Monday, May 31, 2004
Discussions of the "Greatest Generation" are almost always implicitly conservative, if not reactionary. The lesson we are supposed to learn is that their "greatness" stemmed from their unquestioning sacrifice. They were great because they exemplify a kind of citizenship that focuses on obligations, not rights. It's a form of citizenship that obeys the dictates of the government rather than making demands on it. It's a form of citizenship that is thought to be performed with the body, not the mind: soldiers are supposed to act, not think. It's a form of citizenship in which physical courage, physical prowess, and a spirit of self-sacrifice are more important than actual civic engagement. There's something very compelling about this vision of citizenship, and not just because it's easier to make movies about battles than about reading the newspaper and trying to tease out what changes in tax policy will really mean for the working poor. This version of citizenship is pretty grim for the actual military personnel dealing with the unglamorous reality of modern war, although I suppose it offers the psychological compensation that comes from being told you're among the truest, best citizens. But it lets the rest of us off the hook. The military doesn't need or want me, and it's not like the current war demands a lot of sacrifice of those of us on the Home Front who are lucky enough not to have close relatives serving overseas. I'm not rationing sugar or planting a victory garden the way my grandmother did. The Greatest Generation version of citizenship, therefore, asks me to "support our troops" and not do much else. Considering all the other pressures on my time, the effort it takes to inform myself about current events, and how depressingly futile my recent efforts at political engagement have felt, I can see the appeal of a version of citizenship that doesn't require anything but obedience.
But there's a different way to tell the story of the Greatest Generation, and it's not one that we hear very often. And that's the story of the GGs as the recipients of the biggest, most ambitious, and most effective welfare programs in American history. Start with public education. In 1910, 10% of American teenagers attended high school; by 1940, it was up to 70%. This represented a huge state-sponsored, state-funded effort to extend to all but the most disadvantaged members of society opportunities that had previously been reserved for the elite, and it would prove incredibly important after the war when the U.S. government faced the challenge of easing soldiers back into civilian life. Next, there was the New Deal, which ensured that most of the GGs would have the right to unionize, unemployment insurance, and some money to live off of in their old age. Finally, the American government dealt with the traditional problems of post-war conversion by funding programs that would literally create the modern American middle class. Typically, when big wars end, there's a period of high unemployment, as returning soldiers flood the labor market. The U.S. avoided that partly by unceremoniously firing women workers, whether they wished to leave the labor force or not. But the government also hit upon the brilliant idea of paying for returning soldiers to go to college, thereby delaying their return to paid employment. Those beneficiaries of expanded public secondary education, therefore, now also had the opportunity to benefit from vastly expanded access to college as well. Similarly, faced with an acute housing shortage, the Federal government subsidized returning veterans' mortgages, making it possible for young families to move to suburbs that would never have been built without federal mortgage subsidies.
Needless to say, these welfare policies primarily benefited white men. African-Americans, many of them stuck in a separate and unequal school system, were represented in vastly disproportionate numbers among the 30% of GGs who were not able to attend high school. New Deal programs like Social Security explicitly exempted jobs in which women and African-Americans were heavily concentrated, such as agricultural labor and domestic service. Because New Deal programs tied old-age pensions to work, women war workers who lost their jobs in the post-war reconversion also lost their benefits. Both the educational and mortgage provisions of the GI bill were only available to veterans, and almost all veterans were men. Redlining and restrictive covenants excluded many veterans of color from new suburbs. Part of the task of post-war social justice movements was to claim for oppressed groups the welfare benefits that white men took as their due.
The real monument to the Greatest Generation, I think, is not some bunch of pillars on the Mall. It's the modern American welfare state. It's the suburban, college-educated middle-class that the welfare state brought into existence. And it's the invisible exclusions built into our ideas about state intervention. It's the fact that oppressed members of society are expected to feel a combination of shame and gratitude for programs which benefit them, while privileged people are allowed to deny that their welfare benefits constitute welfare at all. You won't hear about this monument: it's not handy for politicians in an election year, and Tom Hanks isn't going to make a movie about it. But it matters a lot more than anything Congress can plunk down on the Mall.