The world’s dominant climate pattern is called “the seasonal lag.” As that expression implies, the outgoing season lingers until it is overwhelmed by the incoming season. I see a parallel to that phenomenon in the global parade of civilizations. As with the gradual procession of seasons, civilizations rarely experience sudden death. Instead, their imprint lingers through their treasures made of words, stone, music, paint, and other significant artifacts. However, like the procession of seasons, the ideological remnants—or rather, residues—of past cultures also linger, often with appalling consequences for the living.
Like Greece centuries before it, America was and still is defined by freedom. But, also like Greece, inventor of the ‘fatal flaw’, America countenanced slavery. The Declaration of Independence itself states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.“ The words, “…all men are created equal” and “Liberty” are unequivocal. Yet, it took almost a century before slavery was abolished during America’s Civil War. There were reasons for that time lag despite the Declaration’s elegant words. For example, the exigencies of the American Revolution postponed freedom for African Americans while the Declaration’s ink was still wet.
It took yet another century after the Civil War before the Civil Rights Movement of the sixties legally assured African Americans their “certain unalienable rights.” But having myself lived for almost a century, I’ve observed firsthand that prejudice continues at all levels of society. Syndicated columnists, TV commentators, Hollywood stars and government officials either play the race card or (hopefully not) actually believe that President Obama’s political difficulties are racially motivated. The same is true of our Attorney General who actually makes that claim about himself. Mindsets remain implacable even in the most educated and sophisticated communities.
The residues of political ideologies also linger for centuries. When I attended college (NYU) in the late forties, I was shocked to find that the political mindset of academia was still stuck in the early twentieth century: ‘American imperialism’ and ‘robber barons’ were still buzz words!
The sixties were highlighted by a rebellion against the establishment. It was a bloodless rebellion led by young men and women under thirty years of age. It couldn’t go anywhere because the kids believed there is no life after thirty, so their politics had no impact on society. They questioned and resisted every aspect of American life but their mindset for structureless, communal life was untenable in the real world. Ironically, had they attempted their lifestyle in a communist country, they would have been literally destroyed. The overwhelming majority of them were good kids who were understandably traumatized by the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Cold War. Sadly, they were young at a time when the world was in a downward spiral that continues to this day. Incidentally, my friends tell me that because I remember the sixties I wasn’t there. That’s partially true because I favored opera over the Beatles, because I am not interested in rebels without a cause, and because the only drug I do is opera. I mention this because toward the end of that decade I saw the musical Hair. As is often the case, art best describes the essence of a concept. Whatever its faults, Hair was very exciting and made significant points about the times. I saw it twice. In that same decade I saw a breathtaking performance of Electra at the Metropolitan Opera House sung by Birgit Nilsson. I saw that five times. The sixties were something like the opening of Charles Dickens’ novel, A Tale of Two Cities.
To be continued in It’s Up to You (Part 2 of Two)