Speech I Wish I Could Have Given in 1968

originally published August 28, 2012
I'm quite proud of this post. So much of what happened then set the stage for now. 
It also earned one of my few Editors' Picks. 


 

This was inspired by a post by Jeremiah Horrigan called Neil Armstrong without tears.

I look at my elders and notice they wonder what on Earth is going on with the Younger Generation. We don’t appear to respect authority. We look awful, we listen to loud and anarchic music, we protest our government’s actions, we do drugs, we flout all sorts of social conventions. How did we end up with such intergenerational conflict? Why do we seem so intent on changing everything?

I don’t think anyone has actually attempted to answer those questions for you. I will do that now. Some of these answers may surprise you.

You know how bad the rest of the world can be, in truth far better than we do. You look at America and notice how incomparably superior it is to Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, imperial Japan. We are more open, more free, more compassionate. Our citizens don’t disappear in the middle of the night and end up in frozen labor camps or, worse, dead. We have rights. We are multicultural. We integrate our immigrants, and they love us for it. 

Two of those evil nations were gone during our childhoods. Our perspective is very different.

Since we were about five years old, we started each school day by standing up in our classrooms, putting our hands on our hearts, and saying something solemnly that ends with “with liberty and justice for all” before we even knew what it meant. We’d get home and watch TV, where we’d hear the narrator for Superman intone about “truth, justice, and the American Way.” We’d read comic books featuring heroes like Batman. What did they fight? Injustice. 

At some point, it started to occur to us that liberty and justice for all wasn’t what we were seeing. Why were we seeing different groups of people treated so differently? We should talk to adults about that – this should be fixed. The reactions we got were not what we expected. Leave it alone. It’s the way things have always been. Support your country. It’s no big deal. 

Huh? When you planted us in front of that flag and made us repeat that phrase every day, what exactly did you expect? That we’d ignore it? We internalized what you taught us, and now you’re telling us you didn’t mean it? You gave us these rules you treated as sacred and expected respect when you ignored them?

You surprised and dismayed us by not getting upset by injustice. You got upset by other things. You got upset by our music. But the strangest thing that upset you, and it upset you viscerally, primally, was our . . . . . hair.

Hair? Are you kidding? Of all the nonsense to blow a gasket over, Hair?? George Washington Thomas Jefferson Benjamin Franklin Prince Valiant George Armstrong Custer Jesus Christ HAIR? Reach into your pocket, pull out a nickel or a quarter and look at it Hair? Along with In God We Trust? 

We’ve got kids getting screamed at for going to school, peaceful demonstrators being greeted with attack dogs and hoses, Freedom Riders disappearing, little girls being bombed to death in their churches, peaceful demonstrators in Chicago being beaten up and arrested Soviet-style, and what gets your goat the most as Americans is Hair? Seriously?

The truth is that I understand more about why hair than you think, but I’ll come back to that later.

Drugs. We have a drug problem. We have a drug problem because you committed two major tactical errors about drugs.

The first is that you lied to your kids about marijuana. You made it sound like the worst thing since the Black Plague. Your kids aren’t stupid. They’ve noticed that you drink, and they’ve noticed that their intoxicant of choice is, if anything, less harmful than yours. They’ve heard you say that marijuana is addictive, but they all know what alcoholics look like and that there is no such thing as a marijuanic. They’ve noticed that stoned people don’t tend toward violence but that drunk people often do. 

Then your kids started trying other drugs, which you said were dangerous. For the most part, you were right, but you blew your credibility on marijuana and now they’re not listening. 

Actually, you blamed their use of other drugs on marijuana. You said that some astronomical proportion, better than 90%, of heroin users started on marijuana, like that means something. Please. I’m sure that better than 90% of heroin users drank milk as kids but that doesn’t mean there’s a heroin/milk connection. You have the statistic backward: The question is not how many heroin addicts started on marijuana but how many marijuana users go on to heroin. That’s a far lower number. 

But not a negligible number. The question is why. I’ve heard the big assumption, that kids are looking for greater and greater thrills. The big assumption, however, is wrong, and here’s where we get to your second tactical error. 

Why didn’t Prohibition work? Because people were going to drink anyway. All it accomplished was to finance organized crime. The government spent a fortune fighting organized crime. Then Prohibition ended, and the government was able to tax and regulate alcohol, keeping the population safer while pulling one of organized crime’s main sources of revenue. 

This version of Prohibition isn’t working either. It’s financing organized crime, and government can’t tax marijuana or regulate it. People are going to smoke anyway because there really is no more reason for them not to smoke than there was for you not to drink. But why are marijuana smokers going on to other drugs in major numbers?

For a reason you should understand better than your kids do: Distribution channels. Drug salesmen are like any salesmen: they make more money by upselling, and they make a lot more money by upselling to something addictive. By keeping marijuana illegal, you’re essentially forcing your kids to buy it from Pushers. Guess what else those Pushers are selling to your kids?

So there’s intergenerational fighting about hair and about drugs, but also about something else, something huge:

The War.

We understand that you believe in lining up behind your country during wartime. You look at all these antiwar kids and think that you’re witnessing the biggest breach of patriotism in American history. (It isn’t; that actually happened in 1861, but I won’t go there today.) You’ve been to war before. You knew what it meant to fight the Nazis and the Japanese and you knew what it meant to keep the South Koreans free, even though there was less at stake there than in the Second World War. 

You think this is about war in general, but it isn’t: it’s about this war. This war is sacrificing a civilian population to something that is nothing more than a geopolitical chess game and not either a Critical American Interest or the protection of a civilian population. Up until and including the Tet Offensive, most of whom we’ve been fighting in Vietnam hasn’t been North Vietnamese at all, it’s been the Viet Cong, who are South Vietnamese. This is mostly a civil war. 

When Ho Chi Minh won his country’s independence from France, he turned to the country best known in the world for winning its own independence from a colonial power: he turned to us. Our government rebuffed him because he was a Communist. We helped keep his country divided, we propped up governments in the South. We are viewed by many, not without cause, as a colonial power ourselves there. 

Your kids would die for America, your kids would probably even die to keep South Koreans free, but your kids aren’t so ready to die on one side of a civil war that entails killing a whole lot of civilians (because the Viet Cong don’t wear uniforms), particularly when it’s the other side that’s fighting for national independence. You’re saying that it’s unpatriotic to question our leaders when, actually, it’s quintessentially American to question our leaders. They’re saying that it’s unpatriotic to be so incredibly cavalier with the lives of your citizens while sullying America’s international reputation as a moral country. Wasting your kids’ lives in a venture whose morality, utility, and necessity are questionable is an enormous violation of trust. 

Back to hair. You’re right, hair isn’t just hair. Hair means your kids don’t want to be like you. You’re angry at them for rebelling but you haven’t faced the fact that their reasons for rebelling might actually make sense because that would make you confront your own failures. 

You’re saying: They need to show respect. For what? For teaching them that justice is important, then ignoring injustice? For lying to them? For patronizing them? For expecting them to be willing to kill and die in a war they don’t think is justified or moral? For, in their own eyes, being unwilling to be the Bad Guys? 

Again, you have it backward. You need to show respect. Your kids understand many things you don’t, chief of which is probably that being American doesn’t make us right but being right makes us better Americans. 

Your kids are thinking. Your kids have consciences. You’re looking at all that hair and thinking Where did I go wrong? Like a whole lot else, you have this backward too. That hair doesn’t mean you brought your kids up wrong, it means you brought your kids up right. The best thing an American kid can be is principled. Congratulations are in order. May you grow to understand that. 

-----------------------------------------------------------------

2012
What drives the Republican Party more than anything else to this day is the ghosts of those long-haired kids. Republicans have never recovered from the trauma of dealing with them. You will find legislation about flag burning decades after episodes of flags being burned in America in anger. They remember those kids and see a bunch of spoiled brats out to destroy their way of life. To this day, they have no idea what sent these kids into rebellion. 

For this, the kids are at fault. The Republicans claimed God and, rather than pointing out how badly they were representing Him by turning a cold eye toward those in need, we deserted religion. The Republicans waved flags and we, who did what we could to make our country a better, more just and moral place, avoided talking about patriotism. The Republicans talked about being pro-military while we, who were trying to see to it that soldiers got a living wage, stayed away from those discussions for fear of appearing militaristic. The Republicans talked about freedom and we, who care about it at least as much as they do, didn’t talk about gay marriage in terms of freedom when freedom is exactly the issue here. The Republicans complained about government intrusion while we, fighting legislation in Arizona to profile Hispanics, didn’t attack such legislation on the grounds of government intrusion. The Republicans made “fiscal conservativism” synonymous with fiscal responsibility while we, who have spent government money far more responsibly and with far better economic results, don’t like to talk about money so we allow yet another myth to stand, the result being that the Republicans get far more support from the business community than we do.

They will not understand us by osmosis. They will not think any of this is obvious, as obvious as it seems to us because, if they did, we wouldn’t have these problems. These are our cases to make. 

Who really supports biblical values?

Who works to make our country a more just, compassionate, and exemplary place, and so who is really patriotic?

Who supports soldiers for real?

Who really supports freedom?

Who really opposes government intrusion when it counts?

Who is really more responsible with this country’s money?

We have allowed Republicans to believe that the answers to these questions are so obvious as to not be worth asking. 

And that, I’m afraid, is the height of irresponsibility.

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