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Saturday, August 25, 2012

We came in peace, or so I'd like to think

The giant who took one small step has taken the final step. If you're my age or older, you will recall where you were and how you felt.

That day, I felt incredibly proud to be an American -- prouder, perhaps, than most. My father had helped to design components for projects Mercury, Gemini and Apollo. I wished then, and I wish now, that he had lived to see that day: July 20, 1969.

"We came in peace for all mankind." In those saner times, such words were permissible. Today, an ugly insistence on American "exceptionalism" (that is, nationalism) forbids any official expression of human brotherhood. Even a pro-forma proclamation of the virtues of peace might now be considered subversive.

I wish I could return to 1969. Many horrible things happened that year, as racism beget riots, the media made Charles Manson the new face of the hippie movement, and Nixon grew increasingly paranoid while sinking us deeper into the tarpits of a foolish war. Nevertheless, we remained prosperous -- because the New Deal still lived. Most Americans maintained good values. We had the Durants on our middle-class bookshelves, we had Leonard Bernstein giving the downbeat, we had Stanley Kubrick transforming our movie houses into temples of transcendence, we had Jack Kirby upending the minds of ten year olds everywhere, we had young people unashamedly saying "peace" as they came and went -- and we had Neal Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walking on the goddamned Moon.

I had absolute confidence. A boy's confidence. There was no problem we could not solve.

Today I am more cynical. Nobody believes that Americans go anwhere "in peace." How can we? We are not at peace at home. We are not at peace in our hearts. We have been relentlessly taught that thinking of "all mankind" is a sin. So we think only of ourselves.
I remember those times when everything was possible. In 1969 I was living in a monastery in Australia and all the monks sat down to watch the moon landing. We knew it was history of a special kind. In 1972 I had moved on, to university -- free, of course -- to small classes in the maths faculty and some of the finest minds available. I remember my patient computer tutor giving me personal coaching in the basics of Fortran. It was a mark of his kindness (the kindness that seems to be present in all genuinely intelligent people) that he seemed not to mind my kindergarten level of skills. He'd just come from being the program director in the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Center at Menlo Park and later helped write the software for the Space Shuttle Discovery. And the classes I didn't take -- classes by Garth Gaudry who later went on to mentor Terence Tao, Fields Medal winner and currently Professor at UCLA. This was all in classes of ten students! Fool me. I was spoiled rotten and too young and stupid to notice or learn from these amazing people.

There was the rest of the 60's and 70's but it was all of a piece. Of hippies and flares, of people coming and going from London and India, of gurus and late night talk fests. Of walking out of one job only to find another the same day. But most of all was the underlying sense that anything was possible. It wasn't just that we'd gone to the moon, but that we were in it together, that everyone you met was a poet, saint and genius just not yet discovered. They were great times, innocent and with a sense of humanity. And those leaders who tell us we can never go back there, that it was an historical aberration, are nothing but liars, murderers of hope.
Damn, you put it well. You found the words I was looking for.
I worked at NASA HQ ins Washington DC as a lowly GS4 during the moon landings, but it was a fun job, working the copy camera, making simple graphics, and running the projector behind the rear-projection screen for the NASA brass. I got to hear Von Braun with his heavy German accent, along with the other NASA bigwigs, but they were on the other side of the screen.

A truly remarkable group of people. What I miss most about the Sixties was the powerful sense of optimism and an sense of an unlimited future - not just for the USA, but the whole world. That's what the TV show "Mad Men" gets so completely wrong - it wasn't a gloomy and dark time, but a feeling of real change and optimism was in the air.

And why not? In less than ten years, Boeing 707 jet travel had replaced noisy and slow DC-7 piston planes, color TV had replaced drab black-and white, high fidelity stereo replaced mono table radios, the civil rights movement had kicked the USA out of the Eisenhower doldrums, and NASA was doing the impossible every day. And the music! Something new every month!

The 1960's were radically different than the 1950's, and the sheer sense of any-day-now momentum must have been what terrified the CEO aristocracy into their decades-long program to freeze all social change. We make a big deal out of the Internet today, but it's the only part of society that is changing, compared to EVERYTHING changing during the 60's.

I expect at some time in the future - I don't know when - all of the pent-up demand for change is going to break out. Not just in the Mideast, but everywhere. This period of social and technological reaction - which dates back to Saint Reagan - must surely end.
I don't know if we are in an era of technological reaction. The internet has been the greatest single invention of my lifetime.

Then again -- everything good about the internet was in place by 2001. The changes since then have been double-edged blades: Social networking, GPS locators, data mining and all sorts of other tools designed to destroy privacy and render human beings more manipulable.

The 90s were a good time too. It was damned easy to make a buck back then. I didn't make too many bucks myself, because I was too busy trying to write books and screenplays that never went anywhere. But even so, it was a lot easier to "just scrape by" then than now.

Of course, the 90s were marred by the Starr inquisition and its attendant paranoia -- just as the 60s were marred by Vietnam and the assassinations.
Well it's 1969, OK
All across the USA.
It's another year for me and you
Another year with nothin' to do.
--Iggy Stooge
Back in England in July 1969 I lived TV-less in a small rented apartment, so didn't share the historic moment. I must've "read the news that day - oh boy!" though.

I've enjoyed reading Joseph's and the commenters' remembrances of past, and much better times in the USA. I envy y'all and regret having missed them. I arrived here in 2004 - enough said! :-)
1969 was the year of my birth, so I guess it was certainly a year of hope and possibilities for my parents, if not for me.

Nowadays, my folks are a bit depressed about the world their children inherited, and ever more so about the world their grandchildren will inherit. I've actually become a bit less cynical as time has gone on, though not because of politics or the state of the USA, to be sure.

The 90's WERE a good time in this country as well (despite the problems you mention). I, like you, scraped by in those years, but was pretty comfortable in spite of it (I was trying to be a musician, a thankless task if ever there was one). You are right that it was much easier to do that back then than it is now. Now I make a lot more money, yet still feel like I'm scraping by most months.
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