Thursday, December 17, 2009

Some want to make the Climate Crisis a generational fight (debated in the post below). Photo: Al Gore, one of the 60s generation at the forefront.

The Wrong Enemy

The future has lots of enemies--greedy insurers, egomaniacal Senators, Climate Crisis deniers, petrified (in both senses) why on Earth would a someone want to invent a new one?

In this Worldchanging post, Alex Steffan declares that the war for the future is generational, young against old, apparently because of polls (which he doesn't bother citing) that say the older demographic believes in the Climate Crisis less than do the younger. The key graph:

"And this is what most older observers seem to refuse to understand: The world looks dramatically different if the year 2050 is one you’re likely to be alive to see. To younger people, Copenhagen isn’t some do-gooder meeting; it’s the first major battle in a war for the future. Their future."

It's not unusual for a younger generation to anoint itself the hope of the world, in opposition to the old people who have so far screwed things up. We did it in the 60s. Maybe with more justification, maybe with less. But it's like a lot of broad-brush categorical statements: even if it is in some sense true (and it is also always in some sense false) it alienates your potential allies within the group (older, male, white, etc.) you condemn.

Of course, scientists, writers, artists and even politicians in all of these categories are demonstrably in the forefront of the fight to address the Climate Crisis and to build a sustainable future. Some of them are from the 60s generation, like Al Gore, and others are even older, like the foremost climate scientists in England and the U.S. (James Hansen for one. James Lovelock, more radically that just about anyone, is in his nineties.) Steffan might be forgiven for youthful exuberance for ignoring this, except that later in his post he writes "if I were ten years younger" he would join the young "on the barricades."

Yes, in a statistical sense, there is a divide--older voters in the U.S. not only tend to be behind the curve on global heating, but on race, gender and social issues as well. Younger U.S. voters also tend to be more diverse racially and in other ways. But those are percentages, not numbers of people. And even the numbers aren't altogether relevant. There are millions on one side, and millions on the other.

What Steffans basically contends is at the heart of the difference--the dividing line that makes the older the enemy--is their relation to the future. The young will live to see it, and the old will not. Therefore, the young care more about the future.

There is some visceral truth to this idea. But only to a degree, and not enough to condemn the imaginations and commitments of older people. Older people are often parents and grandparents. Many older people do care about the future, partly because they are older. Past a certain age, older people are often less interested in the present than in the past and the future. They care about legacy, and about the planet that has borne their lives, and about their descendants, their grandchildren. There's hardly anything they care about more.

But speaking for my generation, many of us have made a lifetime commitment of caring about the future. And we have the scars to prove it. We were always a minority, even within our own generation. Just as you probably are within yours.

I doubt that every young person is worried about 2050. It takes imagination as well as motivation to think about the future, in any sense beyond the very narrow, and very short.

So my advice to Steffans and the others looking for enemies: you've got enough real ones, you don't need to invent--or create--new ones. The old are easy to scapegoat--the older, the easier. Yes, the biggest human barriers to change are usually older than 30. You have to be to be elected to the Senate, etc. Most of them are also right-handed. But then, maybe you are, too.

I echo Steffans' concern that the young will become discouraged and disheartened. Maybe older veterans of other fights can help with that.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

"I Will Protect Medicare"

After noting the charge "made not just by radio and cable talk show hosts, but prominent politicians, that we plan to set up panels of bureaucrats with the power to kill off senior citizens," and stating "Such a charge would be laughable if it weren't so cynical and irresponsible. It is a lie, plain and simple," President Obama addressed seniors directly in his speech on health care reform to a joint session of Congress on 9/9/09:
"In fact, I want to speak directly to America's seniors for a moment, because Medicare is another issue that's been subjected to demagoguery and distortion during the course of this debate.
More than four decades ago, this nation stood up for the principle that after a lifetime of hard work, our seniors should not be left to struggle with a pile of medical bills in their later years. That is how Medicare was born. And it remains a sacred trust that must be passed down from one generation to the next. That is why not a dollar of the Medicare trust fund will be used to pay for this plan.
The only thing this plan would eliminate is the hundreds of billions of dollars in waste and fraud, as well as unwarranted subsidies in Medicare that go to insurance companies - subsidies that do everything to pad their profits and nothing to improve your care. And we will also create an independent commission of doctors and medical experts charged with identifying more waste in the years ahead.
These steps will ensure that you - America's seniors - get the benefits you've been promised. They will ensure that Medicare is there for future generations. And we can use some of the savings to fill the gap in coverage that forces too many seniors to pay thousands of dollars a year out of their own pocket for prescription drugs. That's what this plan will do for you.
So don't pay attention to those scary stories about how your benefits will be cut - especially since some of the same folks who are spreading these tall tales have fought against Medicare in the past, and just this year supported a budget that would have essentially turned Medicare into a privatized voucher program. That will never happen on my watch. I will protect Medicare. "

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Kennedy Generation

Ted Kennedy last year, leaving a Boston hospital, with Caroline Kennedy looking on. See post below: the Kennedy Generation. Photo: Boston Globe.
Even after I knew that Ted Kennedy was terminally ill, and for most of a day after I learned he had died (which apparently was unexpected, as his children were away), I was not prepared for the effect it would have on me. I could feel it coming on during the day Wednesday, until I realized I had to recognize it, and I retreated to the television to watch the retrospectives and listen to the talk.

The reason this death was so important, of course, was that for my generation, Ted Kennedy--and his older brothers--were prominent in our hopes and dreams, tragedies and political disappointments, for most of our lives.

Some of the talk told me things I didn't know about Ted Kennedy himself, while other comments confirmed impressions I had. Ted Kennedy's maternal grandfather, "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald, was a quintessential Irish politician, and the Mayor of Boston who threw out the first pitch in the first baseball game played at Fenway Park. Last spring, Ted threw out the first pitch at Fenway to begin this Red Sox season. More than John or Robert Kennedy, Ted was a throwback in style to his grandfather. I thought this when I watched him during his 1980 presidential nomination campaign, in particular when he came to Pennsylvania for our primary (which he won.) He had an old-fashioned braying oratorical style on the stump, and he clearly delighted in it.

But if he hadn't learned a lot about rhetoric from his brothers, he absorbed their most important political insights. He even continued to quote Arnold Toynbee and his theory that the civilizations that prosper do so by responding to challenges--an idea central to JFK's campaign, but rarely heard since.
He saw the poverty JFK saw in West Virginia, and RFK saw in New York, the deep South, among the migrant workers and on Indian reservations in the West. He knew what RFK knew about Vietnam, and he helped end the military draft and he voted against the Iraq war. But my theory is that he was less comfortable in foreign affairs, and that might be why he wasn't really enthusiastic about the presidency. His achievements--which are so many and so profound that they have, as eulogists point out, touched the lives of everyone in America--are mostly in domestic policies--everything from mental and physical health to education, worker pay and safety, to equal rights for immigrants, gays and women as well as African Americans.

Ted Kennedy was in the Senate to help pass Medicare. To help pass the Voting Rights Act. He helped bring the United States out of the nineteenth century essentially, to where it is now, which is in crucial ways still several decades behind other democracies.

I saw him for the first time in Washington during JFK's Inaugural weekend, when I was 15. I heard him speak for McGovern in 1972 in Boston, and there for a few minutes I found myself in an anteroom where he was standing, talking to someone. I was covering the event for the Boston Phoenix, and I knew I should jump on this opportunity to interview him. I looked steadily at him, trying to think of something to ask him beyond handicapping the race, while with one hand I tried to fish my notebook out of my coat pocket, where it was stuck. This went on for a few minutes when a man came up to me and started a friendly conversation, pretending to mistake my newspaper's name on my nametag for the city of Phoenix. I glanced at him and knew immediately--from having been an usher at a JFK event, where I was told how to identify them so as to report any suspicious activity--that the friendly guy was Secret Service. If my mind had been a bit boggled before, it was completely blown at that point.

I heard Ted Kennedy speak several times after that, and even shook his hand. I worked on his presidential primary campaign in Pennsylvania in 1980. But I never got past the feelings about the assassinations of his brothers when I saw him, and then over the years the rumors and revelations and revisionisms about the Kennedys took their toll: Kennedy fatigue.

But seeing parts of some of the retrospectives--some good, some bad, but with film and "fact" new to me, the former Kennedy scholar--I was forced to see again how much the Kennedys had influenced me, my life and times. So I especially note a memorial piece by Tom Hayden. Hayden was a founder of SDS and a cerebral radical when I first heard him speak in the '60s. Back when I first read Jack Newfield's book after RFK's murder, I was very interested to see a small reference to Tom Hayden standing in the back of the church at RFK's funeral, weeping. Real radicals weren't supposed to admit that establishment politicians like RFK made a difference.

But today Hayden says forthrightly what I have believed since JFK's murder: "If either of the earlier Kennedy brothers had not been murdered, the likelihood is that American would have evolved steadily in a progressive direction, without Vietnam, without the black uprisings and repressions, without Nixon and Watergate, because that was the trajectory where Ted Kennedy believed his brothers' legacy would be honored. That is why, as Jack Newfield wrote in 1968, we would become not a generation of has-beens, but a generation of might-have-beens, while we were very young."

That in a nutshell is the chief tragedy of my generation, my country and my life.

This is not to excuse us for what we didn't do, and certainly not to diminish Ted Kennedy's achievements. Indeed, he had a hand in almost every positive change of the past 45 years, to a staggeringly degree. Which of course makes his passing all the more frightening. Others will achieve important things, including other Kennedys. But it's not likely to be to the extent or at least in the way that he did. And in so many ways, he did the work his brothers set forth, and got little glory doing it, until he came to the end of his service.

His last major service was, of course, to help in a crucial way to make Barack Obama President. Exactly a year before he died, Ted Kennedy placed the entire Kennedy legacy behind Obama's candidacy. He overcame pain and illness to address the Democratic convention, and in his 8 minute speech, made specific references to RFK ("the belief that we are called to a better country and a newer world") and JFK ("This November, the torch will be passed again to a new generation of Americans") and by concluding with a variation on his own famous words that concluded his 1980 convention speech. And these would be his last words to a national audience: "The work begins anew, the hope rises again, and the dream lives on."

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Latest Big Lie: Death Panels

Seniors are understandably vigilant about detrimental changes to Medicare, Social Security and other systems they depend on. So it is an easy if despicable tactic by opponents to healthcare reform that they are inflaming fear with their latest Big Lie: that reform includes government "death panels" that will decide who gets care and lives, and who is denied care and dies. It is wholly and entirely a lie--a very cynical and ugly lie.
It is an especially ugly lie because, as others point out, Death Panels do exist--not only for seniors but for everyone--and they are the insurance companies who decide who gets covered for what, when and how, and who doesn't. Insurance companies who make things up in order not to pay out what they've promised. And even some hospitals who deny care because insurance won't pay for it, even when it leads to someone's death.
In his town hall meeting on Tuesday in New Hampshire, President Obama reassured the audience that there is no such death panels provision in any proposed healthcare plan, and he would not permit such a provision. But he mentioned something that should be a real concern for seniors:
"Our deficit will continue to grow because Medicare and Medicaid are on an unsustainable path. Medicare is slated to go into the red in about eight to 10 years. I don't know if people are aware of that. If I was a senior citizen, the thing I'd be worried about right now is Medicare starts running out of money because we haven't done anything to make sure that we're getting a good bang for our buck when it comes to health care. And insurance companies will continue to profit by discriminating against people for the simple crime of being sick. Now, that's not a future I want for my children. It's not a future that I want for the United States of America."
The President wants healthcare reform that saves money, saves Medicare, expands coverage, increases choice, guarantees care cannot be denied because of preexisting condition or any other reason, and stops insurance companies from deciding who lives and who dies. "And we will place a limit on how much you can be charged for out-of-pocket expenses, because no one in America should go broke because they get sick. "
But there is another aspect of what's been happening at town hall meetings on healthcare that should concern those who remember the traumas of the 1960s: the instigation of violence and the presence of guns.

Monday, July 20, 2009

One Giant Leap

With a lander that looks like an aluminum foil junk sculpture, and using all the computing power now contained in a cell phone, Apollo 11 reached the moon and forty years ago today Neil Armstrong became the first human to set foot on ground not on this Earth. I'd spent the day--July 20, 1969-- being driven through Colorado hills that looked to me as desolate as the moon, before watching this moment on live TV (I don't recall if it was Cronkite I saw then, though I've seen that footage since.) And as I'll never tire of telling you, a couple of years ago I shook the hand of the first man on the moon, making my personal physical connection to the universe beyond our fragile planet. Here's Wired's guide to other information and events.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

R.I.P. Walter Cronkite

Walter Cronkite, who defined the role of TV news anchor in the 1960s, died Friday. See post below.

That's the Way It Was

Cable news is eulogizing Walter Cronkite, who died Friday at the age of 92. Cable news is seldom anything Cronkite would have recognized as news, and in hearing Dan Rather and others talk about him as "an honest broker of information," a surrogate for the public who felt his responsibility was to educate the audience, I realize how many of my ideas about journalism came as much from Cronkite (and Huntley-Brinkley) as any newspaper or certainly any class in school.

Show biz was always the temptation of TV, and even in his early heyday, while Cronkite was doing hard news series like See It Now, he was also hosting the supremely silly You Are There, where he pretended to interview historical figures like Joan of Arc on her way to the stake. (Although, to be truthful, I was thrilled by those shows as a child. With this strange medium of television, it seemed possible he was actually there.) But Cronkite resisted the incursion of tabloid journalism and infotainment that dominates television now. He set a standard of fact and knowledge. His background in print reporting was typical for his era, and sadly missing now.

Yes, Cronkite was so influential partly because there were only three networks then, and news came on a couple of times a day at the same time every day, so one anchor could command the simultaneous attention of 25 million viewers. But the standards were the same across major journalism, and and many others could have upheld them no matter how many competitors. The current state of news is as much a failure of intelligence and character as any of the excuses, legitimate or not.

For my set of early boomers, Cronkite was a little late in concluding the Vietnam War was a waste, or in exposing Watergate, but as an establishment figure, he shook the establishment when he did so. He did steer small town, working class, Middle America and his own generation through the tumultuous 60s and 70s, as well as providing some parental or grandparental solidity to my generation.
I didn't see the celebrated moment when he announced that President Kennedy was dead--I was in school at the time--but I do remember that his presence and those of other trusted news figures were essential in getting through that weekend, when the news seemed literally unbelievable, and news that we did not want to accept.

Cronkite was himself one year older than JFK. He didn't quite live to see the 40th anniversary of the first moon landing, with which he remained identified as the most enthusiastic and apparently knowledgeable reporter covering it. I remember when he was more or less forced out of his anchor chair at CBS, which marked for me as the end of legitimate television news. Not that it was always truthful, but it was always serious, and it always paid attention to important matters in detail. I suppose some of my sadness at his passing, which I would not have expected, is that with his death, that era and that kind of news is definitely and definitively over.

Thursday, July 09, 2009


In his last Charlie Rose interview, John Updike quoted another writer on whether he had attained wisdom with age. "No--still baffled," was the reply. Rose asked Updike if that was his answer as well. He said yes, "still baffled--but more comfortable in my bafflement."

Monday, May 25, 2009

Pinup for Peace

Donna Reed was a disconcertingly pretty mom in her TV sitcom for those of us growing up in the 50s, but to our parents' generation, she was a minor movie star, and apparently a pinup for U.S. servicemen in World War II. The NY Times today (Memorial Day) notes that a recently discovered cache of letters from servicemen she received is now just about all that's left of the thousands of letters that went from war zones to Hollywood stars in the 1940s. Though the story emphasizes her girl-next-door sweetness, anyone who's seen her performance with Jimmy Stewart with a telephone between them in It's A Wonderful Life might notice that she generates some serious sexual heat.
Donna Reed had mostly supporting roles in movies (a soldier mentions The Human Comedy and she won the Oscar for From Here to Eternity) but had a long career in television, not only with The Donna Reed Show but a range of character parts. She died in 1986.
That she saved more than 300 letters takes on more significance because--and I confess I didn't know this before--she "became an ardent antiwar campaigner, serving during the Vietnam era as co-chairwoman of a 285,000-member group called Another Mother for Peace and working for Senator Eugene McCarthy in the 1968 presidential race. In his biography, Mr. Fultz quotes her as saying that “she looked forward to a time when ‘19-year-old boys will no longer be taken away to fight in old men’s battles.’ ”

Monday, April 13, 2009

Change Begins Within

Here are two guys in their 60s staying faithful to something they learned in the 60s, besides rock and roll. Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr performed together for the first time since the memorial Concert for George, along with Donovan, Mike Love of the Beach Boys and younger, lesser stars, in a benefit concert for the David Lynch Foundation called "Change Begins Within." The purpose was to support teaching Transcendental Meditation in schools. The Beatles of course made TM famous by going to India (with Donovan and Mike Love) to learn it from the Maharshi (who died just recently) in 1967. The idea is not really so far out--a school in Oakland, CA taught mindfulness meditation to students and showed great results in conflict resolution, attentiveness, study habits and peace of mind. Various kinds of meditation have proven to help in pain management and stress reduction, since those crazy days of wild ideas in the 60s. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Hair Today

A new production of the 60s musical is a surprise smash hit on Broadway--could it be that the intense emotions of the time are resonant again? See post below. New York Times Photo.

It's Happening...Again

A flubbed economy, crazed spiraling change that looks mostly downward, and empty theatres on least until recently. At least until...Hair?

Well, if we're to believe Ben Brantley in the New York Times, a revival of the quintessential sixties musical is "tearing down the house."

"This emotionally rich revival of “The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical” from 1967 delivers what Broadway otherwise hasn’t felt this season: the intense, unadulterated joy and anguish of that bi-polar state called youth... what distinguishes “Hair” from other recent shows about being young is the illusion it sustains of rawness and immediacy, an un-self-conscious sense of the most self-conscious chapter in a person’s life."

At the time we (well, people I knew) tended to think Hair was a bit artificial, but then it all depends on the vision of the people producing it, and maybe Diane Paulus has found the key to presenting it authentically. Brantley thinks so. "But there’s intelligent form within the seeming formlessness. And the whole production has been shaped in ways that find symmetry — and complexity — in a show that people tend to remember as a feel-good free-for-all."

Maybe it took the distance of time to see and portray the truth of our lives then: "The kids of “Hair” are cuddly, sweet, madcap and ecstatic. They’re also angry, hostile, confused and scared as hell — and not just of the Vietnam War, which threatens to devour the male members of their tribe. They’re frightened of how the future is going to change them and of not knowing what comes next."

That's pretty much it.

Oh, and Hair isn't the only show doing really well in the current doldrums. Brantley says there's another one "playing to packed houses" nearby: it's called West Side Story.