In an address to the South African Parliament in 1960, British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan said, “The wind of change is blowing through the African continent.” “The wind of change” went into the language, and the wind of change continues to blow, more fiercely than ever, through the African continent.
But the winds of change have also been blowing across this country and the whole world, and the sense of 1990 was that hardly anything has been left unshaken and unmoved. A year ago this very day the winds seemed bracing and tonic: The Wall was coming down; Eastern Europe was throwing aside its long domination by Communism. The future did not look simple, but it looked wonderfully promising.
On this New Year’s Day the possibility, even the likelihood, of conflict in the Middle East overshadows all else, and such carousing as there was on New Year’s Eve had to have been less a toast to bright promise than an eat-drink-and-be-merry fatalism about what could be ahead.
In a recent essay in Sunday Calendar, Times Staff Writer Lawrence Christon remarked on a national “anxiety about collapse.” That’s about as starkly as it has been said. Even those who might not feel quite that terminal about the state of us have a sense that the winds of change, asthmatic and alarming, have been blowing through this country, leaving us uncertain who we are and, even more dangerously, who we were.
No small part of the appeal of Kevin Costner’s “Dances With Wolves” is that it intends to be a historical corrective, seeing the Indians in a truer perspective than the early mythologies of the westering experience allowed them. At the same time, if more briefly, the story acknowledges the courage and the hardships of the true settlers drawn by the promise of the West and in their own way being as much pawns in the blind games of history as the Indians themselves. The film’s sequences on the slaughter of the buffalo and the massacre of homesteading settlers are each horrifying.
There is in fact a new battle among historians about the final verdict on the winning of the West, discussed by Larry McMurtry, the author of “Lonesome Dove,” in the New Republic last October. The revisionists are as far off as the mythologists, he was saying. The whole truth is as mixed and melancholy as truth ever gets.
The debate over the West can be seen as symptomatic of a larger questioning about American certitudes, the validity of those confident truths we have held self-evident about the rise of the United States from the American Revolution through the triumph of World War II. After that, and all too specifically after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the confidence has seemed to unravel and those winds of change began to rattle the windows like the early stages of a prairie duster.
It was as if a treasury of American optimism had been destroyed, or lost, on a Texas street. A vacuum was created which has even now not been filled. The ravaging debate over Vietnam was, among the many other things it was, a profound indication of our discovery that the world was politically far from as clear-cut as we had been told it was. The tumultuous ‘60s and ‘70s revealed not only a gap in generations but a deep confusion about what the national motivation ought to be.
Historians of the 21st Century may find no clear statement of our quandaries in the movies and on television tapes of our years, but they will find plenty of glimmerings of our national Angst, expressed in all kinds of tones, from the bleak despairs of “Panic in Needle Park” to the farce of “The Graduate” (“Plastics!”) to the ironic celebration of greed in “Wall Street,” to the mass popularity of sitcoms, which by cheerful implication said everything was still OK.
Inevitably, it has been economics that has shown most dramatically how the world, and the American position in it, has changed over the last 40 years. The purchases by Matsushita and Sony of major American film studios are perfect symbols of shift of economic power. The miracles of recovery in Germany and Japan have been indeed miraculous, achieved in part by remarkable expressions of national will and in no small part by the surprising ineptness of American business leadership in letting the electronic advances get away and in ignoring an evident change in consumer tastes in automobiles.
In the wake of the Wall Street and banking scandals as well, President Calvin Coolidge’s 1925 cry that “The business of America is business” has an ironic ring to it.
Talking about what was identified during the Cold War as the Free World, John le Carre, author of “The Russia House” and all the George Smiley novels, said in a recent interview, “We’ve been defining ourselves as anti-Communists all these years. Defined ourselves in terms of what we weren’t. Now we’re going to have to reconstruct ourselves. And we’re going to have to deal with real enemies much less inviting and heroic. Ecological, sociological, the misery of two-thirds of the world’s population. . . . Having addressed ourselves to Communism for a half-century, now we have to address capitalism.”
The good news of recent times is that Communism is collapsing of its own inadequacies, and it seems clear the most efficient engine on which to drive and sustain a society is free-market capitalism. But what is no less clear, in light of the homeless here and the starving millions everywhere, is that laissez faire capitalism, shorn of any obligations to the have-nots in society, can only invite some latter-day Karl Marx and subsequent convulsions.
Eastern Europe is thus a suspenseful race between benevolent capitalism and chaos and it is too early to predict the outcome. There are ample grounds for anxiety on New Year’s morning, and even the Rose Parade in its many-petaled splendors will not likely lift it.
Are there no grounds for optimism?
Sure there are.
The American conscience is far from dead. It has not lately been aroused by the rhetoric of politicians but it has risen to the perils of pollution and to the plight of the homeless and the growing number of AIDS victims (to which the government’s response continues to be reluctant and half-hearted).
Indeed, the expressions of American idealism have come to rest more and more in the private sector, the political leadership either mute, unbelievable or actively counterproductive.
My private wish list would be headed this year as always by the abolition of all paid political advertising from television. It will never happen, of course; the industry would plead catastrophe and the politicians themselves would as lief open their arteries.
But it is just about the only way to save what is left of the American political process. The move would slow the trend to 30-second sound bites in lieu of discussion of the issues. It would cut by hundreds of millions the money needed for political campaigns, and so deprive the pols of their excuse for accepting the largess of deep-pockets entrepreneurs like Charles Keating. Britain has made such a system work for years, yet the Tories continue in office, which should be some comfort to the Republicans.
High on my wish list in an equally positive way would be for movies and television to re-examine the American experience more deeply, and without mythologizing it, or demythologizing it in a vat of cynical bile. The recently rebroadcast “Civil War” documentary series is the perfect role model for accuracy, fairness, true balance, compassion and dramatic interest.
It would be fascinating to see a comparable work on the American Revolution, with a similar depiction of its contesting personalities, the profound issues of leadership and the balance of powers with which they wrestled, an examination of those torn (even within families) between loyalty to the Crown and the hope of a new nation and, above all, a restatement of the values by which the founding philosophers at last agreed the new nation should proceed.
And, since Larry McMurtry is at it, how splendid it would be to recruit him as an adviser on another documentary series on the opening of the West, in its particular mix of brave men and poltroons, pioneer wives and buffalo girls, tragedies and triumphs, consequences good and bad, the works--the works to include somehow an assessment of what the way West has meant to the American spirit.
It may well be that the wind of change has shifted the place of the United States within the world economy. Yet for all our lapses from grace, the country has continued to stand for moral leadership in matters of human rights, free expression and humanitarian help; and as 1991 commences, nothing seems more important than that those humanitarian aims should above all things continue to define us.