By William Westmiller
The title of Tom Brokaw's best-selling book may be more telling than he imagines. "The Greatest Generation" applauds the collective achievements of a broad range of Americans who were adults during the first part of this century. His definition of a historic "generation" is at odds with the normal familial generation, which tends to proceed apace with little regard for political and military events. Brokaw makes an artificial generation, prior to the postwar baby boom, in order to show "a cast of everyday people transformed" by political events. Few will argue that every historic "generation" may properly count itself greater than all its progenitors. However, describing one generation as the "greatest" at least has the appearance of a shallow marketing appeal to those self-congratulatory seniors who find their pride in collective events.
The artificial character of any historic generation, and the collective attributes assigned to them, are almost always superficial. If the clustering of historic events define a generation, then it's purely a matter of historic perspective as to where the lines are drawn. I feel much more comfortable associating myself with a "microprocessor generation" than any age group bordered by military or political events. Nevertheless, those events that impact a large number of people do have an impact on the perspective of those affected.
Because they suffered through the Great Depression and World War II, the 1930-40 adults have a broad inclination to perceive themselves as members of a collective, rather than individuals. Each of their lives were seriously impacted by enormous events, mostly beyond their control, which defined their identity, successes and failures. A large measure of their pride is invested in their group's demonstrable capacity to survive both macroeconomic disaster and worldwide military conflicts. Not a misplaced pride, for all those who contributed to recovery and victory, but a collective pride nevertheless.
The lives of leaders and heroes that Brokaw chronicles are an essential ingredient of collective pride. When the lives and fortunes of so many are so thoroughly dependent on the wisdom of a few, those few become icons in the eyes of the many. Any proposition that challenges the reputed accomplishments of those icons must be rejected outright, in order to preserve the collective pride. Any suggestion that Franklin Roosevelt caused the Depression, rather than being the leader who saved the economy, will be rejected out of hand. Any suggestion that William Clinton is not the primary cause of their individual economic success -- or from the other side, the primary cause of cultural trends they abhor -- will be rejected as foolish and naive. Heroes, saints and demons are the essential icons of the "collective" generation.
Of course, I reject the proposition that any age group confines the disposition of any individual. It's also true that Brokaw's book documents and celebrates the lives and contributions of both icons and ordinary individuals. However, all of them are cast as victims whose "sacrifices changed the course of American history." When we wonder about the roots of the "victimology" in today's society, we might look closely at for a psychology of rebellion against collective sacrifices to the inclinations of powerful icons.
This devotion to icons isn't limited to people. For many members of that era, even fabric icons -- the flag -- are more important than the principles they represent. The battles they fought were as much to preserve the icon as to protect liberty and freedom. To desecrate such an icon is to destroy the symbol of their enduring collective pride. All too many are willing to sacrifice those important principles to preserve their revered icons.
"The Greatest Generation" does highlight many of the individual accomplishments of those who persevered and succeeded in making valuable contributions to society after the Depression and War. My parents were among them. We honor our fathers and mothers, not just for our own existence, but for all their achievements and failures. Their individual and collective victories were important, but their failures are also a critical element of their legacy. Having elevated military duty and economic sacrifice to the level of virtues, they have left their children with the collective national power of military and political icons who have nurtured a hollow respect for authority.
The highest honor we can grant to previous generations is to move beyond their victories and failures to pursue knowledge, truth, and understanding which we can pass on to the next generation. An optimistic view of the future of humankind requires a faith that our children will find a greater wisdom and new achievements to bequeath to their children and the next "Greatest Generation".
©1999, William Westmiller
California Coordinator of the Republican Liberty Caucus
Past Candidate for the Republican Nomination for (24 CA) Congress
Former National Secretary, California Chairman, Libertarian Party
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