In April 1945, I was a 21-year-old foot soldier on the floor of a German farmhouse when someone shook me awake to whisper that FDR had died.
Now, at 90, I am inevitably shaped by those years after a working lifetime as writer, editor and publisher trying to explain the world to others—-and myself.
The scenes around me today are filled with human folly, selfishness and shameless behavior, but that’s far from the whole story. My so-called Greatest Generation, which survived a Depression and World War, does not in retrospect seem so morally superior to those that succeeded it but only more limited in education, experience of the world and outlook.
Many of our virtues were rooted in ignorance: no TV, cable, computers, Internet, no electronics of any kind, only radios with music, soap operas and swatches of evening news lifted from newspapers (as a teenage copy boy, I wrote some of them.)
As a nation we were united, but in an innocence that also had its dark side—-racial ghettos, religious prejudice, rural isolation—-where only unseen white men, all Protestant, held power over our lives in government and business.
Women then lived no fuller a life than those in Nazi Germany: Kinder, Küche, Kirche (children, kitchen, church). Our mothers patrolled homes in house dresses, with only one exception.
Although we knew her as Mrs. Goldstein, nothing went with that matronly name, not the shimmer of clothes clinging to her trim body, or the beauty-parlor hair, the high-heeled shoes and face painted with makeup even in daytime, or the sweet perfume cloud that came into the living room in late afternoons when she kissed her son goodnight and dazzled the rest of us playing there with a cupid’s bow smile on her way out.
She always seemed on the move to someplace exciting or, if my mother’s mutterings could be believed, sinful. I had no idea what nafka meant, but Mrs. Goldstein gave our pre-teen senses a whiff of hope that the night life on movie screens existed somewhere in the real world.
Jump cut through decades: a World War; prosperous but Man-in-the-Grey-Flannel-Suit Fifties; JFK, the Youthquake, Civil Rights awakening and Women’s Lib of the televised Sixties; a backlash of the Silent Majority and Watergate in the Nixon years; Reagan’s Morning-in-America to paper over growing economic and political gulfs followed by Clinton’s centrism and self-centeredness barely surviving Gingrich’s loopy Contract with America; and then almost a decade of W’s preemptive war and mindless tax cuts to bring us into the Obama years of almost total Tea Party collapse of the civility that held us together all that time, with Racism showing its naked face.
Yet, in perspective, what looks so grim now may only be the low point of another upward spiral to come. A year ago, the New York Times posted a symposium, “Are People Getting Dumber?” Harvard’s brilliant Steven Pinker anchored it with an essay, “To See Humans’ Progress, Zoom Out”:
“Can we see the fruits of superior reasoning in the world around us? The answer is yes.
“In recent decades the sciences have made vertiginous leaps in understanding, while technology has given us secular miracles like smartphones, genome scans and stunning photographs of outer planets and distant galaxies. No historian with a long view could miss the fact that we are living in a period of extraordinary intellectual accomplishment...
“Ideals that today’s educated people take for granted--equal rights, free speech, and the primacy of human life over tradition, tribal loyalty and intuitions about purity--are radical breaks with the sensibilities of the past. These too are gifts of a widening application of reason.”
Others point out a worldwide rise in IQ scores, innovations complicating our lives with “upgrade upon upgrade” that don’t “lower our native intelligence but "relentlessly burden it” and, perhaps most important of all, a blogger about stupidity notes:
“You can get a perfect score on your SATs and it will barely register in a world of 200 million tweets a day. But give just one stupid answer in a beauty pageant, and you’ll be the laughingstock of the world before you have time to clear your name on the next morning’s ‘Today’ show.
”And while watching something smart takes time, you can see something stupid in a flash. Today at work, when I had a spare moment, I didn’t try to learn a new language. I watched a video of a guy getting a tattoo removed with an air-blast sander. And now I know that’s not a very good idea.”
As I blew out a blast furnace of birthday candles on this weekend of ominous headlines, I was silently repeating Dr. Pangloss’ mantra, that with a little courage—-and some luck--we may all soon be living again in “the best of all possible worlds.”