After a meeting earlier this week I walked back to the office with a couple of younger colleagues. One said, “I saw the latest episode of Ken Burns’s Vietnam War last night and, omigod, it was so much like today back then!”
It’s moments like those when I think to myself, “omigod, when did I become the oldest person on campus?”
“I was young, but I do have memories of the Vietnam War,” I said. “It was actually much worse in those days.” I quoted a couple of lines from Neil Young’s song Ohio. “The National Guard was coming onto campuses and shooting unarmed students.”
“So? Police officers are shooting unarmed black men all over the country,” countered one.
I hope to explore that remark further in next week’s post. What I said in the moment was, “Yes, but on top of the war there were riots in cities where dozens of people were killed. And there were political assassinations. I was young,” I repeated, a bit too defensively, “but I remember when Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were shot. There’s just nothing analogous to that today.”
They deferred to their elder, but I could tell that deep down they were unconvinced.
I am not one for nostalgia. If I’m looking backward, even if with pleasure, I’m not living in the present or moving forward. Nor am I one of those “back in my day we had to walk a mile in blindingly cold weather just to catch the bus for school” types, hoping to shame this chauffeured generation about how easy a life it’s had.
In fact, I think the young folks have it worse in many fundamental ways. It’s harder for them to find good jobs after they get out of college. The jobs they get tend not to pay as well as the jobs we got when we were starting out. Here in the Bay Area and elsewhere, it’s almost impossible for them to afford decent housing.
But I sometimes worry these grim realities lead younger people to conclude that modern society is a complete and total mess, when in fact it’s only a partial mess. Both colleagues I was talking to are women. One is festooned with tattoos and the other is Asian. In the Vietnam era, neither would have had the challenging jobs they have today. Had they gotten office jobs at all looking as they do, they would have been secretaries to male slobs half as smart as them.
And what made them think police officers weren’t shooting unarmed black men in the 1960s and 1970s also?
But I didn’t go there. Instead I told the story of my parents bickering over what they’d do if the war were still going when I reached draft age. My dad, who crossed France as a soldier during World War II, said “you’re going.” Later, my mom took me aside and said, “if you get drafted, I’m sending you to Canada.”
That’s another thing Americans no longer have to deal with. People join the military because they want to, not because they’re forced to.
I can see how Americans born after the Watergate hearings might think there’s never been a president as bad as Trump, or an authoritarian right as assertive as the one we have now, or an economy as crappy as the one we face today. It doesn’t help when we old folks freak out about those things too.
But our failure to make enough progress shouldn’t blind us to the fact that we have made progress. Yes, the progress can be reversed. And yes, today we face calamities with no precedent, such as global warming, extreme income inequality, and the demise of privacy. But if given a choice between living during the Vietnam War or today, it’s a no-brainer: I’ll take today.