Published on Wednesday, April 27, 2005 by the Miami Herald
Redux 1950s: We Need to Talk by Robert Steinback
Imagine a decade of domestic peace and harmony -- but which is an illusion that ignores the cries of a scorned minority trying desperately to make the majority understand that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Imagine a decade in which our armed forces, the world's best, nevertheless become bogged down in an unwinnable, interminable conflict, while security paranoia induces Americans to sacrifice civil liberties in a frantic witch hunt for anyone with subversive ideas. Imagine a decade in which the people in power don't listen to anyone else but themselves -- and make egregious mistakes because of it. If you're within striking range of retirement or older, you're probably thinking of the 1950s -- when the forced segregation of black Americans was beginning to foment the civil rights movement, American troops were drawn into a meat grinder in Korea, and supposed patriots were blacklisting suspected communists on flimsy evidence and even flimsier constitutional grounds. Retro trend Rather, I was thinking about our current decade -- what shall we call it, Decade 2K?
(''The two-thousands'' seems insufferably awkward.) But the more I ponder it, the more parallels I see between Decade 2K and the 1950s -- and the more they trouble me. Some roles have changed, but the dynamic hasn't, at least not much. We live now, as then, in a fantasy world of domestic harmony while stuck in a costly, endless foreign war. We've sacrificed personal liberties in a panicky hunt for terrorists, the new communists. The most troublesome retro trend has been the revival of ideological single-mindedness -- the certainty that only one body of thought must represent all of America, not merely as a prevailing sentiment, but as the only acceptable one. Today's political liberals are the black Americans of a half-century ago -- social outcasts whose protestations about principles and fair play are heard by no one in power. There are no segregation laws today, but a kind of virtual segregation has emerged in which the new ideological minority is stifled or suppressed at every turn: Only supporters of the president are allowed to attend his public appearances. Congressional Republicans emasculated the House ethics committee so that the minority party alone no longer can force an investigation. The Republican-controlled Texas Legislature succeeded in forcing redistricting that solidified its political power. Not devout team players.
Now Senate Republicans are threatening to rescind the minority's power to filibuster extremist court nominees. One needn't even be a liberal to offend the current political orthodoxy. Former GOP Cabinet members Colin Powell and Christy Todd Whitman were shown the door, not regarded as sufficiently devout team players. Conservative vultures are strafing Ohio Republican Sen. George Voinovich for having the temerity to balk at approving John Bolton as the next U.N. ambassador, concerned about Bolton's role in U.S. intelligence lapses. In the 1950s, black Americans were not seen as peers whose voices deserved a place in the national conversation. They were a population the majority wished would just disappear, or at most remain silent and docile. Similarly, liberals today are treated not as holders of a competing ideology who happen to be out of power, but as a menace to be thwarted. Even conservatives should not want this -- as the 1950s aptly demonstrated. America benefits most from an ongoing dialogue among its component ideological factions, which allows the best ideas to emerge. The riots, the radical movements, the assassinations, the urban blight, maybe even the wasteful war of the 1960s might well have been avoided had white America just sat down with black America in the 1950s and worked out a meaningful transition to a just society. Instead, 1950s America chose the path of obstinacy. And we're doing it again. Room for all What does this foretell as we tumble toward Decade 2K10?
If the pattern holds, I fear global tensions and increasing economic frailty will cause America's bubble of self-delusion to burst, leading to a period of national anxiety and stress as we reexamine the wisdom of having endorsed the myopic neo-conservative extremism of our current leaders. But I also believe a new wave of enlightenment will occur as it did among young people in the 1960s, for whom love, freedom, peace and justice became ideals worth standing for. Maybe the next Age of Aquarius -- or whatever it's called -- will have room for all Americans. © 2005 Miami Herald