A Clean Break With The Past

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Again, certain broad, vague expressions of patriotic sentiment that in 1945 would have been considered commendable and in 1963 at least harmless have now become specifically distasteful to many as indicative of “extremist” beliefs. To a liberal—and liberals, on political record, are something like half of our voters—the display of a bumper sticker reading “Honor America” now suggests that the owner of the car is a full-fledged reactionary, ready to jail dissenters against the war and to use atomic weapons in its prosecution. “Support Your Local Police,” which until a few years ago might have been an advertisement for a cake-sale benefit, now suggests racial prejudice. Even more to the point, display of the American flag itself in many unofficial settings has come to have disturbing implications. I confess, with some reluctance, that a flag decal posted in the window of a car or a barbershop now arouses in me feelings of hostility toward the owner. It would emphatically not have done so in 1945.

True enough, the practice called flag-waving has been in bad repute in sophisticated American circles for generations. But the expression was metaphorical, usually referring to overly florid oratory. That the display of the flag itself should come to suggest extremist political and social views is surely an anomaly without precedent. Try to imagine any other democratically ruled nation in which such a condition exists—or ever has existed.

“Why aren’t you in Sweden or in jail?’

The reason behind these changes is hardly obscure. On V-J Day we were triumphantly concluding a war in which the moral imperative had been clear to just about everyone. On the one hand our territory had been attacked in the Pacific, and on the other a barbaric aggressor who clearly represented a threat to us as well as to our allies was at large in Europe. Now we are engaged in a military adventure in a distant country in which I believe tortuous logic is required to find the threat to ourselves and in which, threats aside, the moral imperative is certainly not clear to many millions. Is the change, then, only temporary and expedient—like, say, the 1930’s pacifism of my generation? I rather think not.

The computer revolution, filtering through from technology to culture, has recently come to change ways of thinking, perhaps more than we usually realize. Norman Macrae, deputy editor of the British Economist , commented after a recent U.S. visit on “the greater air of professionalism which runs through all ranks of American society; the greater instinct among ordinary individuals to say ‘Now here is a problem, how can I solve it by a systematic approach?’” We have learned that computers can not only imitate the human brain (play chess, choose marriage partners) but can in many ways far exceed it (retrieve material from huge library collections or scan the contents of a fat telephone book in a fraction of a second; predict election results in an instant; put men on the moon). Is it not logical, then, that we should try to improve our minds by making them as much like computers as possible? The young executive or computer programmer who has learned the meaning and value of the systems approach to problems tries to apply it in every area of his personal life—in choosing schools for his children, in mowing his lawn, in pleasing his wife. It may well be that the current cult of irrationality is partly a reaction against this computer-spawned mimicry of mechanical thinking in everyday life.

Whether or not television and its concomitants in mass communications and world travel have done what Marshall McLuhan says they have—destroyed the “linear” habit of thinking imposed by the printed page and returned the whole world to the instinctual communication methods of the primitive tribal village—they have, it seems evident enough, changed our living and thinking habits in the direction of passive receptivity. I suggest that, with the first generation of television children now coming of age, we are just beginning to feel the force of this change.

While the Negro-rights movement has passed through its various stages—full integration of the armed forces (1948), the fight for integration of schools and public facilities (1954 et seq. ), and finally “black power”—white attitudes toward aid to the Negro cause have gone through a spectrum of changes. In 1945 the majority of us, to judge from our actions, still clung to the thought that such aid through federal intervention was unnecessary or inappropriate. During the civil-rights decade beginning in 1954 most of us permitted ourselves to think of such aid as morally commendable on our part—that is to say, to think of it as having at least a component of charity. Now, in the black-power era when integration as a goal and the possible perfectability of American society are being increasingly rejected by the more militant black leaders, it has been borne in on more and more of us that giving things to minorities is and always was at best mere political expediency and at worst blackmail. Such ideas were unthinkable for nearly everyone in 1945; for all but a few in 1964. (President Johnson, it is interesting to note, was very much in the avant-garde of American thought in 1965 when he said at Howard University, “You do not wipe away the scars of centuries by saying, ‘Now, you are free to go where you want, do what you desire, and choose the leaders you please.’ You do not take a man who, for years, has been hobbled by chains, liberate him, bring him to the starting line of the race, saying, ‘You are free to compete with the others. …’” Might not those words—had they not been spoken by an American President—serve as a blackpower slogan?)