I protested the War in Viet Nam. I marched and watched young men burn their draft cards and participated in sit-ins. Young men of my generation objected to being forced to carry guns, perhaps be killed, in a war that seemed senseless. That turned out to be senseless. The rioters in the Capitol on Wednesday were angry with the thought that someone might take their guns away and they did not seem to mind a little killing.
I am old and those rioters were (mostly) young. I would like someone to succinctly tell me what their grievance is – other than the unproven belief that Trump had somehow won the election despite certifications, audits, and polls leading up to the election showing that Trump would probably lose. When I protested in the sixties (and again when we entered Iraq), I did it grimly. These young men clearly seemed to be having a good time. What is going on here?
I live in the south. My state voted for Trump. In my neighborhood, mostly made up of retired folk, there were probably (judging from the lawn signs) an equal number of Trump and Biden supporters – so Trumpism is surely not just for the young. But with every generation, I think, it is the young who insert the energy into every new movement. It was so with civil rights, women’s rights, voter rights.
Are the current Trumpists the children or grandchildren of the people who doused the protesters of my era with water hoses or called us communists? Their brand of patriotism was tough to take then, and it is killing this country now. But here is a difference. I don’t think we were disagreeing about the facts in those days. The other side might have been saying that we should be out there battling the Reds in Viet Nam, but they weren’t saying that George McGovern or Eugene McCarthy were running child pornography rings. Something has changed. Something is worse.
Don’t get me wrong. I am old and old people tend to be conservative, to think things were better in the good old days. We don’t like things to change a whole bunch. But we have also learned some things along the way, including that the flag doesn’t legitimate all efforts made under its banner or that elected officials don’t always do the right thing.
This morning, I went to the local convenience store to get my Sunday New York Times. The very nice young man who works the early shift there asked me if I had had a good week as I paid for my paper. I pointed to the pictures of the ransacked Capitol Building on the front page and said, “Except for this.” He quickly pointed out to me that there had been protests when Hillary lost. He is right; I even attended one in Asheville. “But we didn’t do this,” I said. “We didn’t carry weapons. We didn’t deny the results of legitimate elections. We didn’t destroy property or try to upset our democracy.” The young man just smiled and went on to the next customer, not much interested in what an old lady had to say.
This has been a hard year for all of us. The old have been particularly hard-hit by Covid, by infection and death and the isolation it has forced us into. We watched a President disregard – and even belittle – the protocols like mask-wearing that could have kept us safer, while he got drugs when he got ill that we would probably never have access to. When people I know got Covid, they were told to monitor their breathing and call 911 if their oxygen level got so low they couldn’t function. That was all. And now all of the rules of democracy and civilization that we have prided ourselves on are being disregarded.
In 1920, Robert Frost wrote the poem “Fire and Ice,” inspired, it is said, by a conversation he had with an astronomer at Harvard about how the world will end:
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
We have the fire of passions and global warming; we have the ice of hate and destructive thinking. Either would “suffice,” but we must somehow fight both at once. And the old must do their part.
But please don’t think that I just blame the young. Our generation must have done something wrong in order to produce such massive disregard for truth, science, moral balance.
I have been counting the days until January 20, but that will not be the end of it. It will be the end of neither Trumpism nor Covid. I wrote a piece a while back entitled, “What Are the Old to Do?” where I concluded that we should remain civil, participate in lawful and peaceful protest, and continue insisting that facts be verified. I am much afraid these things will not be enough, but other suggestions are welcome.
Next week I will get back to last novels. Melville, I think.