Hey, Boomers: Shut Up!

pie1Back in the Stoned Age, when I was growing up, there was an unwritten rulebook, which, like The Pirate’s Code, acted as a kinda running guide for the transition from primitive adolescent to responsible adult.  It covered pretty much everything — except sex (which was trial and error) and how to make a salad.  We didn’t so much live by the rules as reference them in times of crisis.  For example, when those pesky grandparents showed up with birthday money you moved the illegal agriculture off the “dining room” table and took down the more aggressive examples of bachelor art.  Here in the 21st century, that old way of life is more-or-less passé and we’ve discarded the rulebook.  After all, it’s usually grandma who’s hiding the drugs these days, and they’re dancing about boobs on the six o’clock news.   However, even though I say good riddance to most of the hypocrisy we practiced back then, it seems a shame that we threw the baby out with the bath water and no longer tolerate some of the niceties of civilized behaviour.

One of the cornerstones of life, as we used to live it, was that old people were stupid.  Every generation knew this.  Somewhere around menopause (male and female) the human IQ drops about twenty points and then continues to slowly decline on a straight shot to the grave.  People don’t actually die of old age; they simply become too stupid to live.  This is one of the tried and truisms, handed down from parent to child since Achmed the Unwashed decided to set up shop in the Euphrates valley – circa 40,000 years ago.

Of course, this utter stupidity never prevents the average old person from running off at the mouth.  They consider it a combination of their right to make noise and duty to be heard.  When I was a kid, most of the blather was irrelevant instructions on how to survive a world war – which hasn’t come in handy, yet.  (FYI, I don’t think my generation ever did convince the parents that the only thing walking away from World War III would be a cockroach.)

However, I digress.  The unwritten rule was that you listened to these old gasbags jawing away.  You shut your mouth, made all the right noises in all the right places (polite was another of the unwritten rules) and, then, after they’d cleared off, you did as you damn well pleased.  The sage advice from the grey hairs was not for you; it was for them.  It was a catalogued recollection of all the opportunities they missed, the risks they shouldn’t have taken and the places they screwed up.  Everybody knew this and acted accordingly.  Unfortunately, those days are gone, and our world is the lesser for it.

Since we threw out the old unwritten rulebook, the same people who scoffed at their parents are now demanding we take theirpie ancient wisdom seriously.  They want to keep running the show.  The problem is they’re retrending the ideas, solutions and institutions they’ve been yipping about since back when Bruce Willis still had hair.  The world has changed since then, and just FYI, that crap never worked in the first place.  And, here’s the kicker: people are listening to these fossils.  This is ridiculous.

I’m as clever as the next fellow — and smarter than most — but I have no clue what’s going on in 2013 and no right to make decisions about it.  I grew up in a time when baseball players swung for the fences, casual sex was important enough to keep private and the truth was protection against prosecution.  The world I see out my kitchen window is alien to me.  Hell, I have no idea what the 83 other buttons on the TV remote are there for – and neither does anyone else on the business end of 50.  We’re not supposed to.  We’re not supposed to be setting the agenda; we’re supposed to be complaining about it!

This is the first generation where the old folks are unwilling to go gentle into that good night.  They’re clinging to power like drunks hanging onto a lamppost.  Unable to go forward, unwilling to go back, they have no idea why they’re there in the first place.  The only thing they do know for certain is if they ever let go, they’re going to be lost in the gutter.

Me, I liked the olden days.  You knew where you stood.   And just like my parents and their parents and theirs — back a thousand generations – sometimes, I’m consumed with nostalgia and want to return to a more civilized time.  A time when young people were seen and not heard and old people were heard but never listened to.

The Vice President: A Short History

Despite what the pundits have been telling us for a week or so — and all the yipping that went on last night — the vice president (not this one particularly) really isn’t worth that much.  His (or her?) job is to wake up every morning and ask the important question: “How’s the president feeling, today?”  After that, he can have a leisurely breakfast, read the paper, work in the garden or play on the Internet, if he likes.  Of course, if some second tier somebody dies somewhere in the world, he has to show up and look sad, or if some not-so-notable notable comes to Washington, he has to show up and look happy.  To paraphrase Dorothy Parker: “His emotional range must run the gamut from A to B.”  However, for the most part, the vice president’s time is his own.  Yet, even though the office is totally useless on a daily basis, it does serve an essential purpose: the vice president must be ready and able to run the country if the president can’t.  It’s kinda like the first runner up in a beauty contest.

Actually, originally, that’s the way it worked.  The vice president was the guy who lost the election.  Obviously, this wasn’t an ideal arrangement, even back in the day.  For example, John Adams’ vice president was Thomas Jefferson.  I’d have loved to have been a fly on the wall when those two started tearing into the nation’s business.  After all, about the only thing they ever agreed on was when to die.  To put this into perspective, in this century, George Dubya’s vice presidents would have been Al Gore and John Kerry; Barack Obama would have been stuck with John McCain.  Just let that sink in for a moment.

Oddly enough, the vice presidency is not an automatic ticket to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue1.  Actually, it’s almost a political dead end.  Of the forty-seven vice presidents so far, only fourteen have ever gone on to become president.  Eight of them took office when their bosses suddenly died; one, Gerry Ford, became president when Richard Nixon resigned and only five have ever been elected independently (and one of those, Richard Nixon, had to run twice.)  In fact, most politicos regard the office with some disdain.  Daniel Webster, who was offered the vice presidency by two separate administrations,2 replied the first time by saying “I do not propose to be buried until I am really dead and in my coffin.”  Likewise, John Nance Garner, who was, for a time, Franklin Roosevelt’s vice president, described the office as “not worth a bucket of warm piss.”  Not much has changed since Garner’s time.

For many years, both parties either let the backroom boys choose their vice presidential candidate or threw it open to the convention floor.  Either way, there have been some spirited campaigns for this worthless office – John Kennedy in 1956, for example.  However, in 1976, Ronald Reagan ran into political trouble and needed a boost to try and unseat Gerry Ford during the primaries, so he named his running mate, Richard Schweiker, early.  It didn’t help: Ford won the nomination.  However, this has become the norm.  Now, all the campaigning for second banana is done in the backrooms, long before the delegates ever meet.

Also, for many years, being selected as a vice presidential candidate was sort of a consolation prize for not getting the Big Kahuna.  However, these days, vice presidents usually bring balance to the ticket, either geographically, politically or — twice — (Geraldine Ferraro and Sarah Palin) by gender.  Of course, there are some cynics who maintain that the vice president is chosen simply as assassination insurance.

Regardless, most vice presidents have done their jobs uneventfully and vanished into history.  And the nine who were called upon to fulfill their primary function have served adequately, if not spectacularly, with one notable exception: Theodore Roosevelt, who was so good at it, they put him on Mount Rushmore with Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln.

1BTW, some people think the vice president lives and works in the White House – he doesn’t.  Actually, up until the 1970s, the vice president had to find his own accommodations in Washington.  And it wasn’t until Jimmy Carter made some space for Walter Mondale that the VP even had a formal office in the West Wing.

2From the Pretty Darn Strange Department: If Webster had shut up and taken the job — either time — he would have ended up as president.  Both men who invited him to be their Veep died in office.

George Custer Is Not Politically Correct!

Today is the 136th anniversary of the Battle of the Little Big Horn; alternatively called Custer’s Last Stand or the Battle of Greasy Grass (depending on which side of the bowstring you’re on.)  Just in case you were raised by wolves, the Little Big Horn is a river in Montana.  In June 1876, it was the home of several thousand pissed-off Native Americans (Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho) who were fed up with being pushed around.  On June 25th, General George Custer showed up — with five companies of the 7th Cavalry — to do some major pushing.  It wasn’t the best time to pick a fight; by the end of the day, George and all his soldiers were dead.

The Little Big Horn is a pivotal event in US history.  It almost exactly bisects the timeline of the American expansion west of the Mississippi.  (Mythology aside, the Old West, as it’s called, lasted barely thirty years.)  It also marked a change in the American attitude towards the indigenous populations of the West.  After Custer, the US military was turned loose to settle some scores.  By 1890, the frontier was officially closed, and America, the modern nation, was moving on to bigger and better things.

I realize that writing about Custer and the Little Big Horn is like running with Politically Correct buffalo.  Like buffalo, the politically correct are short-sighted and ill-tempered.  Chances are good that I’m going to get either trampled or gored.  However, I think I speak for all of us when I say Custer is one of the villains of history.  He wasn’t always that way.  For more than half of the last 136 years, he was a hero.  His picture was admired on literally thousands of walls across America, courtesy of Anheuser-Busch’s famous but woefully inaccurate painting of Custer’s Last Stand.  It’s only in my lifetime that the painting was taken down and Custer grew fangs and started spitting green saliva.  That’s the nature of interpretive history, though.  As Mort Sahl once said, “If you keep a consistent political position, you’ll eventually get tried for treason.”  That’s kinda what happened to Custer.  When the political winds began to change, he was too dead to change with them.  You see, history doesn’t change; historians do.

In the last 50 years, Custer has been called everything but nice.  He has been portrayed as a megalomaniac; a glory hound, building his political career on the bodies of dead Cheyenne babies; a walking insane asylum; and everything in between – including a nepotist and an unfaithful husband.  It’s now universally accepted that hell itself couldn’t hold half his nastiness.  He is the poster boy for America’s racist, money-grubbing theft of the continent it now occupies.  Unfortunately, these charges could be directed against any 19th century American who took Horace Greeley’s (John Soule’s, actually) advice to “Go West, young man.”  (The insane asylum crack, however, is just Hollywood’s way of making amends for Errol Flynn’s They Died with Their Boots On.)  Actually, calling Custer a racist is redundant; they all were, including his boss President Ulysses S. Grant — the guy who led the charge when his boss, at the time, Abraham Lincoln, wanted to free the slaves.

I’m not trying to start an “I Love Custer” club, but regurgitating, history half digested, in order to support a moral judgement is how we lose sight of our historical legacy.  In fact, representing Custer as a man with character flaws large enough to drive a stagecoach through is actually postulating that it’s no wonder he got everybody killed at Little Big Horn; the guy was a mess.  This is the soft prejudice that usually accompanies politically correct.  In the end it’s always about us, and everybody else is just a reflection.  The last thing these nouveau historians are willing to admit is that a brilliant military leader named George Custer got out generalled by a guy who didn’t wear pants.

The truth is Custer wasn’t drunk, crazy or incompetent, nor was he morally bankrupt and he didn’t torture kittens on his day off.  He was just a man of his times.  On June 25th, 1876, he planned a classic enveloping maneuver to trap the Sioux and was beaten when Crazy Horse out manoeuvred and outfought him.  Like it or not, Custer was good at what he did.  It just so happened that Crazy Horse was better.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  There don’t have to be mitigating circumstances or moral turpitude to explain the Sioux victory.  The truth is General Custer (like Captain Fetterman* ten years before him) ran into a 19th century military genius named Crazy Horse, who used his limited resources, the terrain and his opponent’s arrogance to win overwhelming victories.  It’s that simple.

Contemporary historians would lead us to believe that, after the Civil War, swarms of snarling swindlers headed west, armed with Winchester rifles and the single evil purpose of destroying everything in their path.  The robbed, raped and pillaged their way to the Pacific because the indigenous peoples were too pastorally ignorant to stop them or even figure out what was going on.  This makes for good reading in sophomore textbooks, but in actual fact, it’s nothing more than another Anheuser-Busch painting with an academic bibliography.

When we bother to look, history tells us that in the second half of the 19th century, two nations — the United States and the Lakota Sioux — fought it out for supremacy on the northern plains.  Both were a dynamic people.  The outcome was never in doubt: the United States had overwhelming advantages, yet the Lakota Sioux and their allies managed to keep them at bay for a generation.  In the middle of that conflict, on a sunny day in June, the United States 7th cavalry went looking for a fight and got their ass kicked.  That’s what happened 136 years ago; I don’t care how you paint the picture.

 

*Captain William Fetterman may or may not have boasted, “Give me eighty men and I’ll ride through the whole Sioux nation,” but when he did get a crack at it, he got less than 500 yards.  On December 21st, 1866, Fetterman, 79 soldiers and two curious civilians marched out of Fort Phil Kearny to relieve a work party that was under attack.  Taunted by Crazy Horse and a few of his Oglala buddies, they crossed Lodge Trail Ridge and walked into an elaborate ambush.  He and his entire command were killed.