being of its people is not what one expects from adult congresspeople, senators, and political activists, but from twelve- and thirteen-year-olds. And the trouble with both parties today is that the people in them think and behave like twelve- and thirteen-year-olds, while the few who remain in possession of adult attitudes and behave like grown-ups refuse to reign in these proverbial children and tell them, “no.” In this regard, our political problem is an expression of our much greater, societal problem: a nationwide crisis of maturity and authority.
But the diminishment of my longstanding patriotism isn’t just due to this decline in the quality and maturity of American political leadership. The truth is that I’ve come to dislike the place, its people, and its culture.
The juvenile obsession with shallow and trendy identities that is not limited to juveniles; the ubiquitous and weirdly celebrated neuroticism; the widespread belief among young people that they have been deputized to “hold accountable” anyone whose views or lifestyle they dislike; the general [non-partisan] inclination towards a politics based primarily in spite; the deranged gun-people who don’t care how many elementary schools get shot up; the techno-worship and retreat into cyberspace; the self-enslavement to corporations and their stupid, manipulative trends; the complete abdication of authority on the part of adults to children, adolescents and imbecile 20-somethings; the disintegration of anything resembling a popular culture; the debased Trumpist movement and the vulgarians and crazies that comprise it; the newly emboldened Christian Right; and I could go on. The 1970’s may have suffered its “malaise” and Jimmy Carter may have had his “misery index,” but I was there, and I can tell you that America back then was a thousandfold more pleasant, interesting, healthy, and serious place than it is now.
The bicentennial was a long time ago, and America was a very different country with very different people and a very different ethos. I felt good about that place and those people and that ethos, something that I can no longer truthfully say. It hurts all the more because I have a young daughter and can already see the diminished forms of life into which she is being forced: high-school; college; dating; early jobs; all of it. Worse. And it is our fault — the Baby Boomers and Generation X — as we’re the ones who created the world and culture that these young people are growing up in. And what an irony it is: the two generations who enjoyed the best childhoods/young-adulthoods in human history create a society in which their children and grandchildren have among the worst childhoods/young-adulthoods a person can experience in a developed nation.
To our eternal shame.