I can’t say for certain when I realized I had this particular problem, believing that sanity and civility have been thrown under the bus. In fairness, from a societal perspective, I am not sure they have ever been on the bus.
I was born in 1945 in New York City and these past 70 years have been quite eventful, maybe the most important time in the history of the planet.
I was a kid when the Korean War ended and even the idea of calling it a war perverted the meaning of this heinous word and its awful consequences. Our country has a history of doing what it wants and taking what it wants, just ask the Native Americans who hung out around Plymouth Rock in the 1600s. Since Korea, our foreign policy has further devolved, igniting fear as the justifications, governed by the expedience of the moment.
The 1954 Army McCarthy Hearings took fear to new heights, rather new lows, by forcing Americans to testify against each other, ruining many lives along the way.
The menace of communism needed to be destroyed, no matter how many good people had to be sacrificed in the name of freedom. Fear was the cudgel used to stone these people into oblivion.
Sometime during the numbness of the ‘50s, the idea of the American Dream became the mantra of the emerging middle class. A guy by the name of James Truslow Adams is alleged to have coined the term several decades earlier and it goes like this, “The American Dream is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.”
Things began to slowly start simmering toward the end of the 50s. Beatniks, the precursor of the hippies, Jack Kerouac and company began testing the limits, a kind of cultural revolution in the making. Disenchantment began brewing in places like Height Ashbury and music at the time was fast becoming the soundtrack of the times. During the dreaded red witch hunt just before, folk music began sounding the clarion call of protest and the tempo and heat of the music started increasing. Rock n’ Roll, steeped in blues and gospel music, started drawing young people into its web of dreams, sensuality and empowerment. The late 50s was a gumbo of forces, birthed by the American Dream and slowly being orphaned by it. Holding fast to ideals only leads to disillusion and disappointment.
As a teenager, I remember “I Like Ike” buttons and seeing a grandfatherly figure, looking kind of benign. This old warrior saw the future, never more evident in his 1961, prophetic speech. “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes.”
Ike saw the future and it is ours today. We are its victims in a war that has been lost. How we got from there to here is the story of my problem and it is a quiet source of torment for me because I am an optimist, but I have lost all hope for the future. Having these two polar opposites live under my skin has caused this leakage.
No more than a year after Ike’s speech, Operation Chopper became our first reported combat mission in Vietnam. Citing the number of human beings killed and maimed physically and mentally by that effort to keep America safe from communism disrespects each and everyone one of them. The fear of communism and the righteousness of the American Dream were and are a hollow rationale for this inhumane chapter in the history of our tainted foreign policy, which continues to this day.
For a brief time, the dream came back to life with John F. Kennedy. Magic returned to the American spirit and life was all about possibility. When he was shot, our dreams died a hard death. I remember watching the funeral procession and crying my eyes out at the sight of his little boy saluting him. Several decades later, we were reminded of his senseless death by the senseless death of his namesake. Promise can only die so many times before its scores the soul. The murder of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. ripped this country wide open and we have not recovered, even though time tries to numb the execution of possibilities.
The Summer of Love hit in 1967 and the soft petals of Flower Power blossomed for a time, fueled by music, the Vietnam War and the desire to find a remedy for the impotence of youth against the system. This eruption caught Ike’s predicted minions by surprise and for a time, chaos was in charge. The sons and daughters of the doomed middle class were running wild. Black Americans took to the buses and streets, emboldened by the desire for equality, withheld by the precursors to Ike’s power vortex, but no less sinister. Blacks were suffering unspeakable treatment for centuries. The murder of two white boys from back East, passengers on the Freedom Rides, punctuated this historic affront to human dignity. When four students were killed by our own National Guard at Kent State in 1970, we began the plunge into a free fall that has no end in sight.
Since the debacle in Vietnam, we have engaged in one illegal war after another. We have left devastation in the wake of each one, a vacuum filled by the citizens we have punished under the guise of help, not to mention promoting democracy with a righteousness that eats entire cultures, ignoring their history and sovereignty. Today, the Middle East is a tinderbox, fueled by a lopsided, cruel policy, which can only give birth to cruelty in return. Violence, the tool of every dominant society has caused each one to fall prey to it, without exception.
We live in a world manipulated by the tricks of advertising, pricking our fears under the guise of freedom. The American Dream has been twisted by a brand new oligarchy of power and money. Their demented message has used the concept of freedom to allow those with bank to take over the title to America.
Corporations are deemed to be individuals with the same rights we all have. They now elect our representatives, write the laws and control our judicial system. Under the banner of freedom, we individuals have lost our birthright. They have been credentialed by the tragedy of 9/11 and the avalanche of fear set loose upon us by corporate America.
This is a good time to invoke the name of Buddha and a quote that is attributed to him. “There can be no peace as long as there is grinding poverty, social injustice, inequality, oppression, environmental degradation, and as long as the weak and small continue to be trodden by the mighty and powerful.”
Bearing witness to all this is planet Earth. If she had a voice, she would be screaming at the top of her lungs, calling attention to our complete disregard for her well-being. Global warming is no more than a symptom for the insane idea that our environment is here solely for our convenience. For every action, there is a consequence.
We are depleting non-renewable resources for our vain convenience and technology has even made us better at it. Greed has been the mantra for millennia, but we have never carried this many people before today. We cannot sustain our numbers, no matter what the oligarchy tells us, no matter how profitable it is for them.
We have an economic system that is based on continued growth and it is deeply flawed. We are living in a world steeped in limitation and our own mortality is the greatest one of all. No matter what we do; no matter how much money we make, no matter how much we consume, we are all going to die.
This leads us to the reason behind our awful behavior. We will do anything to deny the inevitable. The greatness of America is not endless, no matter our weaponry, our rhetoric or our freshly printed currency. The idea of empire is flawed and history is our finest teacher. We are deaf to the voice of humility.
In 1964, I saw the Beatles at Shea Stadium and for a brief moment, the world was perfect. Today, I live on Kauai and everyday I get to believe in today, no more, no less.
Larry Fernstein is a resident of Koloa.