by Edward Parone
Hi there! I’m Joe, the Octogenarian. You know, one of those geezers from the so-called Greatest Generation? The Great Depression –World War II–and all of that– who woke up one recent fine September morn to find that, having lived his early life in that Great Depression, he is coming to the end of it in yet another one that may be even worse! It is, in a word, depressing. Especially for those of us lucky enough to have survived this long and still have most of our marbles falling into the right slots. If this is the farce version of the American tragedy, then I can only repeat a catch-line from a popular 30s radio program: “Taint funny, Magee!”
But how, you ask, did it happen?
Well, there’s no point in dodging the issue: We did it. Yes, us, the Greatest G. Just as I felt strongly that after 9/11 the president should have done everything to enlist the help of the Moslem world in dealing with Islamic terrorism by pointing out that their children had done this murderous deed –so it is that our children, with our help, have brought us to this sorry state.
We survived our Depression and the lucky came back from that war all fired up with the notion that nothing like either would ever happen to us or our kids again. (We had all seen the scene in Gone With the Wind.) So we showered them with everything we had once been deprived of, and much, much more. From there, it was only a step to the showering of their kids with even more Stuff–until we had spoiled them into the over-parented, over-praised, over-indulged, half-literate, entitlement-soaked generation we see so often depicted today.
Piracy, plagiarism and cheating are nearly universal. Common civility and manners have vanished. Where once the departure of adolescence to take your place in the world of adults was the common, desirable goal, there is now little desire to ever leave adolescence. And living in America is like living in a perpetual high school, its hallways lined with magic ATMs from which you can make endless withdrawals and no deposits. Did we really tell you that you could have Everything You Wanted? Nostra culpa.
America had everything it needed, including more money and guns than anyone else, to enter the 21st Century leading the world in every field of endeavor. And then, flushed with having Everything, and given a choice between the inexperienced C-student and the experienced A-student, we took a fatal turn and chose the former–and marched resolutely backwards into an earlier century. Good enough became in a moment, well, good enough.
And where were the adults, the wise old ones, while this was happening? Right there watching while a cadre of fellow elders, determined to fulfill their frustrated ideologies, settle old scores and establish a single ruling party, misled our arrogant, unqualified C-student into one disastrous decision after another.
The complex mess that we are in is and will be the subject of a large library of books. But right now there are two aspects of it that I find scary and important:
1. How easily we are propagandized. Those of us who remember the rise of the Nazis can’t ever forget how cleverly, how relentlessly, how smoothly the fascist agenda was promoted by the evil genius of Joseph Goebbels (find a word adequate enough to describe this Joe). And yet we watched while a propaganda machine of our very own and every bit as clever and insistent led us–voters, Congress, the Press–into an unnecessary and repercussive war. And from there to condoning torture, flouting Constitutional law, loss of moral stature, a depleted treasury, domestic neglect and the loss of thousands of lives–all of which revealed,
2. the disparaging of brains as a way of dealing with life’s problems. When did Dumb become the new Smart? And whose been telling kids that using your brains, being intelligent, exalting reason and the intellect are for sissies, nerds, losers, and/or fools? We don\’t exalt brain power now; we exalt the mediocre things it’s capable of: fame without talent or accomplishment, riches without making anything useful or beautiful. We don’t even make anything that anyone wants very much anymore. An elite corps spends all its time manipulating money. (And ironically, not all that well.) How many Americans come home happy with their day’s work?
This is not good enough for a great country.
We Octos are the last of the grandchildren of the Edwardians. And while we might wish that some of the best of that now-distant age would cling to your future, the last thing we want is a return to that past. Far too much of the world is not using the past to learn but is mired in it, in old superstitions, old beliefs and dogma, stuck in systems that will not allow the expression of real feeling and thought in the present, and that offer no real future. Unless you consider death a desirable future.
Two things made this country possible: energy, and before that: imagination. And without imagination we’re lost. Because you have to be able to imagine a possible future in order to have one–but one rooted in reality, not myth, or fairy tales. And for that we need brains, all the brains we can get. We can’t keep dealing with our problems by riding down to the OK Corral to solve them.
So what are we leaving you, those we have helped to spoil? The very thing we thought to save you from? Or is the legacy of the Greatest G only the enormous job of saving the country and helping in the survival of the planet itself?