Ten years ago, NBC newscaster Tom Brokaw wrote a book about what he called “The Greatest Generation.” In contrast, there’s a new best seller out now calling America “the dumbest generation.” And since Louisiana is at the bottom of the barrel on most national lists, you can imagine how folks in the Bayou State are viewed. But with all the tools of modern technology of our digital culture supplying us with a 24/7 information overload, and the opportunities for intellectual development at an all time high, why aren’t we making a run at being “the greatest generation?” What conditions existed 70 years ago that set those who fought in World War II and those who volunteered at home apart?
These questions were the focus of discussion recently in New Orleans at the opening of some new spectacular attractions, all part of the National World War II Museum. Tom Brokaw was there for the grand opening and talked about his definition of the greatest generation. “They came of age during the Great Depression and the Second World War and went on to build modern America – men and women whose everyday lives of duty, honor, achievement and courage gave us the world we have today.”
There’s no doubt that these men and women of the1940s were resourceful, hardworking and deeply committed to giving extraordinary service to their country. But do we instill these same values now? Or does today’s generation value lifestyle over success?
In his book, The Dumbest Generation, Mark Bauerlein has little hope for today’s youth. Bauerlien views our young people as “Ignorant of politics and government, art and music, prose and poetry. The dumbest generation is content to turn up their iPods and tune out the realities of the adult world. It is brash, pampered, dumb -- and content to stay that way.”
Bauerlein’s viewpoint of today’s youth as being callow and worse is being echoed by other commentators and columnists. Young people are incorrigible and it’s their way or the highway. They aren’t that well educated, they don’t vote, and they show little respect for values honed by the hard work and sacrifice of previous generations. The rest of us are viewed as old, redundant, not to be trusted, and long past retirement age.
What has happened to the leadership that was charged with instilling these traditional values? Where is the call for sacrifice, volunteerism and “pitching in” for the greater good? The idea of sacrifice seems old-fashioned in our modern times. Self-sacrifice is so out-of-tune that we’ve turned upside down President Kennedy’s moral challenge: “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”
Today, many Americans consider self-sacrifice to be something only for suckers and losers. Even our “public servants” often leave office much richer than when they took office, or at least having used their government service as merely a stepping stone to a much higher paying job in the private sector. For many, Kennedy’s words have been rewritten: “Ask not what you can do for yourselves or your country, but what your country can do for you.” Who can forget President Bush’s advice after 9/11 that the best way to support our country was to “relax and go shopping.”
In a state like Louisiana that has so far to go just to land in the median of so many national lists, one would think that a major volunteer effort would be both productive and necessary. Yet the state seems almost to go out if its way to build barriers for citizens who want to pitch in. A retired chemist from a Louisiana chemical plant who wants to volunteer to teach chemistry in public schools must spend a year getting a teaching certificate, at his or her own expense. I have taught history at both Tulane and LSU, and served for 8 years as Secretary of State, an office that oversees the state’s historical collections. Yet, I’m not qualified to teach eight-grade history in Louisiana public schools under Louisiana public school teacher requirements.
Louisiana State Treasurer John Kennedy recently suggested that every public official in the state spend a little time teaching in local classrooms –it’s a good idea that would inspire many young people. When he proposed it to a newly created Commission to Streamline Government in Louisiana, his suggestion was summarily dismissed as unworkable and not practical.
Public officials in Louisiana, from the governor on down, are missing a great opportunity by not calling for more volunteer public service. Teaching in classrooms, giving time to help in hospitals and daycare centers, volunteering at the local food bank, a homeless shelter, the Red Cross, animal shelters, teaching adult literacy. There are so many heart- warming opportunities to help, to give back.
With due respect and admiration to my friend Tom Brokaw, I don’t believe any one-generation can take credit for being “the greatest.” Things happen. History is recorded. History gets interpreted. Subsequent generations reinterpret it.
Louisiana and the nation are looking for leaders who will lead in calling for a major volunteer effort from citizens of all ages. Government cannot do it alone. There are many who want to contribute and volunteer. They just need to be told how, where, and when. And that’s where real leadership comes in. Inspiring and instilling a sense of commitment to public service.
At the dedication ceremonies for the new attractions in New Orleans, Corporal Carl Grassman, a highly decorated veteran, was invited as a special guest. He lives with his wife in Detroit and he works as a Wal-Mart greeter. When told he would be honored at the museum and his travel expenses would be paid, he declined saying his fellow employees needed him too much and that he would feel terrible if he left them for this one day to be so commemorated. When the Wal-Mart brass heard this story, they flew Carl and his wife to New Orleans in the Wal-Mart private jet.
There are millions like Corporal Grossman who do their jobs each day and want to do even more to help their communities, their states and their country. They’re just waiting for leaders to give them direction and set out a game plan so that they too can lay claim to being one of the “greatest generations.”
The Governor of Louisiana called me last night. I was just about to doze off when the phone rang. And can you believe it? He wanted my advice on how to deal with his plummeting poll numbers and his growing list of governing and political problems. The conversation went something like this.
“Jim, Bobby Jindal here. You’ve been pretty rough on me in your weekly columns and on your syndicated radio show. You know I’m a regular reader and I listen to you all the time, at least when I’m in the state. You’ve really been on my case lately. So I’m calling and asking you, man to man, what advice you would give me? What should I do? It seems like every week, some new list is released showing Louisiana at the bottom. And my poll numbers are in the tank. Man, I could really use some guidance.”
I was, of course, flattered that the Governor wanted my advice. So I thought for a moment -- where to begin? He certainly has major problems to address. On virtually every list released in the past year, Louisiana is ranked either at, or close to the bottom for having a poor business climate, educational levels that lag far behind national averages, highest insurance rates, low rankings by the Center for Public Integrity, obstructing public access to information, and at the bottom of the barrel for overall health.
And here’s another slap in the face. Jindal just completed a term as Chairman of the National Governor’s Association. And how did Louisiana fare in the governors’ non-partisan sub group’s ranking for overall quality of life called the “Camelot Index?” Dead last!
So what would I recommend that the governor do right now -- something tangible, something that would yield immediate results? Something that would show the average guy that something is being done. After giving it some thought, I had one simple solution. “Governor, take the afternoon off and rent a video.”
“What? Voters are saying my state is under siege, and you tell me I should watch a movie? Come on, Jim!”
“That’s right, Bobby. Not just any movie. I want you to rent ‘City Hall,’ starring Al Pacino.”
“Never heard of it.” I wasn’t surprised.
“Trust me on this, Bobby. Pacino plays the part of the Mayor of New York, and the city faces a whole litany of problems, including a major crime wave. Al says enough is enough. He becomes a PVLF -- a positive, visible, local force. And he’s everywhere. No, he’s not criss-crossing the country speaking to political groups, Bobby. But he’s back home in his state. When a murder takes place, he’s on the crime scene. When innocent victims are involved, he is preaching at their funerals. He’s walking the streets, in coffee houses, in restaurants, being verbal and visual one on one, and visiting with small groups. Simply letting the people of his city know that he’s in charge, that he cares, that he empathizes with their concerns, and he’s trying to do everything in his power to solve one insurmountable problem after the other.”
“Of course, it’s not quite that simple. But it’s a beginning, Bobby. And get this. That’s exactly how New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who is, by the way, the leading Republican candidate for president in 2016, operates. He’s everywhere in New Jersey. Here’s what Christie says about governing: “You gotta show up -- regularly, consistently. And you gotta listen. You can’t always talk at people, you have to listen.”
If you are there and the folks you represent believe you are giving it your best effort, they are going to be much more willing to do their part. And these people you represent can be of tremendous help if you motivate them. You can build grass roots support for your legislative agenda, and you can encourage Louisianans to volunteer, and become involved in numerous community service programs. They’re volunteers for the state, but you can also turn them into volunteers for your own future. You will quickly find out that good government is also good politics.
“Bottom line, Bobby -- stay at home where you were elected. Your challenge is to rally the masses, let them know you are on the job continually and that you are giving your all to improve the state’s quality of life. You can do it, Bobby. You just have to make the commitment.”
“Boy, I really appreciate your advice, Jim. You’ve got me thinking, fired up, and ready to change direction. You’re right, Jim. I can make a difference. I’m their leader. You are going to be amazed at the new approach I’m going to take. Thanks, Jim. And I’ll be listening to on the weekends.”
I hung up the phone, and was satisfied that Bobby Jindal would take up my challenge. I really believe in the PVLF theory. Maybe, just maybe, I had gotten through to him. For a minute, I lay there with a smile of contentment on my face.
And then I woke up from my dream.
George Orwell’s novel 1984 paints a disturbing scenario where one can be accused of a crime, arrested and prosecuted for his or her thoughts.
“The thought police would get him just the same. He had committed… the essential crime that contained all others in itself. Thought crime they called it… sooner or later they were bound to get you.”
The Orwell scenario comes to mind when digesting a recent ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court upholding a federal law that allows the indefinite civil commitment of federal prisoners who have completed their sentences, but are deemed “sexually dangerous.” This travesty of justice is based on the thought that a crime might be committed in the future
Now if you think the only dissenters expressing concerns over such a draconian ruling are bleeding heart liberals, think again. Add to that number the likes of Rush Limbaugh, and the two most conservative members of the Supreme Court, Justices Scalia and Thomas. The majority of the court cited that congress could pass such laws because it has “enumerated powers,” then conveniently failed to list any such powers or constitutional authority. Hogwash, said Justice Thomas. He pointed out that offenses allowing indefinite jail time need not even be a sex crime. Someone serving time for mail fraud or tax evasion could be declared “dangerous” if a prosecutor feels he or she might have a “tendency” to commit further crimes, even if the sentence was not for a criminal conviction.
Sex crimes, violent crimes, property crimes, drug crimes – whatever the circumstances of the offense, one would think that when the sentence is done, it’s done. If there is a terrible crime involved, then the courts should hand out longer sentences. It should be noted that three of the five defendants appealing their sentences to the Supreme Court were convicted of possessing pornography, not physically endangering any child.
I share the view that people who deal in this type of smut are vile and loathsome. However, once a criminal sentence is completed, under our constitution, the criminal is “square with the house.” But if the “thought police” then move in with, “what if” scenarios, we begin a slippery slope that starts with child predators, then accused terrorists, then anyone accused of murder, and a whole litany of crimes that may be committed in the future. And the protections and liberties of the country become relinquished ideals and faded memories.
This decision that undermines our constitutional protections is not all that surprising considering the pervasive chipping away of our individual freedoms over the past decade. Americans have been losing the protection of law for years. The loss of constitutional protections accelerated under the Bush administration’s “war on terror,” where we were told that the job of the President is to keep us safe. Bush legal adviser John Yoo espoused a similar philosophy in a Wall Street Journal Op Ed article. Simply put, he argued that the president, in the name of public safety, could cut down all laws written for the express purpose of restraining the President, because all that Americans expect is to be kept safe. Under that logic, we revert to the Nixon philosophy that the president can do no wrong. And as Jack Bauer, star of the Fox series “24” would argue, the end always justifies the means.
We live in a brave new world today. Surveillance cameras monitor most areas of our lives. When the government chooses, it can listen in on our telephone calls and read our e-mails. Government intelligence agencies have sophisticated computer technology that sweeps the Internet and our website activity to determine what we are thinking and saying. The President can label anyone, including American citizens, “enemy combatants” and hold them indefinitely without access to family or an attorney.
As Rutherford Institute President John Whitehead recently wrote: “The lesson is this: once a free people allows the government inroads into their freedoms or uses those same freedoms as bargaining chips for security, it quickly becomes a slippery slope to outright tyranny. Nor does it seem to matter whether it’s a Democrat or a Republican at the helm anymore, because the bureaucratic mindset on both sides of the aisle now seems to embody the same philosophy of authoritarian government.”
Philosopher C.S. Lewis lectured at Cambridge in England when I was a student there in the mid 1960s. His collection of essays and speeches titled God in the Dock second-guesses the notion that government is only working for our good. He writes:
“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”
For years we’ve been hearing, and saying ourselves, "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore! Not much came from this populist anger. But maybe there is a different wind in the air. Recent elections, including a congressional race here in the Louisianan 5th District, resulted in several successful candidates turning their backs on the two established parties. They ran campaigns on a premise that precepts of our constitution were birthed by the rabble of all walks of life that got fed up and did risky things because, as writer Naomi Wolf observed, “they were captivated by the breath of liberty, and not consumed by government protection at all costs.”
Maybe there is a bit of desire to rein in those who stifle liberty and freedom in the name of national security. We all need to hope so.