May 22, 2010

Reconstituting the USA

I arrived on the Berkeley campus in the fall of 1966, which means I missed the Mario Savio-led Free Speech Movement, but I was around for most of the other major spasms of dissent which rocked the campus in later years. These included the People's Park riots of 1969 and the Cambodia Invasion riots of 1970, occurring, not so coincidentally I'm sure, in the spring, when the hormonal sap tends to run high, especially among the young, and no one wants to be inside anyway. Besides these two main events, there were various other causes which disrupted the university's normal functioning (or as normal as it got after the FSM), including the dispute over the firing of Angela Davis, the ongoing leitmotif of Vietnam War dissent and other causes.

Whenever one of these events seized the student body's attention, there were generally calls for the cessation of business as usual; to wit, just going to classes and grade-hounding seemed rather bourgeois with all these weighty matters to deal with. The faculty were always put in difficult circumstances by these situations, especially the younger assistant professors; they were, after all, the creme de la creme of the academic world, careerist for the most part, and anxious to stay on the tenure track and publish all the stuff they had to publish to establish themselves as Berkeley-grade intellectuals. On the other hand, they were dealing with the unruly, sometimes gifted, and often spoiled scions of the upper middle class who wanted their causes (and themselves) taken seriously, and regarded professors who wouldn't play along with these aux barricades fantasies as sell-outs and Running Dogs for the Man. Later many of these dedicated activists, such as Jerry Rubin, would run their own hedge funds and enshrine Gordon Gekko as their patron saint.

I drifted through this miasma of dissent, sturm und drang pretty much as the other Madras-shirt-wearing, white-levi-sporting members of the Baby Boom drifted through it: I played intramural sports, went to classes and the library, drank beer on weekend nights, and tried to find girls to go out with. That was the amazing thing: it was actually a pretty normal undergraduate experience. The dissent and the demonstrations were a sideshow. For some experienced activists, such as the Red Diaper Babies of the East Coast who attended Berkeley (and matriculated there because, perhaps, it was a bigger, sunnier version of Antioch), the dissent was a very serious matter, part of a family tradition. The real organizers, I have to admit (and I knew a few), kind of creeped me out. I didn't want to get into any trouble with the law, especially the FBI. There were ways to look "committed," fortunately, without really buying in, and let's face it: the Red Diaper Brigade did not make any real inroads with the Baby Boomers, because it is the vast phalanx of the Baby Boomers who are responsible for the corporatist, corrupt, warmongering, oligopolic, environmentally-destroyed landscape you see around you. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Michael Milken was attending Berkeley at the same time I was. Q, as they say, E.D. As Lewis Black said in a hilarious routine, the Baby Boomers have absolutely got to legalize pot, because that's it, that's our only shot at a legacy. The Greatest Generation defeated the Nazis and the Japanese while building an American industrial colossus, and what do we have? We've got to legalize pot!

But I digress, although I digress from the past to the future. What I meant to say was, whenever one of these spasms of dissent took hold, there were calls for "reconstituting the university," meaning, well, all kinds of things. Such as not using the class rooms, but meeting in people's apartments. I attended a few such "classes," because there was no choice. Co-opted young profs were forced to play along, on pain of not looking cool. Some were asked (and declined) to give the activist students "cover," meaning a moratorium on grading while the students pursued their true calling - the cause du jour. Secretly, I thought it was a shame not to use the campus during such episodes; I mean, those buildings were so pretty, limestone and granite-clad, classical edifices with beautiful Doric columns, old woodwork, double-hung windows, high ceilings, even urinals of vitreous china, you know? All going to waste while we sat on some cheesy wall-to-wall in a crackerbox apartment on Hillegass Avenue.

Anyway, sometimes I think I detect faint glimmers of that old spirit in what is going on in modern America. As America falls apart at the seams, I see some of those same tendencies toward easy "Reconstitution" of the U.S.A. The talk of secession, for example, of busting the country into regional principalities, and a nearly-hopeful anticipation of national insolvency. Oh I know, I see these same things in myself, but hey - I'm part of that Genus: Baby Boomus Americanus. Oddly enough, I think that the legacy of this generation may be greater than that envisioned by the hilarious Lewis Black. The bankrupting of the country actually seems well underway, and it's precisely because the Baby Boom followed its weird toward the idea of something for nothing, for borrowing when you couldn't earn it, for the unearned increment in general, such as the fixation on house price appreciation, toward early retirement, toward leisure as one's principal activity, and all while paying no price whatsoever in terms of standard of living. The Baby Boom has been living that way for about thirty-five years now, and it shows, because this nation, in its present state, is its handiwork. The average age of the Senate is 60 years old: a person born in 1950, also too late for the Free Speech Movement, but just in time for People's Park. And the United States Senate, in its blatant corruption, in its inability ever to tackle anything with thorough-going integrity and effectiveness, with something approaching competence, is perhaps the Baby Boom's most enduring symbol.

I don't think the Baby Boomers really want a "reconstitution," when you get right down to it. They're hoping against hope the American Titanic rights itself in the water. Go along to get along, and make such compromises as you must for la dolce vita. Anything else is just going to be a lot of hard work, and that, as always, is for other people.

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