Last night, on my way from here to there---never you mind what I was doing---I passed by a bank of televisions. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was playing on all of them and Sam the Snowman had just taken out his banjo to start singing “Silver and Gold.”
And I stopped to listen.
And sing along.
I hope in my head.
But maybe under my breath.
I know I all the words, of course.
But not from a dozen viewings from a dozen Christmases from my childhood. And not from my sons’ childhoods either.
I learned the words by heart because Sister Mary Catherine and Sister Mary Jacinta made me learn them.
As the seventh grade’s part in our school’s Christmas pageant we sang all the songs from Rudolph. Holly Jolly Christmas. Rudolph, of course. But also There’s Always Tomorrow, We’re A Couple of Misfits---two very short eighth graders dressed us Hermey and Rudolph led us through that one---The Elf Song, Island of Misfit Toys/The Most Wonderful Time of the Year, and Silver and Gold.
So I wasn’t singing along from general memory. I was singing along out of a specific memory.
I was transported back to the auditorium of my grade school, a week before Christmas, when I was thirteen.
And I started to tear up.
I didn’t actually cry.
But it was a near thing. If I had been singing out loud I’d have choked up.
Inside, I was crying though
I was crying for all the people who were there that night who are gone now. For my grandparents, for many of my teachers, including my favorite, Mrs McLean, who died way too young, for many of my friends’ and classmates’ parents, for too many of the kids who were onstage and backstage at that moment.
I was crying over my losses since then. I was crying for all the losses that are to come.
Basically, I was crying because I felt sorry for myself for not being young anymore and as happy and as full of Christmas spirit---which included without any contradiction childish greed but also generosity. My saved up allowance was burning a hole in my pocket. I honestly couldn’t wait to go to the Five and Dime and buy my family their presents---and a sincere, childlike faith that Jesus was the reason for the Season because Jesus was who the nuns said he was.
But I was also crying because I was happy.
That was a wonderful night.
This was all in my head. But I’m sure if anybody had noticed me they’d have seen my eyes glistening and it’s a good thing I didn’t have to talk to anyone for a little while.
Probably, if I’d been on 60 minutes and Lesley Stahl had got me reminiscing, I’d have broken down, just like our soon to be Weeper of the House, John Boehner.
But I’ll tell you. There’s no way that in weeping over my lost childhood and youth I’d have thought I was weeping over some lost, golden, better America.
There’s no way I’d have mistaken what was going on in the auditorium of my grade school for what was going on in the country at large.
If I had to pick a moment from my school years that was at all emblematic of what was going on, it would be the day I served as an altar boy at the funeral mass for the eldest nephew of a neighbor. He’d been killed in a helicopter crash while training to fly choppers in Vietnam.
Probably most of the kids in the auditorium that night were enjoying relatively happy childhoods. Some weren’t, that’s a given, but I wouldn’t have known which ones weren’t. I’m not sure it would have occurred to me wonder. I was doing ok and my friends were too. At least, they appeared to be. God knows what some of them might have been hiding. I was aware that there were children in the world whose childhoods were anything but happy and I knew that not all of those children lived in Africa. But for the most part we were all contented, well-fed, warmly-clothed, generally safe, healthy, and comfortably and securely sheltered.
And by sheltered I don’t just mean we had nice, clean, warm houses or apartments to come home to.
I mean that we were sheltered from what was going on in the country by virtue of our parents being middle class or working class, which in those days, in Upstate New York, where most of the blue collar work was at the many nearby GE plants---most of the white collar and pink collar work was there too---where thanks to the Unions and GE’s manufacturing strength effectively meant middle class.
But we were also sheltered by our parents being responsible grown-ups with the attitudes and codes of parents of that time and that place, some of which were less than ideal, but one of them was the principle that adults did not share their feelings with children.
By then the Recession had hit. I’m sure there were some kids in school who wondered why suddenly so many of their suppers featured tuna casserole or pancakes and scrambled eggs. I didn’t. There were six kids in our house. I just took it for granted that my mother fed us what she was sure all six of us would eat. I also knew she didn’t have time to make a big meal for eight every night. I didn’t figure out until I was in college that my father’s salary was in the process of being effectively halved by inflation.
When one of us asked why we couldn’t go out for ice cream after dinner tonight or why we couldn’t have a toy or a particular item of clothing we just needed to have by this weekend if not right now and we’d have to wait for our birthday or Christmas, we accepted---because we had no choice but to accept it---my mother’s calm and patient reply, “We don’t have the money for it today.”
Being old enough to begin to understand how money worked and good at simple arithmetic I understood that the cost of spoiling us all rotten would add up. Plus, there was that whole building character thing parents seemed to put a lot of stock in. You know, patience is a virtue, delaying gratification, counting your blessings, all those lessons that were supposed to help turn us into responsible adults.
Sometimes she slipped and I caught the worry in her voice. I was a sensitive kid. I wasn’t necessarily on the lookout for my parents’ feelings but I wasn’t oblivious. I was, however, a smarty-pants with a pretty good knowledge of American history. I would catch my mother not being able to hide her worries about money and I’d think, “Well, after all, she did grow up during the Depression.”
See, I was a product of my time, too. I knew that the Depression had wrecked the country, but I also knew that Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal had saved it for all time. Another Depression couldn’t happen. We as a nation had learned our lesson. Good times, prosperous times had arrived after the War and they had lasted for over twenty years which proved that they would last forever. My mother worried because she had learned to worry when she was young and couldn’t break herself of the habit. But she didn’t need to.
If I did anything around the house to help save money or if I put off asking for stuff I wanted but knew I didn’t need, it was only to spare my mother the worry. I wasn’t the least bit worried myself.
You may wonder where my father fits into all this.
He wasn’t home a lot. He was working. Two jobs. College professor by day. Town supervisor by night and on the weekends.
That’s what kept us afloat. Two salaries. That’s what was suddenly keeping a lot of families afloat. Two incomes. My mother didn’t have to go to work. With all those little kids around she didn’t want to. But she was lucky. Other mothers were going to work, even mothers with very small kids at home.
Feminism has been a good thing. But it’s important to remember that much of the good its done has been in reaction to a bad thing.
A lot of women who could afford to stay home in the 1950s and 60s suddenly couldn’t.
They had to go to work and the workplaces they entered were incredibly hostile to them.
Still are, of course.
My parents were faring better than a lot of people in the country. They were faring better than a lot of people who were in the auditorium that night. Those jobs at GE were great, while they lasted. GE was already in the process of disassembling its manufacturing and technical divisions. Executives even before Jack Welch took charge were seeing the future and it wasn’t in bringing good things to light.
And not a few parents there had sons, my friends’ and schoolmates’ older brothers, who were draft age or soon would be.
For that matter, my friends and I were all only five years away ourselves and that damned War had already lasted more than five years and didn’t look to be winding down. There was no light visible at the end of the tunnel. Peace With Honor was an oxymoron that Nixon seemed determined to turn into a tautology even if it took his whole Presidency.
What was going on in that auditorium that night was not what was going on in the country or even in our town. All that was going on was that we were enjoying another safe and happy night, one of the many we were lucky enough to enjoy during our safe and happy and sheltered childhoods.
John Boehner is older than I am. Wasn’t all that long ago I’d have said he was a lot older. The gap in our ages somehow seems to be narrowing every day. But back then I’d definitely have thought of him as a lot older.
In fact, I’d have thought of him as a grown-up, because that’s what he was.
Boehner was born in 1949. The years of his childhood and youth include all of the 1950s and half the 60s. Boehner cries about many things. I don’t believe it’s because he’s such a sensitive New Age guy admirably in touch with his feelings and secure enough in his manhood that he’s not afraid to show his softer side. I suspect his tears are 80 proof and, bottled, could not be sold to minors. But one of the things he cried about on 60 Minutes was the collective loss we’ve all suffered.
The America John Boehner grew up in is gone, he sobbed, and pity the poor children who won’t be able to grow up in it.
Steve Benen points out that the America Boehner grew up in and misses to the point of tears was created by New Deal policies and economic realities that Boehner and his fellow Republicans have dedicated their political careers to undoing.
But besides being the product of some politically correct revisionism---Right Wingers these days are more PC than any post-modernist literature professor circa 1990---the America Boehner “remembers” is historically incomplete.
His America doesn’t include segregation. It doesn’t include Joe McCarthy. It doesn’t include the atomic bomb.
I don’t know what was on thirteen year old Johnny Boehner’s mind in October of 1962 but it doesn’t appear to have been the imminent outbreak of World War III.
The America Boehner remembers doesn’t include Vietnam. Unlike so many members of his warmongering Party’s Baby Boomers, Boehner actually served. He was in the Navy, for less than six months before he was invalided out, and his Seabee unit was stationed in Mississippi, but still, basic training must have brought him in contact with a few Marines who would have been glad to tell him what they had trained for and where there was a good chance they were going to end up or where they had been.
Nope. John Boehner’s America is a very small place. One little corner of Ohio, population 1---John Boehner.
John Boehner’s Lost America is indistinguishable from his lost childhood. It is his lost childhood.
Given all that he’s left out of his memory of the America that extended beyond himself, you have to wonder how much of his childhood he actually or accurately remembers. God knows how much revisionism, nostalgia, vanity, denial, and memory loss brought on my the alcoholic drowning of brain cells have contributed to his autobiography. But that’s what his talk about the great and gone America he wants back amounts to. Autobiography.
John Boehner is in mourning for his childhood.
That’s what he’s weeping for. That’s the country he wants back. John Boehner is sad because he’s getting old.
He’s not the only one.
In the coverage of the Tea Party it’s routinely noted how much self-pity motivates a lot of its adherents and leaders, especially the one with the glasses. It’s a strange movement of middle class white people who feel sorry for themselves because they feel they no longer live in a country where it’s a good thing to be middle class and white.
They feel oppressed. They feel like they are the most oppressed and exploited people in America, even relative to migrant workers.
They feel oppressed by migrant workers.
Even the ones who live in suburbs of big cities hours away from the nearest lettuce fields.
“We want our country back,” they whine and are encouraged to whine by the likes of John Boehner, Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, and Glenn Beck, who, they never bother to point out themselves, are doing very well in the country as is.
And it’s easy to assume that the America they want back is an America in which middle class white people didn’t have to share any of the benefits and privileges of being middle class and white with anybody else.
It’s easy to assume because it’s true.
Much of the Tea Party is fueled by the idea that “I got mine, you get yours” is a fine and Christian philosophy to build a country on.
But it is also true that middle class people of every color do not enjoy the benefits and privileges that the middle class, blue and white collar included, enjoyed fifty and even forty years ago.
So they’re right about the fact that there used to be an America where it was much better to be middle class than the America they’re living in now.
They’re just wrong in believing that those benefits and privileges were taken away from them by Liberals who gave them to migrant workers.
Those benefits and privileges have been stolen from them by the people who have been most benefited and privileged by living in the America we live in now, who have collectively decided that it is morally wrong for them to share any of those benefits with anyone who is not like them, rich.
Those people don’t want their country back. They like it just the way it is. They just want to own more of it.
But, as I said, middle class Americans, white and every other color, on the Right and on the Left, are not wrong in believing that it stinks to be middle class these days and it’s getting stinkier. It stinks to be anything but rich.
Democrats, from the President on down, seem to have trouble acknowledging this.
Republicans have had no problem exploiting it by exploiting the fear and the anger that goes with it.
What the Right Wing is wrong about and what it’s always been wrong about is that the way to fix this, the way to unstink things, is by going back.
It’s not silly or stupid or childish for someone who was born in 1949 to think that the country was generally a better place in the 1950s. It may be self-centered. You have to ask the question, Better for who? But the fact is that if you were born in 1949 you could grow up believing that the future was going to be a better place to live in. The country was growing richer and more open by the day. By the time you were twenty, though, you might have started to notice that things weren’t what they were. By the time you were thirty it would have been very clear that things were getting worse. And by the time you were forty, if you were working class and lower than upper middle class, you couldn’t help but conclude that you’d gotten about as far as you could go---forward. The only direction you were likely to travel now was backwards.
It’s not surprising that a lot of people began to convince themselves that backwards was the right direction.
The Tea Party Movement is nothing new. It’s just a new and goofy name slapped on the Right Wing Reactionaryism that’s been taking over the Republican Party since the days before Goldwater, and a nostalgic, childish vision of a purer, more innocent, happier America has always been a key element of that reaction.
It’s said that the past is another country, but that’s not a metaphor to the Right. They believe that country’s there and they can get to it.
It’s not childish to believe that there were things that were better when you were young and it would be a good thing if we could get those things or at least some of those things back. It’s childish to believe that because things were better for you when you were a kid they must have been better for everybody else. It’s infantile to believe that all those things that were better for you can be gotten back and the way to bring them back is whine and complain and scream and blame others and vote for orange-skinned weepers who promise they can get them all back at you at no cost and with no sacrifice.
The Right honestly seems to believe that the country is a thing like a toy that has been unfairly taken away from them.
Which is childish enough.
But the country---the toy---they expect to get back is the one they grew up in.
And not the historical one.
The one they’ve idealized in their memory.
It may not be that in the case of all of them that lost, idealized America is their childhood.
But a big part of what they miss, what they want back, is the feeling they had when they were kids that everything was going to be all right.
Things stink. It’s scary. People are right to be worried. They’re right to be angry.
And they’re right to not want to feel scared, to want to be relieved of their worries or at least feel that some of their worries will end, to want to be able to stop being angry---at least most people want to stop being angry. There are plenty of people who are addicted to their anger---they’re right to want to feel more hopeful.
They’re not right to expect that they can feel as unafraid, as carefree, as good-humored, and as hopeful as they imagine they felt when they were children.
They’re not right to feel sorry for themselves because they are no longer the safe and sheltered children on the stage and now have to be the grownups in the audience doing the sheltering.
And they’re not right in demanding that the rest of us find ways to make them feel like children again.
Wanna sing along?