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Sometimes Things Turn

A February night in 1924, in a Manhattan concert hall owned by the Aeolian piano company… the wailing, warped, and flatted clarinet glissando that opens George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue announced the 20th century’s self-recognition that something new was up in the world, and especially in the USA. The composer tried to represent the stupendous energy of the maturing industrial culture in a symphonic cacophony with a core of the deepest tenderness — capturing all the wonder and grace of the moment. For America, everything was on the move. Love and power were in the air.

The idea that this was the American century stuck. The 1920s were a kind of hormonal rush of wonders and amazements. Radio, movies, airplanes, giant industries, electric power in farm houses, the dizzying rush of progress that welled up into a dangerous wave that broke over the world in economic depression, and then war in 1939 — by which time George Gershwin was gone at 38.

America performed splendidly in World War Two, rescuing Europe and Asia from manifest evil. The nation found itself the fully mature leader of the free world, with daunting responsibilities in the Atomic Age, filled with confidence, but tinged with an understandable paranoia in the nervous peace of the 1950s. This was the time of my childhood, along with my fellow travelers, the Baby Boomers. What a time to come into this world!

For a while, the USA luxuriated in power and stability. I sang the Davy Crockett theme song from the Disney TV show, and wore a coonskin hat, and lived in a home where dad left for work in a business suit, and all was well in the world. To me and my childhood friends, the mindboggling horrors of the recent war were reduced to comic books and plastic soldiers in the sandbox. Everything else in America seemed to work as advertised. We built a lot of stuff and saw the USA in our Chevrolet. President Ike bossed around Britain’s PM Anthony Eden. The Yankees bossed around the major leagues. Hardly anyone knew what the Federal Reserve did, or even what it was. Elvis was in the Army, babysitting the defeated Germans. Then somebody splattered John F. Kennedy’s brains all over Dealey Plaza in Dallas, and everything changed again.

That event was not the beginning of the Deep State, but it was the recognition of a more deeply sinister thing than the public had previously imagined — if they thought about it at all. The Vietnam War coincided exactly with the Baby Boomers’ adolescent rebellion and was widely viewed as an exercise in Deep State wickedness. It was violently opposed, and it only ended when our vaunted military lost control of the entire field of operations and got ignominiously shoved out. Meanwhile a rush of events confounded and aggravated the country: the civil rights commotion, more assassinations of major political leaders, Watergate, Feminism, and then the slow, demoralizing dismantling of the very industry that made the 20th century America’s moment in history.

The memory of all that lingers on, while dreams die hard, the clichés go. The institutional damage along the way has been epic. The outstanding moral lesson of World War Two was that there are some things worth believing in and even fighting for. The scene today is a debris field of broken ideals and lost trust in any organized endeavor that advertises itself as having national purpose. The Baby Boomers in their own twilight’s last gleaming seem to be equally composed of the most hardened cynics and the most credulous fantasists. In any case, we are doing a controlled demolition on what used to be pretty rigorous American values while leaving the planet a ruin.

That was not exactly the plan, but as the sad song goes: sometimes things turn instead of turn out. The century we are now in may turn out to be somebody else’s, or perhaps nobody’s — and by that I don’t necessarily mean the end of the world, just the end of a certain chapter in human history. In a mere hundred years we’ve journeyed from George Gershwin’s tender nocturne at the center of his Rhapsody to the clanking, thrash-metal morbidity of Megadeath and beyond. You cannot possibly miss the point. But even that is passing into history. The question begging this haunted country now is: what do we become? And can we find any grace in it?

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