1963: The Year Zero

[A] long habit of not thinking a thing WRONG, gives it a superficial appearance of being RIGHT…. Time makes more converts than reason.

Thomas Paine in Common Sense

If ignorance and passion are the foes of popular morality, it must be confessed that moral indifference is the malady of the cultivated classes. The modern separation of enlightenment and virtue, of thought and conscience, of the intellectual aristocracy from the honest and common crowd is the greatest danger that can threaten liberty.

Henri Frédéric Amiel, Journal

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If, like me, you were an adult when John F. Kennedy was assassinated, you may think of his death as a watershed moment in American history. I say this not because I’m an admirer of Kennedy the man (I am not), but because American history seemed to turn a corner when Kennedy was murdered. To take the metaphor further, the corner marked the juncture of a sunny, tree-lined street (America from the end of World War II to November 22, 1963) and a dingy, littered street (America since November 22, 1963).

Changing the metaphor, I acknowledge that the first 18 years after V-J Day were by no means halcyon, but they were the spring that followed the long, harsh winter of the Great Depression and World War II. Yes, there was the Korean War, but that failure of political resolve was only a rehearsal for later debacles. McCarthyism, a political war waged (however clumsily) on America’s actual enemies, was benign compared with the war on civil society that began in the 1960s and continues to this day. The threat of nuclear annihilation, which those of you who were schoolchildren of the 1950s will remember well, had begun to subside with the advent of JFK’s military policy of flexible response, and seemed to evaporate with JFK’s resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis (however poorly he managed it). And for all of his personal faults, JFK was a paragon of grace, wit, and charm — a movie-star president — compared with his many successors, with the possible exception of Ronald Reagan, who had been a real movie star.

What follows is an impression of America since November 22, 1963, when spring became a long, hot summer, followed by a dismal autumn and another long, harsh winter — not of deprivation, and perhaps not of war, but of rancor and repression.

This petite histoire begins with the Vietnam War and its disastrous mishandling by LBJ, its betrayal by the media, and its spawning of the politics of noise. “Protests” in public spaces and on campuses are a main feature of the politics of noise. In the new age of instant and sympathetic media attention to “protests,” civil and university authorities often refuse to enforce order. The media portray obstructive and destructive disorder as “free speech.” Thus do “protestors” learn that they can, with impunity, inconvenience and cow the masses who simply want to get on with their lives and work.

Whether “protestors” learned from rioters, or vice versa, they learned the same lesson. Authorities, in the age of Dr. Spock, lack the guts to use force, as necessary, to restore civil order. (LBJ’s decision to escalate gradually in Vietnam — “signaling” to Hanoi — instead of waging all-out war was of a piece with the “understanding” treatment of demonstrators and rioters.) Rioters learned another lesson — if a riot follows the arrest, beating, or death of a black person, it’s a “protest” against something (usually white-racist oppression, regardless of the facts), not wanton mayhem. After a lull of 21 years, urban riots resumed in 1964, and continue to this day.

LBJ’s “Great Society” marked the resurgence of FDR’s New Deal — with a vengeance — and the beginning of a long decline of America’s economic vitality. The combination of the Great Society (and its later extensions, such as Medicare Part D and Obamacare) with the rampant growth of regulatory activity has cut the rate of economic growth from 5 percent to 2 percent.  The entrepreneurial spirit has been crushed; dependency has been encouraged and rewarded; pension giveaways have bankrupted public treasuries across the land. America since 1963 has been visited by a perfect storm of economic destruction that seems to have been designed by America’s enemies.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 unnecessarily crushed property rights, along with freedom of association, to what end? So that a violent, dependent, Democrat-voting underclass could arise from the Great Society? So that future generations of privilege-seekers could cry “discrimination” if anyone dares to denigrate their “lifestyles”? There was a time when immigrants and other persons who seemed “different” had the good sense to strive for success and acceptance as good neighbors, employees, and merchants. But the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and its various offspring — State and local as well as federal — are meant to short-circuit that striving and to force acceptance, whether or not a person has earned it. The vast, silent majority is caught between empowered privilege-seekers and powerful privilege-granters. The privilege-seekers and privilege-granters are abetted by dupes who have, as usual, succumbed to the people’s romance — the belief that government represents society.

Presidents, above all, like to think that they represent society. What they represent, of course, are their own biases and the interests to which they are beholden. Truman, Ike, and JFK were imperfect presidential specimens, but they are shining idols by contrast with most of their successors. The downhill slide from the Vietnam and the Great Society to Obamacare and lawlessness on immigration has been punctuated by many shameful episodes; for example:

  • LBJ — the botched war in Vietnam, repudiation of property rights and freedom of association (the Civil Rights Act)
  • Nixon — price controls, Watergate
  • Carter — dispiriting leadership and fecklessness in the Iran hostage crisis
  • Reagan — bugout from Lebanon, rescue of Social Security
  • Bush I — failure to oust Saddam when it could have been done easily, the broken promise about taxes
  • Clinton — bugout from Somalia, push for an early version of Obamacare, budget-balancing at the cost of defense, and perjury
  • Bush II — No Child Left Behind Act, Medicare Part D, the initial mishandling of Iraq, and Wall Street bailouts
  • Obama — stimulus spending, Obamacare, reversal of Bush II’s eventual success in Iraq, naive backing for the “Arab spring,”  acquiescence to Iran’s nuclear ambitions, unwillingness to acknowledge or do anything about the expansionist aims of Russia and China, neglect or repudiation of traditional allies (especially Israel), and refusal to take care that the immigration laws are executed faithfully.

Only Reagan’s defense buildup and its result — victory in the Cold War — stands out as a great accomplishment. But the victory was squandered: The “peace dividend” should have been peace through continued strength, not unpreparedness for the post 9/11 wars and the resurgence of Russia and China.

The war on defense has been accompanied by a war on science. The party that proclaims itself the party of science is anything but that. It is the party of superstitious, Luddite anti-science. Witness the embrace of extreme environmentalism, the arrogance of proclamations that AGW is “settled science,” unjustified fear of genetically modified foodstuffs, the implausible doctrine that race is nothing but a social construct, and on and on.

With respect to the nation’s moral well-being, the most destructive war of all has been the culture war, which assuredly began in the 1960s. Almost overnight, it seems, the nation was catapulted from the land of Ozzie and Harriet, Father Knows Best, and Leave It to Beaver to the land of the free- filthy-speech movement, Altamont, Woodstock, Hair, and the unspeakably loud, vulgar, and violent offerings that are now plastered all over the air waves, the internet, theater screens, and “entertainment” venues.

Adherents of the ascendant culture esteem protest for its own sake, and have stock explanations for all perceived wrongs (whether or not they are wrongs): racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, hate, white privilege, inequality (of any kind), Wall  Street, climate change, Zionism, and so on.

Then there is the campaign to curtail freedom of speech. This purported beneficiaries of the campaign are the gender-confused and the easily offended (thus “microagressions” and “trigger warnings”). The true beneficiaries are leftists. Free speech is all right if it’s acceptable to the left. Otherwise, it’s “hate speech,” and must be stamped out. This is McCarthyism on steroids. McCarthy, at least, was pursuing actual enemies of liberty; today’s leftists are the enemies of liberty.

There’s a lot more, unfortunately. The organs of the state have been enlisted in an unrelenting campaign against civilizing social norms. As I say here,

we now have not just easy divorce, subsidized illegitimacy, and legions of non-mothering mothers, but also abortion, concerted (and deluded) efforts to defeminize females and to neuter or feminize males, forced association (with accompanying destruction of property and employment rights), suppression of religion, absolution of pornography, and the encouragement of “alternative lifestyles” that feature disease, promiscuity, and familial instability. The state, of course, doesn’t act of its own volition. It acts at the behest of special interests — interests with a “cultural” agenda….  They are bent on the eradication of civil society — nothing less — in favor of a state-directed Rousseauvian dystopia from which morality and liberty will have vanished, except in Orwellian doublespeak.

If there are unifying themes in this petite histoire, they are the death of common sense and the rising tide of moral vacuity — thus the epigrams at the top of the post. The history of the United States since 1963 supports the proposition that the nation is indeed going to hell in a handbasket.

Read on.

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Related reading:

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