Tom Brokaw came to Princeton University December 6 to give a talk, built around his new book, "The Time of Our Lives: A conversation about America; Who we are, where we've been, and where we have to go now, to recapture the American dream." (Pause for breath.) His low voice with a touch of gravel sometimes caused words to disappear altogether into the resonant woodwork and stone of Richardson Auditorium. He is calling people to a grand cause--America's journey back to greatness--not with soaring oratory but with a deep conversational tone.
Brokaw must be acknowledged for raising the subject that should be dominating national discourse. More than most, he is calling on America to step out of its lethargy and political paralysis. I sympathize with his cause, but also came to his talk with a mischievous question. What does one call a generation that is greater than The Greatest Generation? There really should be a name, because that is what we need right now. By calling any generation The Greatest Generation--as Brokaw famously named those who endured the hardships of the Great Depression, then defeated the Nazis and Japanese in World War 2--the implication is that all generations that follow cannot possibly compare. While conveying an understandable and deserved respect for those who lived through that era, the title implies that America's best days are behind it.
Consider the possibility that our challenges now are deeper than those faced by America in 1941. The Greatest Generation's enemies were clearly the aggressors, and conveniently distinct geographically and culturally. Back then, the country had a full tank of gas (oil extraction from U.S. lands didn't begin declining until 1971), and though we were 16th in military power in 1939, our economic potential loomed larger than that of Germany and Japan. Now, our easy oil--the baby fat of a nation's youth--is gone, and the greatest economic potential lies elsewhere, in China and India. Most vexing, our greatest enemy is not the sort that we can bomb into submission, but instead is embedded in our lifestyles.
Mr. Brokaw mentioned global warming in passing, as part of a list of challenges. That's two words more than most speakers are willing to give the subject. Understandable, one must say. It's hard to imagine a more insidious and spirit-sapping enemy than climate change, an enemy that prospers on our lifestyles and offers no target to shoot at. It manifests as miniscule, invisible, seemingly benign molecules in the air and sea, lies low at first, growing in proportion to our machine-enhanced comfort, endangering not us so much as our offspring, and by the time its menace galvanizes us to action with Pearl Harbor-scale devastation, it will be by then unstoppable. Such an enemy, exploiting our every weakness and blind spot, requires a generation greater than The Greatest to defeat.
Brokaw is best when describing the lack of sacrifice by the many during a time when America has fought its "two longest wars." The term "1%" came up twice--first to describe the primarily working class and lower middle class soldiers who with their families have borne the brunt of those distant wars, and then in reference to the economic elite who gained the most over the past decade while the middle class lost ground. He said that, in a democracy, it is unjust, even immoral, to have less than 1% fight our wars for us.
He stresses the importance of education, and sees it as the stage upon which we must compete with emerging powers. But that raised another question. How can we convince kids that knowledge matters if journalistic etiquette allows our political leaders to deny scientific and economic realities? The political paralysis we all decry is sustained in part by a willful refusal by many politicians and voters to accept a basic understanding of how the world works.
Brokaw described the widespread poverty in America as it entered the Second World War. For many men, military service meant receiving for the first time a new pair of boots. Many trained with wooden rifles. I would speculate that those preceding years of deprivation had much to do with America's ability to win the war. It's easier to get people to sacrifice if they are already conditioned by long economic depression to make do with less. America's prolonged indulgence now, what Brokaw describes as a long period of "taking from the cup without giving back", has been marked by a sense of entitlement, a belief that borrowed money and material abundance are our birthright, and that sacrifice equates with self-denial.
He also offered compelling reference to a time when physical labor and the outdoors were more a part of everyday life. He described his father as "a man educated on his own terms," with "a strong back and a good set of hands." At the family's ranch in Montana, when the grandkids were of sufficient age, Brokaw took them hiking off trail to a distant cabin. They saw bear and elk, and slept where no ambient urban light softens the night, and darkness is near absolute. Precious few have the opportunity for such an unfiltered encounter with the land from which America's greatness grew.
There is a tendency to let ourselves off the hook. As each crisis shakes the country--9/11, ballooning debt, the economic meltdown of 2008, and the gathering chaos of climate change--a false refrain sounds, that nobody saw it coming. America has long had people with the training, imagination and insight needed to look into the future and see trouble ahead. Up to now they have been largely ignored. One can hope that Tom Brokaw will be an exception, that his writing and deep voice will not be absorbed into the background rumble of the status quo, but actually reach minds that have not been reached on any other wavelength.