Saturday, December 20, 2008

Barack Obama - Mixed blessings of the 1960's and the legacy of "With Us or Against Us?"

One aspect I find fascinating in Obama's writings is his perspective on 1960's ideals and activism from unique standpoint of someone whose parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins, who played diverse roles in those times, in the context of different cultures, governments, races, and ethnic idenities. Here is one passage on this theme, which I marked in part because it hit some of the points in time that connect to my own experience growing up in the 1960's as part of a generation between his parents' generation and his own.
I've always felt a curious relationship to the sixties. In a sense, I'm a pure product of that era: As the child of a mixed marriage, my life would have been impossible, my opportunites entirely foreclosed, without the social upheavals that were then taking place. But I was too young at the time to fully grasp the nature of those changes, too removed -- living as I did in Hawaii and Indonesia - to see the fallout on America's psyche. Much of what I absorbed from the sixties was filtered through my mother, who to the end of her life would proudly proclaim herself an unreconstructed liberal. The civil rights movement, in particular, inspired her reverence; whenever the opportunity presented itself, she would drill into me the values that she saw there: tolerance, equality, standing up for the disadvantaged.

In many ways, though, my mother's understanding of the sixties was limited, both by distance (she had left the mainland of the United States in 1960) and by her incorrigible, sweet-natured romanticism. Intellectually she might have tried to understand Black Power or SOD or those women friends of hers who had stopped shaving their legs, but the anger, the oppositional spirit, just wasn't in her. Emotionally her liberalism would always remain of a decidely pre-1967 vintage, her heart a time capsule filled with images of the space program, the Peace Corps and Freedom Rides, Mahalia Jackson and Joan Baez.

It was only as I got older, then, during the seventies, that I came to appreciate the degree to which -- for those who experienced more directly some of the sixties' seminal events -- things must have seemed to be spinning out of control. Partly I understood this through the grumblings of my maternal grandparents, longtime Democrats who would admit that they'd voted for Nixon in 1968, an act of betrayal that my mother never let them live down. Mainly my understanding of the sixties came as a result of my own investigations, as my adolescent rebellion sought justification in the political and cultural changes that by then had already begun to ebb. In my teens, I bvecame fascinated with the Dionysian, up-for-grabs quality of the era, and through books, film, and music, I soaked in a vision of the sixties very different from the one my mother talked about: images of Huey Newton, the '68 Democratic National Convention, the Saigon airlift, and the Stones at Altamont. If I had no immediate reasons to pursue revolution, I decided nevertheless that in style and attitude I, too, could be a rebel, unconstrained by the received wisdom of the over-thirty crowd.

Eventually, my rejection of authority spilled into self-indulgence and self-destructiveness, and by the time I enrolled in college, I'd begun to see how any challenge to convention harbored within it the possibility of its own excesses and its own orthodoxy. I started to reexamine my ssumptions, and recalled the values my mother and grandparents had taught me. In this slow, fitful process of sorting out what I believed, I began silently registering the point in dorm-room conversations when my college friends and I stopped thinking and slipped into cant: the point at which the denunications of capitalism or American imperialism came too easily, and the freedom from the constraints of monogamy or religion was proclaimed without fully understanding the value of such constraints, and the role of victim was too readily embraced as a means of shedding responsibility, or asserting entitlement, or claiming moral superiority over those not so victimized.
Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope (New York: Vintage Books 2006) at pp. 36-38.

He goes on to explain why the Reagan administration, despite its unjust economic policies, had a strong appeal to a nation weary of the tumult of the 1960's, and then says the following about see the new conservatisim that followed:
[F]or a younger generation of conservative operatives who would soon rise to power, for Newt Gringich and Karl Rove and Grover Norquist and Ralph Reed, the fiery rhetoric was more than a matter of campaign strategy. They were true believers who mean what they said, whether it was "No new taxes" or "We are a Christian nation." In fact, with their rigid doctrines, slash-and-burn style, and exaggerated sense of having been aggrieved, this new conservative leadership was eerily reminiscent of some of the New Left's leaders in the sixties. As with their left-wing counterparts, athis new vanguard of hte right viewed politics as a contest not just between competing policy visions, but between good and evil. Activitists in both parties began developing litmus tests, checklists of orthodoxy, leaving a Democrat who questioned abortion increasingly lonely, any Republican who championed gun control effectively marooned. In this Manichean struggle, compromise became to look like weakeness, to be punished or purged. You were with us or against us. You had to choose sides.
Ibid. at pp. 41-42.

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