Sunday, August 20, 2017

Those Were the Days

Ah nostalgia. How many of us think back to the good old days of our youth, when life was so much simpler? Yesterday I had the sweet experience of walking with my mother in the neighborhood in which both of us grew up. She and I passed the homes of childhood friends whose names we still could recall. We passed the church where both of us were confirmed and the parish school which both of us attended. That particular walk for me evoked so many memories of my childhood in the sixties, and one song in particular which brings me back every time I hear it to that exact place, Chicago's Palmer Square.

The song for what it's worth, is Get Together as recorded by a band called the Youngbloods. You may know the song from its refrain:

Come on people now, smile on your brother everybody get together, try and love one another right now.

Corny lyrics to be sure when you read them on a computer screen, but if you were around fifty years ago and remember what we were living through at the time, you might get the message it was trying to convey. I came to know the song as it was used in a TV public service announcement put together by the National Conference of Christians and Jews, as a call for brotherhood in a time of war and deep divisions in this nation and around the world. I also vaguely remember, back in the days when the guitar mass was the real thing, that song being sung in the church my mom and I walked past yesterday.

Despite the difficult times that inspired the lyrics of Get Together, the song brings to mind happy times of my life in that neighborhood which we left in the summer of 1968, exactly at the moment of the Democratic National Convention which was taking place only a few miles away. Of all the tumultuous moments of the sixties that I clearly recall, that convention, the anti-war demonstrations that accompanied it, the shameful actions of Mayor Daley on the convention floor, and the riots in part caused by over-zealous police that took place in Grant Park, are a blur to me as we were busy schlepping all our worldly possessions from one part of the city to another as all the mayhem was taking place.

Save for the chance to once again see the people I loved who are now gone, I don't have any particular urge to revisit the sixties. Between the the terrible racial divide, the assassinations, the Vietnam War, the burning cities, including Chicago, the ongoing threat of nuclear annihilation, and all the other really bad stuff that was going down, the world really did seem to be spinning out of control, even to someone not even a decade old.

Yet it was the time of my childhood, and triggers such as the song Get Together bring me back to a time and place where I was safe at home with my parents on Humboldt Boulevard where I always felt I belonged, despite all the turbulence that was going on around us.

Such is nostalgia, the longing for a better, happier time, when you were safe and home, even if the reality was quite different.

I think that was the appeal to so many Americans of Donald Trump's campaign slogan "Make America Great Again." It evoked for them a time, somewhere in the distant past, and a place, this country, that was simpler, happier, healthier, and stronger than it is now. The Great America for them was what Humboldt Boulevard and Palmer Square before August of 1968 were for me.

The problem is, those idyllic times and places never really existed, other than in our minds. My mother reminded me yesterday just how bad the neighborhood had become in the late sixties. Despite my parents' urge for unity and brotherhood, a family needs to take care of itself first, when it no longer feels safe in the place it once called home. So we became yet another family who fled the city for the suburbs during that terrible time.

As I mentioned, the sixties was a period that saw tremendous suffering around the world. Things settled down in the seventies to some extent with the end of the Vietnam War and the slow but gradual acceptance, at least in theory, that people of every color deserved their fair share of what this country had to offer. But the seventies also saw economic stagnation due to the energy crisis and other factors. International terrorism was on the upswing.  It was a time of  tremendous cynicism after Watergate and other political scandals. As a result, we didn't seem to believe much in ourselves anymore. The Reagan years of the eighties saw a decline of cynicism and a resurgence of prosperity for some, but the administration's emphasis on big business and its acceptance of making money at whatever cost, jump-started a trend toward the ever growing gap between the haves and the have nots in this country. The nineties saw even more prosperity, if you were in the right line of work. It was a good time to be in the tech industry as computers became an ever increasing part of our lives. The downside is that computers and other technologies did away with countless jobs that disappeared forever. Then came 9-11 and with it, the collapse of the old world order which imperfect as it was, at least enabled us to tell our friends from our enemies. After that came the economic collapse of 2008, from which many of us still have not recovered, despite the slow economic progress of the last eight years.

That in a nutshell is the state of this country during my 58 years on this planet, some good times, some not so good times, and some really shitty times.

Ah but at least we had good jobs, Trump supporters would point out, where you didn't need a college degree in order to raise a family while still maintaining a decent standard of living. That may be true, but if  my condensed Readers Digest view of the history of America since 1960 is any indication, you'll realize that the handwriting had been on the wall for a very long time. The country and the world have been changing at a lightning rate during my lifetime, (I've been around for a long time), and if you're not willing to change with it, you're stuck holding the bag. In fact the country has been changing rapidly ever since it was founded. Good, well paying jobs such as telegraph operator, blacksmith, mule skinner, log driver and lamp lighter were lost to new technology in the early twentieth century just as so many jobs were replaced by newer technology in the late twentieth century. In other words, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Still, millions of Americans bought into Trump's promise of bringing jobs and greatness back America. Who in their right mind could be against that?

Skeptics pointed out that you can't stop progress and turn back the hands of time.

So how's he done so far? Well he's proved the skeptics wrong. Donald Trump has indeed succeeded in turning the clock back, taking us back to yesteryear and bringing back things we never thought we'd see again:
  • Despite all we learned from Watergate, I haven't seen so much outright distrust of a president since Richard Nixon, and quite honestly, the potential trouble Trump has gotten himself into, makes Nixon's indiscretions look pale by comparison. 
  • Just over a week ago we were talking about the real possibility of using nuclear weapons on another country and that country using them on us. I haven't heard that kind of talk since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. 
  • Last week, Nazis and Klansmen openly marched and chanted slogans of hatred right in the heart of Thomas Jefferson country. I remember when Nazis wanted to march in the largely Jewish town of Skokie, Illinois in the seventies, but back then they were only a small fringe group who were the objects of scorn and ridicule by virtually everyone. Once they won their legal battle to march, they chose not to, out of fear of the consequences. To find a time when there was so little resistance to this kind of people, going all the way up to the President of the United States, you have to go back to the 1920s. 
  • Trump has tried to implement immigration bans that also harken back to the twenties, and through his rhetoric, has inspired fear and hatred of foreigners the likes of which we haven't seen since the Know Nothing movement of the mid-nineteenth century.
To be fair, job numbers and the stock market are up since Trump became president, and naturally he is taking all the credit, despite the fact that those numbers have been steadily increasing for the last several years under the previous administration. As we all know, what goes up must come down, and with his focus on de-regulating business and the markets, the chances of a catastrophic collapse harking back to 1929 may very well be looming in our future.

The good news is that maybe we won't have to worry about that because we'll be engaged in a nuclear war and we'll have bigger problems.

I'm not so big on nostalgia but I kind of miss the time, say about a year ago, when we didn't have to worry about this shit.

Man, those were the days.

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