Sunday, December 2, 2018

On Coming of Political Age In The Bush41 Years

I was born in 1975, which means I am in one of the smallest age cohorts in postwar America. There aren't many people around my age, and our adolescence happened to coincide with the first Bush administration. Our political consciousness was formed at the end of the 80s and beginning of the 90s, a much more tumultuous time than the years that came before and after.

It was the absolute high point of the war on drugs, something pushed hard by the Bush administration. The streets of LA burned in 1992 after police officers were acquitted in the Rodney King case. The gang wars related to the drug trade were never bloodier, and the murder rate shot up in this era. The Cold War ended, and the Soviet Union ceased to exist. With the Gulf War, the United States went to full-fledged war for the first time since Vietnam. Soon after, a nasty recession hit.

Ironically, the Gulf War was the event that capped off my political migration from being a nominal Republican due to my parents' affiliation to adopting a much more progressive political stance. Two other Bush-era events put me on this road: the AIDS crisis and the Central Park Five. They both showed the indifference of the government to the mass suffering of marginalized people, as well as the unfairness of the criminal justice system. I had initially been enthusiastic for the Gulf War, but when it was over I wondered whether such horrible loss of life was necessary. The insane jingoism sparked by the war also frightened me. I knew my country had all kinds of problems, and people were willing to forget about them and wave the maniacally flag because of a victory over a third rate power.

The Bush41 years were also very fraught when it came to race, and forced me, as a white teenager living in a very white rural small town, to actually see the racial inequality I wasn't being taught about in school or able to observe around me. There was the War on Drugs, Central Park Five, and Rodney King beating. Above all, there was the infamous Willie Horton ad. By the end of the Bush41 years I was reading Malcolm X's autobiography in study hall and seeing the country of my birth in a new light.

This was a far cry from where I was in 1988, when I was old enough to observe politics but too untutored to understand what I was seeing. I remember George Bush attacking Michael Dukakis for being a liberal, saying the word like a curse. Saturday Night Live did a funny parody of it, imagining a liberal who like Richard Kimble in The Fugitive must keep running from the authorities. I honestly didn't know what the word even meant. I asked an adult what was so bad about being a liberal and the response was basically that liberals were terrible people who believed in taxes and were against religion.

Of course, liberals ended up having the last laugh when Bush lost to Bill Clinton in the 1992 election. The Bush years coincided with what I like the call the Reagan Dusk. The social problems and inequalities exacerbated by neoliberal policies were becoming more stark by 1989. As the Cold War ended there was a feeling that the United States needed to focus more on its own issues. Bush was not equipped to handle the backlash against the world created by his more amiable predecessor. Back in those pre-internet days of 1992 I bought a book called Bushisms that quoted his most maladroit attempts at rhetoric. As far as I could tell, he was a clumsy representative of a failed establishment.

In fact, Bush provided an example to me of how disconnected America's political leaders were from the lived reality of most people. This came through clearest in an famous moment where Bush was captivated by a supermarket checkout scanner. That one incident seemed to encapsulate so much. There was also the time he talked glibly with the press as the American dead from his attack on Panama were coming home to Dover Air Force Base. Perhaps most flagrantly, Bush seemed incapable of empathizing with people who were being hit hard by the recession in the second half of his term. It was slowly dawning on me that the people who ran everything couldn't care less about the people they ruled over.

Popular music certainly reflected the disenchantment so many had with their supposed social betters. Political rap music flourished in that era, from Public Enemy to Ice Cube. "Smells Like Teen Spirit" burst on the scene in late '91 and banished hair metal decadence to the dustbin of history. At the time I really felt like some real change was about to happen. "Change" was the theme of Bill Clinton's campaign, which I fell for hard. Little did I know how soon he would disappoint me.

The other day I was listening to some of my favorite music from the era, a time when I felt very optimistic about the future. The Cold War had ended without a bloodbath. The Reagan-Bush regime had been rejected. My generation, ready for a better world, was coming of age. My funeral this week is for that feeling, which I sadly found to be naive and short-lived.

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