A couple of weeks ago, you wrote to tell me that you’re taking a history seminar on the 1960’s, that transformational decade. You needed to do some interviews, you said. “How about you, Grandpa?” Naturally I loved the idea, loved that you asked, loved getting to know you better in an adult-to-adult way. But as a relic, a remainder from antediluvian times? A living historical archive?
Truth be told, Molly, I wasn’t outraged at all. I have come to relish the view of myself as a man in the midst of a long, long journey, mostly with my eyes open. As I’ve traveled, I’ve sometimes felt at home, a loving American patriot, and sometimes like a stranger in my own world. And here’s a key point: My sense of belonging depended not so much on my own stage of personal development as on my assessment of American culture at any given point in time.
Let me give you a broad sense of my journey. I have vague memories of people rejoicing on the streets of New York during Victory Europe (VE) Day, 1945. I was three and the imagery from that day feels like a series of snapshots. But by 1948, when my family moved from the Bronx to Long Island, pioneers of the urban exodus, the memories are more continuous, more like a motion picture. As I look back I can almost see headlines about the Korean war and the anguish of the adults who witnessed it. I remember the McCarthy-fueled Red Scare of the early 1950’s and the first marches on Washington for the civil rights of Black people. That was in 1956 and I traveled with a bus filled almost exclusively with African American teenagers, listening during the long rides to their songs. And finally joining in.
I was already a grown man during the long, torturous days of the Vietnam War, then, much later, the trumped up accusations of weapons of mass destruction to justify the attack on Iraq.
And I’m just getting started. My parents bought the first television on our block. That was 1949. I remember when the Russians put Sputnik into space in 1957, creating an outcry of fear and anger throughout America; then being put into small, advanced math and science classes created to help us catch up to the evil Soviet empire. We young people would have to hurry up. Then there were the first space ships circling the earth, the first computers, which would have made typing my doctoral dissertation so much easier. Soon there was email that my political and professional activities required, even though I fought it every step of the way. By then, technology was moving too fast for me and I had become a stranger in my own land.
It wasn’t just the constant change and innovation that formed my generation—what they now call pre-boomers—but the way that we were steeped in the values and experiences of the 1930’s, truths that we took in from our parents like direct transfusions of blood. The Great Depression that began in 1929 wasn’t history to us. The financial anxiety and general prudence that it created defined our own life styles. The Holocaust may have been stopped by 1945 but, as a Jew, the feelings it generated were still raw, the fears still live. As the children of the generation that was formed by those events, we, much like our parents, were steeped in its wariness and prohibitions.
But the generation born before or during World War II were also children of the American dream. Paradoxical as it may seem, I think we were more optimistic than any generation since. We were defined by a belief that, if we worked hard, very hard, we could achieve any goals we set for ourselves—or any goals that our parents, who had lost so much during the Depression had set for us. That belief was both personal and political. We believed in progress, that, for each generation, life would get better and better—especially for poor people, Black people, and Brown people—because we would make it so. That’s how the idea of progress ruled our hearts and minds.
Many of us lived for decades in that happy belief. We knew that there would be set backs—like the damage of the Vietnam War and periodic economic recessions—and we knew that some benefited from progress more than others—but we saw those set backs and injustices as obstacles that we would eventually overcome.
Our profound optimism began to erode during the last couple of decades, during the presidencies of Reagan and the Bushes and culminating with Donald Trump. It seemed that our economic largesse was increasingly devoured by the wealthy, that the idea of heroic wars in defense of freedom had fallen to cynical, imperialistic wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Panama and Yemen—to defend our material interests. Political discourse was balkanized, racism was revitalized, and the only people who pursued what looked like an idealistic agenda were the “hard right” and the evangelical Christians, who were not so happy sharing it with people who didn’t look like them. Our Presidents and their “bases” were willing to let our infrastructure, our climate and our commitment to basic democratic values rot.
By 2015, I found myself writing in my journal that I was “tormented by what is happening in America,” the country whose core promise of liberty, equality, and justice so closely mirrored my own, the country I had loved so deeply for 70 years. I wondered if the damage was beyond repair. I was tempted to retreat into myself and my personal development.
But, I have to tell you, Molly, that I don’t think my despair is worthy of you and your generation. In the midst of the current rubble there are so many seeds of hope, so many young people living into their dreams, which are the same American dreams that motivated my generation. Instead of retreating, I formed an organization to train idealistic and very diverse young people in organizational and community leadership. That turned out to feel redemptive to me and, I hope, to them.
Do you know that, even in retirement, I still mentor many of those young people, who make me believe that our society may be circling back to its better self. My students work on behalf of foster children, abused children, and children who have been denied the opportunities that good educations afford. Students work for affordable housing, immigrant rights and disability rights, and environmental protection. They work with limited financial rewards towards goals of equality and the right of all Americans to social, economic, and political opportunity.
I have come to believe that they have the power to “bend the arc” of our tormented country back in the direction of justice. They make me experience my own life, not as having lived under the false god of progress but as part of a cadre of people who retain their optimism and fire in the face of great odds.
I know that your heart lives in this same place and my hope, dear Molly, is that you will join us.