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Perhaps you have seen the meme that shows WWII soldiers and says something along the lines of “they stormed the beaches for us, we’re just being asked to stay on our couches.” As far as exhortations to stay home go, I suppose it is one of the less annoying and more anodyne ones, but it’s still full of a smug, pompous, and scornful shame directed at us today, extolling the virtues of our honored ancestors over and against the alleged sins of our current generation.
It absolutely reeks of the sort of derision that says “not only are you no better than them, but you’re actually likely a great deal worse since we have to nanny you into staying in your own home.” It is an appeal to heroic nostalgia for a sepia-toned and non-existent past, where somehow the people were “more real,” more manly (or womanly) than today. Putting aside my general annoyance with such nannyism, as a perpetual student of history, I also have to cry foul over the comparison and call it what it is: bilge.
The historian in me usually wants to whack people over the head when they put prior generations on pedestals for, as in this example, going through the Depression and WWII without complaining, or whatever else. For my mother’s father’s family, they were all poor farmers and the tough times of the 1930s were all they knew. While my grandfather would talk about re-stuffing the mattresses with corn husks every summer (or corncobs if he were in an impishly funny mood, when he would freely exaggerate hardships for the sake of a laugh), he never tried to paint those times as somehow ideal.
He certainly looked back on when the doc removed everyone’s tonsils in their front room one afternoon without any fondness (for there was also no anesthetic beyond a supply of popsicles), nor did he ever show any sort of “my generation had it worse, you little snots” attitude, but rather one of deep gratitude that things were so much better after the war.
The point being to all those stories was that they didn’t complain, not out of any nostalgic sense of toughness, or that they were somehow better or more virtuous, but because they didn’t know things could be better at that time. It seemed idyllic because it was all they knew, not because they were somehow tougher.
And the stories he told of his own generation after the war don’t point to any necessarily greater “toughness” or stoic virtue than anyone else — when dealing with the union he was forced to be in it was rather a different attitude in fact, as it was filled with crooks, cutthroats, thugs, and layabouts who would think nothing of putting the rank and file through a hard winter’s strike, then immediately raise the dues and soak up any hard-won wages. My grandmother was certainly not somehow more virtuous for surviving the hardships of the ’30s and then the War — she spent much of the rest of her life, having now tasted better, wanting yet more and more.
And it was much the same with my father’s family, though since my dad’s parents were a good decade older than my mother’s parents, they did remember how much better things had seemed in the ’20s, and how suddenly it all halted. My great-grandfather’s health failed him, and my grandfather had already quit school by 1923, at the age of 13, in order to work to support the household, and that opened a lifelong rift with his brothers who (in his eyes) never did their fair share, and never toughed anything out if they could avoid it, not then and not later.
While I understand the sentiment behind it, I think Tom Brokaw’s Greatest Generation books were a massive disservice both to history and to those people, and a horrendous cherry-picking paean to a generation that Brokaw himself treated poorly when still a reporter, and so felt he had to make amends to while there was still time. The books selectively highlighted the good bits, and good anecdotes, and so covered over the sins of many within that cohort, sins that my grandparents knew all too well. In so doing, now those ghosts are made to loom large over us, staring out from re-used snapshots in memes, in heroic poses captured in the moments of crisis to overlay selected shots of the worst of us, from Trigglypuff to the silly stock-art we know to be staged for making easy captions. Well, cameras were expensive then, and film was by and large saved for only the “best,” while today such photos are cheap and lend themselves to cheap spectacle and vanity. Neither then nor now were mundane things fit for widespread dissemination.
And now we are facing a crisis of our own and such comparisons tempt us to shame, their best against our worst, as though somehow our own efforts are unworthy, and our own attitudes put our ancestral toughness to shame, when in fact our forebears were very much then as we are now, muddling through and wondering whether their ancestors had somehow been tougher, since they conquered the frontier and tamed the “injuns,” or else had braved leaving the old world behind for the new.
We tell ourselves that they somehow were brave and hearty stoics through it all, but the truth of it is that they muddled through, lurching from crisis to crisis while trying to adapt, groping blindly towards an uncertain and frightening future, and we are doing no differently. We revere our grandparents and great-grandparents for their frugality and hard work, forgetting that many of them were on the take (some ancestors of mine were avid bootleggers) or mooching off their harder-working relatives. We’re shaming ourselves for our own sins by denying that our forebears had any of their own.
And anyone who actually studies the 1930s and ’40s quickly realizes what a frightful political mess they were too. We forget now that Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC, with their shouting heads and naked partisanship, had their own analogues at the time. We say that FDR was a demagogue, but we forget he had plenty of competition on the radio and in print. If we think there was somehow some national unity and consensus during the Depression, we are fooling ourselves — national politics then were horribly acrimonious and disunited, with the Democrats routinely accusing the Republicans of treason for opposing FDR, and the Republicans looking to score on FDR’s failings for nakedly partisan gains. We lionize the past at our own peril, especially if we do so merely to shame our own present.
We have no roadmap for whatever lies ahead. Neither did they, nor would they if somehow they were brought back today. We’re muddling through, same as them, and clueless as to how this all plays out, same as them too. We are all wondering too, whether we will be one of the WuFlu’s victims, and worried that those dear to us might get it instead. That’s ok, and so long as we do not let our fears paralyze us entirely, these fears do not unman us by their presence. Take comfort in this: two generations hence, our descendants won’t tell our stories any more correctly than we tell those of our forebears, and in their own crises they’ll look at ours and wonder how in hell we got through it all so stoically.Published in