The Cold Civil War
Despite all the evidence of the past several decades, you still have not grasped one simple fact: that, just about a century after the last one ended, we engaged in a great civil war, one that will determine the kind of country we and our descendants shall henceforth live in for at least the next hundred years-and, hopefully, a thousand. Since there hasn't been much shooting, so far, some call the struggle we are now involved in the "culture wars," but I have another, better name for it: the Cold Civil War.
In many ways, this new civil war is really an intragenerational struggle, the War of the Baby Boomers. America's largest generation, the famous "pig in the python," has affected everything it's touched, from the schools of the 1950s (not enough of them) through the colleges of the 1960s (changed, changed utterly), through the political movements of the 1970s and 1980s (revolution and counterrevolution), and into the present, where the war is still being waged. For the dirty little secret is that all those fresh- faced kids, crammed together in public school classrooms, have hated each other almost from the moment they first drew breath, and realized that they were to be locked in lifelong, mortal competition with the dozens, hundreds, thousands, millions of other kids their same age. From their first moment of self-consciousness, they were aware that they would have to fight for everything they got: for the love of their parents, for a desk in the classrooms, for a place in the elite colleges, for a job, for a title, for money, for everything.
It was back then, shoulder to shoulder in those crowded, stinky classrooms, benighted places where there was scarcely a grief counselor to be seen, where Attention Deficit Disorder and the whole host of other imaginary diseases we have since inflicted on you had not yet been invented (any kid claiming ADD would have been laughed at and, in Catholic school, probably slapped upside the head by the nuns), and where the idea of filing a lawsuit on just about any pretext would have been considered trashy, that our respective sides developed our deep antipathy for one another. My crew was resentful that we had to share space, not only in the classroom but on the planet, with inexplicably happy alien beings like you, who, at best, ignored us as you got on with your lives in pursuit of the chimerical "American Dream," or worse, treated us with contempt as we whined, moaned, bitched, and complained about the awful unfairness of life and the vast evil all around us and all that jazz. Just because you happened to be the so-called "majority" at the time didn't mean we couldn't start planning ways to take you down, to change things, to effect a fundamental transformation of your society. Which, in case you haven't noticed, is now ours.
You admired strength, resolve, and purposefulness; we were stuck with weakness and indecision. You saw the world as something to be conquered; we saw the world as a hostile force needing to be appeased. You dealt with life head-on, never complaining and never explaining; we ran home and told our mommies. You cheered when macho neanderthals like John Wayne or Steve McQueen kicked some "bad" guy's butt, and swelled with pride at that whole faked "moon landing" charade, while we ogled Jane Fonda as Barbarella atop that antiaircraft gun in Hanoi, and rolled around naked in the mud at Woodstock. Think of us as Cain to your Abel, hating you from practically the moment you were born, hating you for your excellence and your unabashed pursuit thereof while we were the ugly stepchildren. Well, Cinderfella-how do you like us now?
Today, we are cock of the walk, king of the world, all our vices made virtues, and all us sinners, saints. While you were out trying to make your way in the world, earning a living, being responsible, raising a family, paying your taxes, we infiltrated your every institution: the schools, the law, Hollywood, the culture, the government. We learned to train your own weapons upon you and, while you weren't looking, we shot you in the back with them, metaphorically speaking.
And sometimes literally. The Cold Civil War, in its early stages, was marked by repeated clashes between the visionaries among the baby boomer youth (my dad, the sainted "Che" Kahane, was of course one of them) and their parents, between students and the pigs, between the Free Speech Movement of Mario Savio and the other Berkeley protesters, and the university deans and presidents who at first resisted them but quickly and cravenly capitulated to hordes of unwashed goliards and at Cornell in 1969 to an actual armed takeover of the school's Willard Straight Hall on, fittingly, Parents Weekend, by gun-toting black students. Heck, we (and I'm talking Movement here, since I had yet to make my debut and missed out on the whole thing) even got our heads proudly bashed in on the streets of Chicago during the 1968 Democratic convention.
Those were heady early days, marked by the Left's generational blitzkrieg against an unprepared and astonished establishment. To hear my dad tell it, our side couldn't believe how easy it was. I mean, here we were, ready to almost lay down our lives for what we believed in-and what we believed in was basically nothing, disguised as "protest." We were the bastard idiot children of Rousseau as filtered through the nihilists of the nineteenth century (no wonder we all read the Russians in those days, for Dostoyevsky spoke to our suffering souls as did no other nineteenth-century novelist, certainly not the overrated bourgeois Dickens or the impenetrable Thomas Mann), seething with rage against the Burroughs Soft Machine, but otherwise pretty much clueless as to what, exactly, we were protesting-except, of course, the draft; "Hell, no, we won't go," was our ultra-patriotic battle cry. We sure knew what that was about. And yet we rolled through our parents' and grandparents' generation like the panzers through Poland.
In retrospect, it's almost tempting to feel sorry for them. They capitulated so quickly and so completely-especially the academics, who made the French in 1940 look like the heroic Warsaw Ghetto fighters under Anielewicz in 1943. That was the moment when we realized that the universities, far from being instruments of the oppressor, were actually ours for the taking and a natural nesting place for the long term, pretty much in perpetuity. Even after we so clearly provoked Mayor Daley's coppers during the convention, and later during the "Days of Rage"-"direct action" was our euphemism for violence and vandalism-the Walker Report blamed it all on the fuzz and said what happened in the streets was a "police riot." Can you believe that? By May 1970, what had begun on the steps of Sproul Hall at U.C.-Berkeley just six years earlier was essentially over, and we had won.
Alas, as is our wont, we didn't know where or when to stop. One thing you can say about us is that we just can't help ourselves, cannot control our appetites or inclinations in any way; try as we might, animosity, snark, and rage are in us, and they've got to come out. And so it was that the Cold Civil War moved to the trenches with the last battle of the shooting war, which came at Kent State in May 1970.
You remember that: it was in all the papers. Shortly after Nixon (who had replaced Johnson in our eyes as the chief villain) announced the outrageous and illegal Cambodian "incursion," students at the Ohio university protested and demonstrated. There were the usual brave calls to "bring the war back home." On the first day of the troubles, liquor and the late hour predictably ignited into a street riot that was finally quelled by the cops. But tempers and nerves were on edge, and so the National Guard was sent to "maintain order," and the governor called the kids "un-American." Unbelievable!
Well, you know what happened next. Faced with insults like that, the students upped the ante; to which the Guard responded with tear gas. (As "Che" tells it, you were nobody back then until you'd been tear- gassed, and then you could get laid anywhere, at any time. Never been tear-gassed myself.) Finally on Monday, May 4, a mass rally was held, the administration tried to cancel it, to no avail. The Guard tried to break it up. They fired tear gas, but the wind blew it away. The cry went up: "Pigs off campus!" The kids threw rocks and empty tear- gas canisters. And then the Guard fired back-not with rocks but with real, live bullets. In thirteen seconds, sixty-seven rounds were fired and when the shooting stopped, four kids lay dead.
And that, my friends, was the end of the student protest movement.
Sure, some of the alter cockers on our side will tell you that's not how it was, that the movement continued, that the fight went on and the dream never died. But that's a lot of hooey. The minute those young Guardsmen turned their M1s on the crowd, and the student protesters got an ugly lesson in the first rule of protest-never throw rocks at guys with guns-that was pretty much the end of the violent prelude to our current conflict. (Luckily for us, no one cares about newly declassified FBI files relating conversations among agitators planning to torch businesses and the campus ROTC headquarters and foment a riot, and credible reports of shots fired first at the Guards.)
But after Kent State, the movement went both underground, with the heroic Weathermen bombers (shame about that townhouse in Greenwich Village) and, much more effectively, aboveground: into the schools, the law firms, the journalism programs, the civil rights movement, the environmentalist movement (which, believe it or not, actually started in the 1970s, with the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970- inspired by a call from a Democratic senator and activist named Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin), where, like the syphilis virus, it went dormant for decades until it finally burst forth, with what happy results we now enjoy. We are nothing if not incubators.
Now, just between us, I like my Prius fine. But I have no more intention of giving up my other car-an Escalade-than I do of jumping off a bridge: hardship and penury are for the little guy, not big- time screenwriters like me. But if you think back over the events of the past several decades or so, you will see how even the craziest notions that we introduce gradually get accepted, mostly by sheer dint of our repetition. So that what started as a "clean up the garbage day" back in 1970 has gloriously turned into the "carbon dioxide is a pollutant" transparent but potent nonsense of our own time. Really, you have to give us some credit: what other movement could convince you that the very air you exhale is dangerous to the planet, and will eventually charge you a tax for the privilege of not having to hold your breath until you turn blue and die?
There, I said it: die! The purpose of war is to kill your enemy, but after Kent State-when it was we who were getting killed-we had to stop fighting up front and out in the open, and instead begin a gradual process of getting you to kill yourselves. Now, that's what I call a Cold War! Probably for the first time in history, one side pins its hopes of winning on the other's gullibility and willingness to believe even the most patently impossible things: Polar bears who can't swim! Melting ice caps! Seas rising! And that's simply "global warming," the magnificent hoax with which we succeeded "global cooling" when that one didn't work out thirty years ago.
But there's oh-so-much more:
Your kids are all crazy-give them drugs!
Your cars are going to kill us all-better to ride bicycles, even in subzero weather! Right down the middle of the internal-combustion- engine-propelled traffic we haven't managed to eliminate yet!
Religion is the opiate of the masses-so go see a shrink!
Cow farts are destroying the ionosphere, or whatever it is-eat veggies!
Criminals should be allowed to vote!
Marriage is an outmoded, sexist, patriarchal institution-but let gays marry!
And it's all your fault! So shut up and die, already.
It's like that scene in Goldfinger, when Bond, James Bond, is lying there strapped to the table, with a laser beam (standing in for the usual buzz saw) slowing sliding up his legs toward his crotch, and he asks the villain, "You expect me to talk?" To which Goldfinger replies, "No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die. There is nothing you can talk to me about that I don't already know."
Or, if it's a movie closer to our own time you're after, what about this exchange from Independence Day? You remember, the scene where the Area 51 alien has wrapped his tentacles around Brent Spiner's neck so he can communicate via the hapless scientist with the pitiful earthlings:
THE PRESIDENT: What is it that you want us to do?
Well, those two scenes pretty much sum up our attitude vis-à-vis you.
Now you may object: "Hey holy cow Dave for crying out loud if you make breathing illegal then what hope do we have huh?"
And now you've reached the central conundrum, which is why you're having such a hard time engaging us on the field of battle. And for this I must reach for an unpleasant metaphor from the so-called War on Terror, now blessedly over, to explain our position.
Think of us as slow-motion suicide bombers. In the end, we understand that we will have to go too, certainly if we follow through on the logic of our positions, such as it is. But as proud atheists who see nothing beyond but darkness, we don't care. We don't care what happens in the long run, because, as John Maynard Keynes said, in the long run we're all dead. And he should know, because a) he's the guy whose cockamamie economic nostrums basically wrecked the soundness of the American dollar when Nixon took us off the gold standard in 1971 (I try to tell my progressive friends that Nixon was the greatest friend we ever had, but they're still mad about the "Pink Lady," Helen Gahagan Douglas), and b) he's dead. Meanwhile, we're damn well going to enjoy living in each and every "moment" while we're here- being atheists, we are nothing if not "in the moment"-and failing that, at least make sure that your lives are as miserable as ours are.
I don't want to bore you all with a lesson about, you know, ancient history that happened way before I was born, and about which I wouldn't care a fig were my family not so heavily invested in the outcome, but-given my marching orders from "Che" and his homies down there in Lanskyland to at least try and bring you up to speed, it's important that you get at least some of the deep background on the seminal events of our time. Much as we all would like to, we can't blame this fight on Clinton or Bush and the "polarization of our politics" that the chin-waggers like to wag about. You think we're polarized now, you should see the family photographs of "Che" and "Uncle Joe," blood streaming down their faces from the truncheon beatings they got as, for some reason now lost in the mists of history, they tried to prevent Hubert Humphrey from becoming President of the United States.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Rules for Radical Conservatives by David Kahane. Copyright © 2010 by David Kahane. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.