When This Is, That Is

Exploring the world of conditionality


An early childhood memory is of the time I explored the newspaper beyond the Funny Pages. I came across a story about the Baby Boom. During the four or five years of WW II (depending on how you figure beginning and end), thousands of men went off the fight while women stayed back to work on the farms and in the factories.

Nearly all of a sudden, in 1945, the wars in Europe and the Pacific were over. All those men came home to meet up with all those women. Where the US birthrate had declined during the war, it went Boom! afterward. So Baby Boomers, I learned from the story, were those children born between 1946 and 1950.

What I remember most about the article was not the information, but the terrible feeling I had around being left out. I was born in March of 1951. Three months too late! It felt as though I didn’t get an invitation to the party of the century—not that my world view at the time was large enough for me to understand a block of time larger than a decade.

Since then, the Baby Boom has been extended to 1964. So, thanks to demographers and statisticians, I feel included.

But that’s not the point. The point, and I’ve been hearing this for a long time, is that we Boomers will be, and are now, sucking up all the resources. That leaves the younger generations scavenging for what’s left of any social services, now that the my generation has consumed everything in site. Social Security, I’m told, will go bankrupt, leaving the kids to pay the bills of an aging population.

This New York Times article by Thomas Friedman (another one of us), suggests that the current financial crisis is can be blamed on us. Friedman writes:

Indeed, if there is one sentiment that unites the crises in Europe and America it is a powerful sense of “baby boomers behaving badly” — a powerful sense that the generation that came of age in the last 50 years, my generation, will be remembered most for the incredible bounty and freedom it received from its parents and the incredible debt burden and constraints it left on its kids.

He may be right, that that’s how we’ll be remembered. But our current state of affairs—socially, economically, and politically— is a much larger example of cause-and-effect in acti0n that goes beyond the increasing permissiveness of parents and the increasing demands of children.

Something else happened after WW II that directly correlates with the increase in population: an increase in productivity and Madison Avenue’s ability to reach millions of new consumer’s through television. With the post-war Baby Boom came the birth of consumerism as a way of life.

Advertising creates a desire for new things, coupled with an aversion for old things. Desire stimulates the creation of more goods and services, happily provided by prospering businesses. Businesses, in turn, desire more customers to consume their offerings. Among those businesses are banks who make it possible for people with little or no money to buy things they “deserve.” For example, “Take that dream vacation you deserve.” Easy money means easy debt.

And here we are today. The politicians argue about who is to blame and what to do about it. But their blame is misplaced, and their solutions are self-serving. The politicians dare not state the real cause of our collective financial problems, nor will they state the real solution. As a country and a society, we created our current financial problem collectively through the endless cycle of consumption made possible by an economic system that stresses profit above responsibility. The solution is to desire less and be contented with what we have. If it’s good enough for government to spend less to get out of debt, so too it must be for individuals. But what then? What of the cherished corporations?


Forty Years After the Pentagon Papers



Watch the full episode. See more POV.

Last night I watched the documentary The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. I was 20 years old on June 13, 1971 when The New York Times printed its first installment of the  7,000-page document leaked to the press by Daniel Ellsberg. I lived in Springfield, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, DC. Although I was against the Vietnam War, I was no more politically engaged then as I am now. I avoided most of the antiwar protests, preferring to stay away from the agitation.

Not at all like Ellsberg, who many considered a traitor. But Daniel Ellsberg can be a traitor, then as now, only to those who insisted on looking the other way in face of the truth. What the Pentagon Papers revealed was that during Harry Truman’s administration through Lyndon Johnson’s, every president (including Eisenhower and Kennedy) lied about our intentions and scope of involvement in Vietnam.

For years, Ellsberg had been complicit in the lie. He was the brilliant Pentagon analyst and strategist who, as an employee of Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, dug deep to find the evidence Lyndon Johnson demanded in order to escalate the war. Johnson, meanwhile, insisted our involvement would be minimal. Later, as we got more deeply immersed, Ellsberg accompanied McNamara and others on a fact-finding mission the Vietnam. On the way back, during an inflight meeting with other dignitaries, McNamara argued that things were no better now than they were the year before. He asked Ellsberg’s opinion. Ellsberg, who had spent much time in the combat zone, agreed that nothing had changed. For McNamara, no change meant things were getting worse. However, as the documentary so vividly points out, immediately upon disembarking from the plane McNamara, standing in front of a cluster of microphones, announced to the country that conditions in Vietnam had vastly improved over the past year.

McNamara himself commissioned the study that would eventually become the Pentagon Papers. Ellsberg was was one of the few people who had access to the entire document. Ellsberg’s regret was that he didn’t make the document public years before. In the end, though, he was willing to go to prison for his conviction that the United States was responsible for the murder of millions of Vietnamese and the war needed to end. On top of that, 58,000 Americans died so America could “save face” in the face of one blunder after another carried out by egoistic and jingoistic leaders.

Shortly after the release of the Papers, Ellsberg gave himself up to the authorities. In a public statement Ellsberg said, “I felt that as an American citizen, as a responsible citizen, I could no longer cooperate in concealing this information from the American public. I did this clearly at my own jeopardy and I am prepared to answer to all the consequences of this decision.” If convicted, Ellsberg would have gone to prison for conspiracy and other crimes against the state (maximum sentence of 115 years) had his trial in 1973 not been thrown out due to government misconduct.

During the documentary, one of the interviewees involved with the trial said that the defense attorney cautioned against selecting middle-aged men for the jury. The reasoning was that most men who reached middle age did so at the expense of their convictions, and they would hold disdain for Ellsberg.

Regardless of whether you think Ellsberg a traitor or a patriot, the Pentagon Papers revealed one thing about our government that went far beyond the Vietnam War: the leaders of the United States will lie to their constituents. In the wake of that revelation, particularly in regards to the invasion of Iraq, a large number of American citizens don’t mind being lied to.

Has anything changed?

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