Thursday, August 28, 2008

Historical Postcards & the Battle of New Orleans

For every nation there are a handful of events each century that are so stunning and transformative that they become what I call “historical postcards”—big, bright pictures burned into the memories of an entire living generation.

One such postcard for my father’s generation was Pearl Harbor.  He was just a young boy when the bombs fell, and I remember him telling me that he heard the news on the radio and hid under his bed for fear that his New England city would be next. He never forgot that terrible feeling of fear and loss, nor did many members of his generation.

There have been, by my count, five historical postcards in my generation. I do not include the assassinations of Robert Kennedy, or the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster; these were big, important events, and I can still see the pictures in my mind.  But an historical postcard, at least by my definition, changes the world as we know it.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Real Perspective on the "Greatest Generation"

I have an important question to ask you.

Who is the greatest baseball player of all time, Ken Griffey, Jr. or Alex Rodriquez?

If you are a precocious 12-year-old fan living in New York or Cincinnati, that may be a profound question worth debating.

If you are a baseball fan of just about any other stripe, that question is, to put it bluntly, boneheaded.

(If you hate baseball, a few more paragraphs and we’re onto the main topic.)

Being in your teens or older, for example, you’ve seen Barry Bonds play. A little bit older and you’ve seen Hank Aaron. My age and you remember Mantle and Mays. Still older and it’s Dimaggio, Williams and Musial. And, there are certainly plenty of folks still alive who saw Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, and probably Christy Mathewson play.

The interesting thing about baseball, at least modern baseball, is that its entire history is still within the living memory of Americans. And when we have that kind of collective perspective on an issue, the ensuing debate can be very rich and very nuanced.

In fact, real perspective allows us to frame the question well in the first place.

On Sunday, July 27, the Boston Globe magazine ran a series of articles on the Baby Boomer generation. Boston-based freelance writer Tom Keane wrote a piece challenging Tom Brokaw’s praise of the WWII generation as the “Greatest Generation,” concluding instead that it was the Baby Boomer generation that really delivered on the promises (especially around human and civil rights) that the Greatest Generation fought to protect.

It was a thoughtful article and well written, but I couldn’t help but think it was a debate over a question framed without any real perspective. In fact, to the question “Which is the greatest generation ever in America, the Baby Boomers or the “Greatest Generation,” I believe the correct answer is: “Ken Griffey, Jr.”

Here is the problem, or at least part of it: Americans are about as a-historical a culture as has ever existed. We look forward perhaps better than any culture ever has (a point to be debated, but only with perspective), but once something is in our rearview mirror, it’s really gone.

In fact, there are five generations alive at this moment in America—Gen X (trying to steal Scrabble on Facebook), Gen Y (complaining about working a 5-day week), the aforesaid Baby Boomers (mostly blogging, I think), the (more traditional) Silent Generation (being franchised by Tom Brokaw as the “Greatest Generation”) and the G.I. Generation (born 1901-1924).

(If you are interested in the full roster of generations, see Strauss and Howe’s book, Generations.) Technically, the sixth living generation, the Lost Generation (born 1883 to 1900) is still around, represented by a handful of hearty 108+ year olds.

So, when we think about the “greatest generation ever,” we a-historical Americans really have two living, mature generations to compare, because those are the only two we know anything about. As a culture, unfortunately, we are sometimes only as good as the last thing we lived.

[In fact, does it strike you as somewhat ironic, and therefore ephemeral, that the belief that the Baby Boomers are somehow the transcendent generation is being propagated by, well, Baby Boomers?]

The reason I mention all this is because I have just finished The Purpose of the Past, a collection of Gordon Wood’s reviews of history books for the New York Times Review of Books. I took a course from Professor Wood many decades ago and he is one of my heroes, having (with his mentor, Bernard Bailyn) rescued the American Revolution and the Constitution from Charles Beard and his forces of economic evil. I love Wood’s reviews, which are fair and measured but don’t pull any punches. As you read through the book, you come to realize that what Wood has written (over time, and unwittingly) is really a collection of interconnected essays which speak to our interpretation of American history in the twentieth century.

There were several reviews that struck me as particularly relevant, but none more than Wood’s review of Joyce Appleby’s Inheriting the Revolution: The First Generation of Americans, published in 2000. Perhaps it was coincidence that I read the Appleby review on the same day Tom Keane’s piece ran in the Boston Globe.

Wood writes:
We are often told that the baby boomers, that is, those born in the two decades or so following World War II, have brought the greatest transformation of political, social and cultural life in American history. Ever since this generation came of age in the 1960s and 1970s, it has involved America in a multitude of radical changes allegedly unmatched by the experience of any previous generation of Americans—changes in politics, civil rights, race relations, sexual habits, family life, women’s roles, cultural attitudes. . .But maybe this baby-boomer generation is not unique after all. If we read Joyce Appleby’s new book, we might conclude that at least one earlier generation, the first generation—those born in the two decades or so following the Declaration of Independence—participated in an equally radical, or perhaps even more radical, transformation of American society and culture.
Here, in a nutshell, are Keane’s and Appleby’s findings. You be the judge:
Keane on the Baby Boomers:

When the first boomers started coming of age, segregation was legal, mixed marriages were prohibited, and blacks and other minorities lived on the fringes of American society. Women weren’t much better off. . .And gays? As far as most of America was concerned, they didn’t even exist. . .Collectively, those groups were upward of 65% of today’s population. . .

Credit the baby boomers and their rejection of the world they were handed for changing that. Marches on Washington, women’s lib, Stonewall—it was under the boomers’ watch that women, minorities, and gays became part of the mainstream. . .The Greatest Generation may have saved the American Dream, but it was the boomers who helped make it come true for all.
Pretty good, eh? Pat, pat on your back. Pat, pay on my own back—though I have learned recently—much to my distress--that I may in fact be part of the lost “Generation Jones,” which, it turns out, has “an unrequited craving of unfulfilled expectations.”

And I thought that was the beginning of middle age heartburn.

But what of Appleby’s First Generation? How does it stack up against our Baby Boomers? Here, oh reader, some real perspective:

1. The First Generation was the most mobile in American history.

And I don’t mean moving from Novato to a pad overlooking the Bay in San Francisco. “Tens of thousands of ordinary folk pulled up stakes in the East and moved westward, occupying more territory in a single generation than had been occupied in the 150 years of colonial history. Between 1800 and 1820, the trans-Appalachian population grew from a third of a million to more than two million. ‘Never again,” Appleby writes, ‘would so large a population of the nation live in new settlements.’”

In other words, this was America’s true frontier generation. For them, the frontier wasn’t some inspiring American myth—it was what they found every morning when they opened their front door.

2. The First Generation created America’s middle class.

Think about that. In the early nineteenth century, choices and occupations of all sorts multiplied in writing, publishing, journalism, school teaching, law, politics, medicine, civil engineering, painting, and preaching. To follow the careers of those in the first generation, writes Appleby, “is to watch the sprawling American middle class materialize, summoned into existence by political independence, thickening trade connections, and religious revivals, all tied together by print.”

3. The First Generation created a literate America.

If Baby Boomers have been forced to adjust to the Internet, Americans in 1800 were forced to read as a necessity of life and a principal activity of nation building.

Northern Americans became one of the most, if not the most, literate people in the world. Printers, publishers and booksellers all doubled in number in the first decade of the nineteenth century. By 1810 Americans were buying 24 million copies of newspapers annually, the largest aggregate circulation of any country in the world

4. The First Generation re-created American religion, forging a landscape that we still occupy today.

Preachers sprang up everywhere; the Second Great Awakening sent over 3 million Americans to revivalist camp meetings in 1811 alone, and undermined the old established orders of Congregationalists and Anglicans by creating a new and uniquely voluntary religious world dominated by evangelical Methodists and Baptists. The “American evangelical Christian” was invented, as were brand new sects--the Disciples of Christ and Mormons—which had no European roots whatsoever.

5. And while they were at it, the First Generation created American capitalism and entrepreneurialism.

It was the willingness of “ordinary men and women. . .to move, to innovate, to accept paper money, and to switch from homemade goods once commercial ones were available” that accounts for the expansion of farming, commerce, credit and information.

Boot-strap manufacturing ventures proliferated in the rural North: “Bright young middling men from obscure background, like Peter Cooper and Amasa Goodyear, were able to take advantage of America’s unique conditions and opportunities to become successful businessmen. Novelty and inventiveness became their watchwords. Because American labor was expensive compared to European labor, these hustling entrepreneurs were eager to develop machines and tools to enhance productivity. They were risk takers as well, showing ‘a surprising willingness to venture outside the realm of their experience.” America’s internal market became the largest in the world.
The Baby Boomers were good. But this First Generation created “a powerful myth about America that metamorphosed ordinary labor into extraordinary acts of nation building”—a myth so powerful that succeeding generations had trouble questioning it.

Including our own.

So, your call: Baby Boomers or First Generation?

And, after all this talk about the greatest generation, and real perspective, I have one final, very important question just to see if you have learned anything:
Who is the prettiest woman in the history of America, Scarlett Johansson or Jessica Alba?

If your answer is “Ken Griffey, Jr.,” you may proceed to the lightening round.