Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Laws of Our Fathers

Are all baby boomers so whiny?

I recounted before that that we tend to concentrate, in our society in the "New Releases!" whether it is the latest Space Jam movie (no, really?) or the latest album drop (and accompanying analbumparty).  We forget about things from years' past, or even a year ago, and let's face it, most of it is forgettable.

But it is interesting, sometimes, to read the old releases, and often we find, at book exchanges at campgrounds, or in these "little library" boxes, some interesting reads from years gone by.  Sometimes, you even find good CDs or DVDs as well!

I found a pristine copy of Casablanca in the $1 bargain bin at the Goodwill the other day.  It is one of the exceptions to the "New Releases!" rule, but again, having its own arc and trajectory.  I recall first seeing it back in the 1970's in an "art house" revival, when young people suddenly rediscovered old-time black-and-white movies and suddenly everything old is new again.  There was a big-band revival at about the same time, which sort of alarmed our parents, who were a little chagrined that their kids were appropriating "their" music.   50 years later, I sort of feel the same way, when I see some teenager "rocking out" to music from my own youth.

Of course, today, the trend is to put old "classic" literature and movies on the trash heap - the work of "dead white men" - and subject it to revisionist modern history.   Anything more than a year or two old, seems quaint or outmoded, when viewed from today's viewpoint.  That is not my intent in discussing Scott Turow's book - to put him on the trash heap - only to point out that every generation has its own defining moment.

The plot (and not much else) is summarized in the Wikipedia entry cited above:
When last seen in Turow's The Burden of Proof, Sonia Klonsky was a prosecutor with the U. S. Attorney's office in Kindle County with a failing marriage, an infant daughter, and a single mastectomy. She becomes one of the narrators here. Now she is a Superior Court Judge presiding over the murder trial of one Nile Eddgar, who is accused of arranging the murder of his ghetto-activist mother. The story is told in two parallel narratives, one regarding the current trial and the other taking the reader through the 1960s.

Many of the minor characters in The Laws of Our Fathers also appear in Turow's other novels, which are all set in fictional, Midwestern Kindle County.

The book was published in 1996, just a few years shy of 9/11.  So it is interesting to read the perspective from back then.  To Turow, the defining moment of his history was coming of age in the 1960's, when protest was in vogue and the Vietnam war meant everything.  But the book takes place in two parallel universes - 1969 and 1995.  And in the latter universe, 1969 seems "so long ago" and the memories of what happened then had faded.   Everyone grew up and got jobs.  The campus radical is now a State Senator.  The young idealist is now a successful syndicated columnist and journalist.  And his onetime girlfriend is now a Judge, sitting over a trial of a younger man they all once knew as a boy.

Granted, it is fiction, but Turow takes liberties with the facts right there.  Here we have a murder trial where the Judge, the defense attorney, the defendant, the defendant's father, the victim, and a reporter all have known each other intimately.   Worse yet, the Judge starts dating the reporter and talking about the trial while it is going on.  Meanwhile, the reporter is talking to the defense attorney.  And no one seems to mind, and no one objects, and the judge doesn't recuse herself.  It defies belief, but I guess he needs this as a plot device.  Once you get around that, the book takes off - in part.

The courtroom scenes are where Turow typically excels.  He keeps you interested in what is going on, and the legal procedures are (at least to me) interesting and compelling.  The book lags, however, when he tries to explain, in excruciating detail, the motivations of each of the characters, some of whom, no matter how much "backstory" is told, come across as wooden and two-dimensional.  For example, the radical-turned-state-senator just simply comes across as unbelievable.

The other half of the story - concerning a thinly-disguised Berkeley campus, tossing in the bombing at University of Wisconsin, comes across as, well, baby-boomer sensationalizing of 1960's history.  Maybe it is because our generation came at the tail-end of the baby boom, but we get kind of tired of our elders telling us how compelling the 1960's were, when in fact, we were there as well, and thought a lot of it was silly posturing.  And compared to the defining moments of previous generations, for example, World War II, the Vietnam war and the accompanying protests seem somewhat wan.

To begin with, as I noted before, not everyone was protesting the war back in 1969.  I met a fellow who was at Kent State back then, and asked him about the shootings.  "I don't know," he said, "I wasn't aware it happened until the next day when I read about it in the paper.  I was studying Engineering and didn't have time to protest."   As it turns out, the masses of hippies clogging the National Mall were not representative of the majority of young people of their day. A movement, perhaps, but not an overwhelming sentiment.  And the idea of students "going on strike!" until the administration stops the war seems almost laughable today.  I am sure Nixon was concerned.

And the kids who were protesting?  Like my brother, they were in no fear of being drafted or sent off to war.  Most had deferments and could coast by the draft age by staying in school.  Even if drafted, they likely would be put to use in some sort of support job (which outnumber actual fighting troops by ten-to-one) rather than see actual combat.  My brother-in-law was drafted into the army in the 1960's.  He spent his time on a base in Germany, getting into fist-fights with black troops.  So this idea that college students were in peril is a bit overstated.

Yes, Vietnam was a defining moment for a lot of people of that era - who went to fight there or lost loved ones in that pointless war.  But even given that, most Vietnam vets I know don't define themselves by that war - with the exception of a few loud voices who fly flags and whatnot, who I suspect never actually saw combat.  But like most returning WWII vets, most went on with their lives, rather than letting it define them as victims of one sort or another.

The protesters and hippies?  They won't shut up about it, and tend to view it as a defining moment of their lives and American history.  This is not to say it was unimportant, only that some folks exaggerate the impact of these protests and radicalism. Turns out, the SDS accomplished not much of anything, and neither did the Black Panthers.  Protest movements seem so important at the time, but even a few years later, seem like quaint artifacts. Remember "Occupy Wall Street?"  Yea, I don't, either.   Something to think about for all the BLM and "Me Too!" protesters out there.  The whole "pussy hat" thing is already forgotten.  Kinda sad, ain't it?

Perhaps, of course, I am just jealous that our generation has no great defining moment.  No great war against tyranny or great protest movement fueled by drugs and wild sex.  We got disco, hostages in Iran, the crack epidemic, stagflation, and Ronald Reagan.   Kind of hard to wax romantic about that shit.  It was just crappy, without all the noble protests and sit-ins and sex and drugs - that is, unless you wanted to contract a scary new disease.  Yea, maybe I am just jealous, as their generation got sex and drugs and rock 'n roll, and out generation got the hangover.  Not nearly as glamorous.

I am not sure what the point of all of this is, other than when Turow wrote this book, the Soviet Union had fallen and the cold war ended.  Since then, a new cold war has erupted, this time fought with computers and bank accounts.  And 9/11 became a defining event for a new generation - or did it?  It is almost the 20th anniversary of that attack, and it seems to be fading from memory.  A whole generation has been raised in the post-9/11 era and I am sure they are as sick of hearing about it as kids were hearing Dad's old war stories back in the day.

And 20 years later, what have we learned?  Not much, it seems.  We exit Afghanistan and Iraq the same way we left Vietnam - not a surrender, perhaps, but with our tails between our legs, accomplishing nothing other than to kill a whole lot of the locals and strengthen our enemies and spend a lot of taxpayer's money.  Decades after we left Vietnam, we are friendly with that country.  The Vietnamese people, by all accounts, don't dislike Americans, which is odd as we dropped more bombs on that tiny country than we did during all of WW II. The fallout from that war was horrific - for the region.  Cambodia fell to the Khmer Rouge, who slaughtered millions and seems poised to make a comeback today.

Did we really accomplish something?  Or, in an alternative universe where we didn't intervene, did far worse things happen?  It is hard to say.  What is interesting is the perspective of he years gives us better vision than the view on the ground at the time.  Turow seems to make this point, albeit romanticizing the 1960's in the process.  Two-and-a-half decades later, the oh-so-important protests of that era seem to amount to nothing, and the protagonists trying to overthrow the system are now part and parcel of it - or vice-versa.

History never repeats itself exactly.  But I suspect in 20 years, today's young antifart protester or Qanonsense believer or #metoo protester or BLM activist will be part and parcel of the system, and much of what they are angry about today will be forgotten.  Maybe these people will have changed, but then again the system will have changed as well, as it has done before.  Of course, one could argue that all we have done is changed the styles of the time - and that the underlying social injustices and wars haven't really changed.

But for the life of me, I'd be perfectly happy not to ever hear again, from some baby boomer, about how great and important the anti-war protests of the 1960's were.  In the coming years, the last WWII veteran will pass away - very soon, in fact.  And there will be much fanfare about that.   I doubt anyone will mourn the passing of the last 1960's peace activist, however.