Neil Armstrong and the Myth of the “Greatest Generation”

Posted: September 1, 2012 in ideas, politics
Tags: , , , , , ,
English: One of the first steps taken on the M...

Footprint from the first moon landing- humans haven’t gone back since 1972, prompting some soul-searching on the death of Neil Armstrong. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The recent death of Neil Armstrong, the first man to step onto the surface of the moon, is kind of an embarrassing reminder to modern Capitalism. The spectacular achievements of past generations are bringing about a sense of nostalgia, regret and even a kind of shame throughout Europe and America. I could pick quotes from this newspaper or that- “Tributes and a lament for lost era”, says the Irish Times– but an e-mail sent to me by a friend of mine captures the mood best:

Neil Armstrong epitomises the (possibly mythical) “greatest generation” – survive the depression for an appetiser, defeat fascism for a main course, then finish up with splitting the atom, discovering the sequence of DNA, walking on the moon, containing communism and setting in place decades of relatively egalitarian prosperity.

What the fuck have WE done lately!

Now, I don’t agree with my friend’s view of history. But this perception is obviously based on a lot of truth, and I think his e-mail captures the mood and sense of shame at the death of Armstrong perfectly.

This sense is ultimately that the human race/ Western Civilization/ America/ White People (the entity represented by the “We” so beloved of college debaters) reached a kind of peak with 1969 and the moon landing. Since then, we’ve been on a slide backwards, a turn inwards; the decadent children of heroes, forever in their shadows, more interested in small steps and giant leaps up the property ladder than onto the surface of the moon.

This sense of shame and nostalgia are becoming widespread among those provoked into deep thoughts by the worldwide crisis of capitalism. An article by Mike Lofgren in The American Conservative bemoans

the present regime of downsizing, offshoring, profits without production, and financialization… in the 1950s the country eked out higher average GDP growth rates than those we have experienced in the last dozen years.

Lofgren talks about how the rich are abandoning conservative values with an “inverted Marxist” belief in the free market. In the forties, even a Yale man had to hump a backpack through battlefields, but

Now the military is for suckers from the laboring classes whose subprime mortgages you just sliced into CDOs and sold to gullible investors…

Amid American trade Unionists there seems to be a habit of demanding “mid-century” conditions for workers. Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story has a moving clip of Dr Jonas Salk, who invented the polio vaccine but refused to patent it (“Would you patent the sun?”). Today, as Moore makes clear, the Salks and Armstrongs are headhunted by financial institutions and their genius is set to work making rich old men even richer through gambling.

Like Ostalgiya (nostalgia for the Stalinist past in Eastern Europe) there’s some elements of this sense of generational shame that are totally correct and some that are spectacularly wrong.


What’s Right

Here’s the reply I sent to the question, “What the fuck have WE done lately!”:

Forty years of financialisation, deindustrialisation and credit binge 🙂 not much else.

To set against the myth, however, this was the generation that super-exploited Latin America as well as parts of Asia and Africa, the generation responsible for bloody proxy wars the world over.

BUT, and it’s a big but, the “greatest generation” periodization is very useful because it points out that since the 60s, early 70s, when the post-war boom ran out of steam, I’d say Capitalism has been essentially decadent […]

We’ve had huge leaps forward in electronics and mobile phone technology, to be fair. Also (in many countries) attitudes towards people of minority races and sexual orientations, and obviously the position of women, have vastly improved.

I’d have to add that Capitalism didn’t give us these great advances in social attitudes- people had to fight for them, tooth and nail, for decades, and they still do have to fight.

The spectacular explosion of finance capital at the expense of real capital investment; the flight of capital from social democracies to brutal anti-worker autocracies and poverty-stricken hells where they’ll work for anything; the massive extension of credit to cover all this up- this massive shift in Capitalism since the free-market reaction of the ‘70s and ‘80s is covered well elsewhere. This, in a nutshell, is what this sense of generational shame and angst comes from. And shame at Thatcherism and Reaganism really is the only appropriate feeling.


What’s Wrong

But there’s other elements that can creep into this whole idea. Firstly, this kind of romanticizing of the past is always ridiculous. Romanticizing is what happens when you refuse to take a scalpel to the past and separate, as far as you can, the good from the bad. Also, the past comes to us heavily burdened with lies and distortions.

I’ll give as an example my friend’s decision to talk about “containment of Communism” in the list of the achievements of the “greatest generation”. Neil Armstrong flew 78 combat missions in the Korean War. Woohoo, containing Communism. Or you could say that he was part of an international counter-revolution that partitioned Korea, slaughtered its people, “contained” only the desire of the majority for socialism and independence, and laid North Korea under siege, creating the mad, horrible, backward dictatorship that exists there today.

It does say a lot about economics that we saw the moon landing in the sixties while the following decades saw stagnation on the space frontier. But let’s not forget that it was primarily a very spectacular propaganda stunt. I see the moon landing as an extremely wasteful gesture with little scientific or economic payoff. It was part of a pissing contest, pure and simple, between Stalinism and the USA. “We came in peace for all mankind,” reads the plaque. I don’t know, they should put one of those plaques at Mai Lai or the Bay of Pigs.

This kind of talk about the past always takes on a “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” feeling. We get that a ponderous, pretentious, sweeping narrative of virility and decadence; the replacement of the Legions with foreign mercenaries; the abandoning of the pantheon for weak, liberal Christianity; the temptations of “Oriental” luxury; mad, cruel Emperors and ravaging hordes of barbarians… Superimpose this narrative on today and you get a crazy ultra-conservative vision.

Remember that Marine Le Pen likes to pose as a scourge of the bankers, that the BNP laments the deindustrialisation of Britain… The turn from industry to finance can be presented as a loss of “virility” and national pride. And who is responsible? The hummus-eating, sandal-wearing pretentious elites, the same ones who opened the gates to the immigrants! Breivik’s dreaded dictatorship of “Cultural Marxists”!

This is all just to make the point that these generational discussions and talk of the good-old-days can take on a brainless, ultra-conservative character as well as having the potential to be actually informative discussions. In Ireland it’s not so much of an issue because we have no Golden Age to hark back to. But in Europe and the USA, see Michael Moore, it can be an easy precedent for Socialists or what the Americans call “progressives” to refer to.

There are obvious and massive limitations to this harking-back-to-the-past tactic. Let’s not forget that, as well as the subjection of women, workers were, then as now, a majority economically separate from, inferior to, and dependent on the rich. In other words, it was Capitalism, and it was shit for most people.

To cut myself short, because I and plenty others have made these arguments before, I’ll say that in addition to not being desirable these “good old days” are totally unattainable today. I’m not saying this to depress you, I’m saying it to point out that we need to be much more ambitious if we want to end the dictatorship of the financial markets and create a better life for all.

Why and how?

Tune in over the next few days for my next article examining these questions and more.


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