Columns, Opinion

SELIBER: 2008: The new watershed

There is a piece of conventional wisdom by veterans of the Baby Boom generation ‘-‘- spoken by many, but none more eloquent than speechwriter and columnist Peggy Noonan ‘-‘- that the period known as ‘the 1960s’ did not begin on Jan. 1, 1960 and did not end on Dec. 31, 1969. The early 1960s were just ‘the leftover 1950s,’ as comedian George Carlin put it. The true ushering in of an utterly distinct generation of Americans ‘-‘- a group of young people whose radical ideas and actions would define the remainder of the 20th century in one form or another ‘-‘- came from three bullets shot from a Dallas book depository on Nov. 22, 1963.

To be precise, Noonan told Charlie Rose of PBS that the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the only U.S. president killed in the television age, was ‘the modern break point in our time between the old America and the new America.’ An old-school conservative, Noonan uses the term ‘old America’ wistfully in this context, idealizing an age, the 1950s, in which parents did not have to shield their kids from the rude decadences of the American culture, since such decadences did not yet exist (or so we’d like to think). Put another way, that Friday in Dallas marked the moment when the world switched from black and white to color.

On the other end of this riddle, no one seems to know the moment the 1960s ended, partly because they never really did. Sobered-up professionals would say the decade did not end so much as gradually wither and die-satirist P.J. O’Rourke called it a time of ‘experimentation’ that ‘I’m glad we don’t have to go through again’-while liberal romantics credit the era’s explosion of civil rights activity for the new-and-improved sense of social equality that, 40 years later, enabled 68 million Americans to vote for an African-American for president and 59 million more to vote for a woman for vice president.

On the eve of 2008, the 40-year anniversary of all this tumult, New York Times columnist Bob Herbert reflected grimly, ‘An awful lot of people tuned out after [Robert] Kennedy was killed. That seemed to be when, for so many, the hope finally died. The nation has never really recovered from the bullet that killed R.F.K.’

Well, a lot can happen in 12 months.

A journalist once asked Winston Churchill which year of his life he would like to re-live if he could (he picked 1940, a crucial turning point in World War II). That is a great question to ask anybody, and for me at this absurdly early date, I might just pick 2008.

I sat with my friends last New Year’s Eve suspecting the incoming year would be a memorable one. After all, the presidential race was shaping to be an all-New York duel to the death between Sen. Hillary Clinton and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, and if those characters didn’t tickle our funny bone, who would? Little did we know that our inklings for a manic 12 months were merely the appetizer. The year 2008 may not have been the cataclysmic cluster bomb our parents experienced four decades ago, but it was a damn good time to be alive.

I don’t doubt that history will view 2008, first and foremost, as the year of Barack Obama. The president-in-waiting will presumably be named TIME Magazine’s ‘Person of the Year,’ and he probably should be. Lest we forget, this Chicago prodigy singlehandedly reinvigorated American politics at one of its lowest points in memory, shattering the biggest racial barrier in America out of sheer talent, defeating the biggest brand in the Democratic Party-the Clintons-and the most admired figure in the GOP, John McCain. Geraldine Ferraro was not wrong in calling Obama ‘very lucky to be where he is,’ that ‘the country is caught up in the concept.’ Rather, she was wrong in concluding that Obama’s race was the only reason for this. If Obama was not the most qualified candidate in the field based on resume alone then, well, neither was Ronald Reagan in 1980 or Kennedy in 1960 or Abraham Lincoln 100 years before that. Extraordinary circumstances breed extraordinary events, and this year Obama was that event.

Yet the year 2008 was bigger than a single person, or even a single movement. Heck, the fact that ‘movement’ is no longer an archaic ‘movement’ is no longer an archaic term of yesteryear suggests that civic involvement has finally returned to the American vernacular, albeit in a subtler, more subdued form than 40 years prior, when a few hundred rabble-rousers stormed the Columbia University gates and held the dean hostage.

This newfound sense of civic outrage materialized most dramatically on Nov. 15, when tens of thousands of people demonstrated in the streets across America ‘-‘- mostly peacefully’-‘- in opposition to Proposition 8, the California initiative to outlaw same-sex marriage that passed narrowly on Nov. 4. The organized mass indignation to this vote, by gay and straight people alike, was a major turning point for the biggest civil rights issue of our time, in both a legal and intellectual sense.

In 2004, when George W. Bush used the marriage issue to wedge himself into a second term, 11 states passed anti-gay marriage laws or amendments in the process, and organized protest was hardly a blip on the national radar. But the tide of sentiment has shifted in four years, as some fresh Newsweek polling suggests, and gay rights activists have armed themselves with political leaders who know a national change of heart when they see it (Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Obama, among others, quietly opposed Prop. 8).

By losing the Prop/ 8 battle, the gay rights movement found its footing on the national stage, not unlike Harvey Milk’s San Franciscans in the late 1970s who were galvanized into organization by the villainy of Anita Bryant. (This time, the Bryant role was essayed by more amorphous elements of organized religion.)’ Like all the civil rights fighters who came before them, they have no reason to turn back until their mission ‘-‘- basic legal protection ‘-‘- is accomplished.

Speaking of missions accomplished, perhaps the biggest irony in such a momentous year was that the defining world issue of the young century ‘-‘- the Iraq War ‘-‘- all but receded into obscurity as domestic turmoil festered beneath the surface and then exploded in the form of the housing crisis, the credit crisis, the Detroit crisis and the bailout-for-all-the-above crisis. Iraq has made unprecedented political progress in recent months, but America’s own economic collapse has proved an all-encompassing distraction from us appreciating this. We could say the same for the price of gasoline:’ The national per-gallon average eclipsed $4 this summer, only to drop below $2 recently, yet the sense of relief is muted. As a wise man said, people lost interest in affording their car when they could no longer afford their house.

If 2008 was a beginning and a middle, it was also an end. As with all years, death visited 2008 in unfortunate ways, and none was more meaningful to me than that of George Carlin on June 22. Carlin, 71, was the stand-up comedian who presided over a shift in his craft from the wholesome to the profane over a 50-year career, from innocently riffing on Jack Kennedy in 1962 to breaking obscenity laws with his famous routine, ‘Seven words you can never say on television,’ in 1972. (Perhaps Noonan was correct in her assertion after all.)’

Carlin was a biting social critic, a meticulous craftsman and a thoughtful observer of the American experience. ‘When you’re born, you get a ticket to the freak show,’ he once said, ‘When you’re born in America, you get a front row seat.’ By the end of his 31-year, 14-show engagement on HBO (his final performance aired live on March 1), he settled his worldview on the idea that life, and everything in it, is nothing more or less than a never-ending source of entertainment, a sugar high for the soul.

He had a soft spot for disasters, and he would have loved the parts of 2008 he missed, particularly the economic meltdown we’re dealing with now. In his extraordinary 2005 performance, ‘Life is Worth Losing,’ he gleefully envisions a natural catastrophe so all-encompassing that it actually creates a crack in the universe through which all the dead people from the past appear and repopulate the Earth, infinitely wiser than they ever were before. It’s a strange and interesting way of looking at things, but as he assured us then and throughout his life, ‘I’m an interesting guy.’

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One Comment

  1. very good article, enjoyable to read, as always.