Wednesday, August 17, 2016

American Dream - The Greatest Generation Myth

Who was the "Greatest Generation." These people were the proud Americans of the 1950s, the men and women who fought "the last good war" against tyranny and toppled a dictator. They stared evil in the face and triumphed not once but twice, being one of the few, if not the only nation, to ever win a war fought on two fronts. We were just that badass! Now, home from war, the young men and women of this nation were no longer proving their superiority on the battlefield, but on wall street, the factory floor, and in the bedroom. Spawning the baby boom generation, these were the folks that owned a new car, lived in a new house, had a single income that could pay their bills AND their child's college tuition. This was America, as it should be.

Here is the thing; though, it was all a myth. Further, it is a myth born in the 1950s, when it was still believed by way too many people that the successes of the people and the economy were based on the social climate and their morality, rather than a set of much larger economic circumstances. With the vast majority of male youth volunteering or being drafted into WWII, upon their return, the GI bill gave them ALL an opportunity for free higher education, and many took the opportunity. Most of the returning soldiers came from families that had never had a college graduate in their recent history, and it was an honor to be the first in their family to have a real chance at what they had all been promised for so long. They were promised the American Dream, and the people felt like they were finally getting their just due.

After four to five years, just as 1950 rolled around, the percentage of educated Americans skyrocketed, since practically all of the returning soldiers, being most of the adult male population of the country, now had an education or a trade. The doors opened, and now people could do pretty much anything they wanted. Professionally, the sky was the limit. Add to that, the fact that America's major competitors in industry, Japan and Germany, were in a state of economic ruin, so virtually all steel production moved here. The American automobile industry had gains like never before. Also, all of Germany's scientists who had defected during and after the war, put our chemistry, space, and aeronautics programs light years ahead of the rest of the world. Things were really looking good for America, which took virtually no infrastructural damage during the war. All of Europe, the Middle East, the Soviet Union, and Asia were in shambles, but not the United States.

However, then the world did what it always does. It rebuilt. What had the carpet bombing of WWII done? It removed vast areas of outdated factory room, equipment, and operators. It was replaced with shiny buildings, brand new equipment, and fresh young minds eager to do the work. By the end of the decade the United States was on the back foot. Russia was the first country to reach space, and the industrial output of nations that were in ruin just fifteen years before, rose exponentially. So, the United States began to get outsourced. Cheaper goods means better lives for us all right?

We all know what outsourcing does, and I won't lecture on that, but needless to say, over the next forty years, the United States wrecked its own economy with one political blunder after another. It tried to stop the spread of communism, the force that had beat it into space, the big red scary monster that was outpacing the United States in every way. Then the second "Red Scare" happened. McCarthyism had us afraid of our own neighbors. Anyone could be a communist, and we had to stamp it out NOW. First, in Korea, we tried to stop it's advance, but we didn't have the stomach for another war so soon after the last big one. It ended in a stalemate. Then, in Vietnam, the government had to use the draft again and that ended in a humiliating defeat when the baby boomers who were sent to fight it had no reason to be there and could not stomach it. This was unlike their fathers, who actually did have a real reason to fear Germany and Japan and still held onto that fear. The protests against the war, a product of progressive views and education in general... that same education their parents paid for with their spoils of war, were seen as Un-American and amoral, and probably communist. The "moral fabric" of the nation was tearing to pieces and it was the youth, who had no reason to fear the world, who were turned on. Fundamentalism took hold and began to ascribe what amounted to divinity to the bygone age of profit and power, even though it had already begun to pass away.

Fast-forward to today, and just as before WWII, hardly anyone can afford college, which was the catalyst that drove us forward, for a time, in the 1950s. Now the chances of the average American becoming successful due to their own perseverance are so much lower than sixty years ago. The American Dream is dead, and conservatism looks back fondly on the glorious 1950s as a time when the country had solid moral footing, despite the evil of things like Jim Crow laws. The "moral decay" of the present is to blame for all of our troubles and politicians push this view to milk easy votes out of today's, by design, uneducated populace.

The hard truth remains, if we ever want to get that same boost that made America great, it would take another world war, a full on draft, and then a similar gift to the survivors across the board again, to achieve another golden age for this nation. Or massive education subsidies, but that'll never happen. We could educate the entire nation again as the rest of the world is still doing, but we'd rather give our money to corporations in the hopes that they might hire someone again.....some day, maybe. There is, of course, always the "People's Option." That, however, requires a bit of education, as well.

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