Sunday, August 9, 2009

Each Apathetic Generation?

Author at Bells console, Nov. 1961

It may seem habit forming to let some book or person from each weekend's BookTV (C-Span 2) prompt another topic for a posting. Certainly this weekend the 35th anniversary of Pres. Nixon's resignation seemed too much like just yesterday to inspire me. It was the much less well understood execution of the Rosenbergs and other events in the 1950s related to politics affecting my parents' generation, and my reaction, apparently, to them that a re-run of the program with the son and granddaughter of the Rosenbergs brought back to me.
The truth, which, as such, I remember perfectly well, was that I'd see a picture of, say, Robert Oppenheimer or the Rosenburgs or someone testifying before the House Committee, and usually turn away from reading about it. Or I'd read only the caption and feel some sort of distress. It wasn't that I was attracted to Soviet Communism or to Marx, both of which stood condemned by their own prose. Indeed, to this day, I have not read more than a page or two of Marx (and about the same amount of Mein Kampf). It wasn't that I thought that the Rosenbergs were innocent. It was that I thought I had no way of knowing. But I was deeply distressed by the charges brought against Oppenheimer, and the commemorations this week of his brother's creation of the Exploratorium in the Palace of Fine Arts, piled on top of American Prometheus two years ago, brought my own political inertia of my youth back to me. I was just a little too young to have been directly affected by the university's loss of a number of professors who refused to sign the Loyalty Oath, but among my teachers I constantly perceived that splits among them were related, in some cases (and I did not know which), to the crisis of the Oath. I would not ask anyone, either. It had happened that a fellow student who liked the bells in Sather Tower, the Campanile, had taken me up to see them played. These were the original ring of 12 bells, from C to E' with an F-sharp and a B-flat (so that one had a whole octave only in C, severely limiting the tunes that could be played). They were not a carrillon, nor were they an English ring with ropes for playing changes. That is, they were such bells, but they were played with oaken levers rigged with pulleys to bring the clapper against the wall of the bell. Thus they required energy and some strength but only very basic musicianship. In the event, I was taught to play them (there seems always to have been one or two students) and take my turn in going up the tower to the enclosure where the console of levers was housed. The bells were always played by a person, live, at 7:50 in the morning, at 12:00 noon, and at 6:00 pm. For the hours when the tower was closed to the public, and there was no elevator operator, one had to have the keys to the door at the base of the tower and to the enclosure of the console. To be issued such keys, one had to be put on payroll, receiving an hour's minimum wage for each time one played the bells, and to be employed by the university one had to sign the Loyalty Oath. On the form printed for that purpose was a list of organizations deemed Communist, besides the disclaimer that one had ever been or was a member of the Party itself. Most of these were from the 30s and 40s, such as the Lincoln Brigade; most of them I'd never heard of and could not recall now, if I had to. Certainly I'd belonged to none of them and could sign with confidence. But I knew that some people had been hurt, or their friends had been hurt, professionally, by that Oath, and I felt bad about signing it, even if only to have a key to go up and make a joyful noise on tons of bells audible in dry weather for a mile all around. As for the money earned, it became my mad money, money that could be, that should be (I told myself) spent on books and phonograph records.
I do not know how many others of my age cohort were haunted by inexplicable guilt (feelings only, since one never did anything or joined anything) and political paralysis. I simply could not think that someone who had been anti-Franco in the 1930s had to be a closeted Communist, or indeed that someone who had been a fashionable Communist in his or her youth had to be one in his or her middle age. That would be thinking like my mother, and, it seemed to me, the impulses that governed my mother would not pass muster as thought—even apart from her pill addictions. The first time I could vote I voted for Adlai Stevenson. To have voted, as my father would have done, for Henry Wallace would have worried me. Adlai Stevenson seemed just right, and everyone I knew also was voting for him. Thus, my first political lesson at the university was that whatever we believed, or even hoped we could believe, would be voted down by the others.
But what to make of students in their twenties who would not read political opinion, even in the daily papers? Who did not listen to any radio newscast? Who did not have television and didn't mind not having it? Who did not believe, except with serious reservations, anything that they read? Who thought, or at least boldly said, that one's ethics could go no further than to try to avoid hurting others, since trying to effect good was morally dangerous?
And yet I do believe that it was blind and stupid for Time in particular and then journalists in general to call those of us just old enough to remember Pearl Harbor, and too mindful of the economic constraints of the 1930s and the rationing of the War years to regard living off the margin of an affluent society as anything better than lack of pride, the Apathetic Generation. Confused we surely were, by the atomic bomb, by the Berlin Wall, by being forbidden to visit, e.g., Hungary, by the atomic energy signs on all the sturdy building which were supposed to afford shelter, confused in short by the rhetoric of the Cold War, and saddened by the quick loss of all the hope that to us eleven and twelve year olds the UN charter had engendered (for children of that age really can believe and hope) and the sudden reversal from Russia as an ally to Russia as an enemy (as if we really knew anything about Russia except for Tchaikovsky). Politically paralyzed, perhaps, if that isn't too strong a word.
If the Rosenbergs had been simply imprisoned, as some leading Nazi were, it would have been less troubling, but because they received the death penalty, both of them, and were executed, I never have been able to forget my great uncertainty about them. And with them I have never been able to be sure about condemning anyone else, quite, though the criminally insane certainly must be imprisoned. Or condemning, or condoning, my own worst shortcomings, such as regards housekeeping or dislike of cocktail parties.
Furthermore, I have never been certain whether my own withdrawal from political opinions in my youth is typical of youth, of a need to isolate oneself a bit for a while so as to grow up as well as one can, or peculiar to me and my family. I have noticed that my last students, generations x and y, were more like me at their age than they'd have thought by looking at me now.