Generations are a funny thing. Pinning down the fuzzy dividing line between the preceding and the following is difficult enough without trying to crowd all who then lived under the same ideological umbrella. Further complicating the issue is the fact that most people winsomely paint their respective generations as cultural battlefields between two factions: one a beating, youthful heart embodying that generation’s best parts and the other a rigid knife piercing that heart. Naturally, all but the most honest among us see themselves as the heart and their perceived enemy as the knife. Oh, would that it were so simple.
Two, recent examples of this behavior are playing loudly in the sphere of political discourse. The first comes from political pundit Glenn Beck, who said:
“This is going to be a moment that you’ll never be able to paint people as haters, racists, none of it. This is a moment, quite honestly, that I think we reclaim the civil rights movement. It has been so distorted and so turned upside down. It is an abomination.”
The moment of which he speaks is the Restoring Honor Rally at Washington D.C.’s National Mall, an event which, by sheer coincidence, occurred on the anniversary of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s extraordinary “I Have a Dream” civil rights speech.
Our second example comes from remarks made by Haley Barbour, the Governor of Mississippi, during a recent interview with the conservative newsgroup Human Events, where he claims:
“The people that led the change of parties in the south, just as I mentioned earlier, was my generation. My generation, who went to integrated schools. I went to an integrated college. never thought twice about it. It was the old democrats who had fought for segregation so hard. by my time, people realized that was the past. It was indefensible, wasn’t going to be that way anymore.”
Right, Sir. And I made every winning touchdown at my high school’s football games, despite not even being a member of the team.
The first of these two examples is, as we should expect from Glenn Beck, clear and overt deceit. I will say no more about his statement; better voices than mine have said plenty already. Besides, only the most deluded dunce could possibly conflate the civil rights movement’s original ownership with a modern political party comprised of predominantly middle-class, anti-Federalist, self-identifying whites. To them, I ask this: if your cause is right and just, why the need to so erroneously usurp another?
As for the latter example, I would allow that it might simply be misguided sentiment if not for the fact that Barbour is not only the head of Republican Governors Association and former chairman of the Republican National Committee, but is also a promising Republican presidential candidate for 2012. It may very well be that Barbour believes his own words. But if belief were the only qualifier of truth, the world would be a far more confusing place than it already is. Someone in Barbour’s position should know better and, I suspect, he does.
Regarding the “change of parties” his generation led, one wonders about the reason the racist “old Democrats” used a Republican ticket to jump ship. As for Barbour’s recollection of his school days, his high school was not desegregated until 1970, long after he would have graduated. As for his college, Old Miss, records indicate that African-American enrollment was likely represented by as few as two students during his years of attendance. They certainly had no representation in the faculty or the athletic programs. In a certain sense, these circumstances made thinking twice about integration virtually impossible!
All of this is, of course, beside the point. Put simply, claiming membership in a generation does not imply co-ownership in its greatest achievements. If it did, one would have to accept equal guilt in its most harrowing failures. Place and time do not dictate complicity. Action does. Certainly, there were people in Barbour’s generation who led the charge for desegregation or integration or whatever you choose to call it, but simply stating that fact does not count Barbour among them.
It is thinking like this that is behind a common error which sadly stains much of the political spectrum: that the Founding Fathers of the United States of America uniformly embodied some clearly defined, monolithic cause. As with every generation, nothing could be further from the truth. A generation is defined by its movements. However, the mechanisms of political biography – from nationalism to propaganda – would portray one above all others, casting it as some sword-wielding Heracles of unquestionable, divine purpose. No movement’s origin or being is ever so cut and dry. At best, they are two-headed giants stumbling awkwardly forward in between bouts of ear-biting argument. At worst, they are hydras and any strikes the sword of revision makes against them can only lead to one of two outcomes: a tangled confusion of many heads or a lifeless, headless testament to failure.
Past movements and the generations that quickened them, like any implement of progress, lie rusting in the dim museum of factual history. The mistake we so often make is in believing that any rust on them arose from mere lack of use. We cannot, with a few ringing strikes against a new political foundation, dispense with that rust and take up these swords again. That rust came from the blood left on the blade, blood from every failure of ill-conceived or ill-protected policy. That rust goes deep and makes an already weak blade weaker to the point of impotence. Progress is not a sword but the forge from which that sword sprang. Before raising the weapon of our own cause, we are charged with remaking it from those that preceded it. Only when the work of our hands resembles a ploughshare will we will have an entire generation truly worth praising.
Until then, let us save our accolades for those brave few who actually did the right thing.