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 What Young People Don’t Know 

April 29, 2003

At my age you’re expected to complain about the younger generation, and at times I’m tempted to lament their ignorance of history. But the moment I do, I’m checked by a question: Whose fault is that? Who educated them? The answer, of course, is my generation. So I wind up pitying today’s youth.

Every generation has a lot of catching up to do. The history their parents learned is obsolete, because history now includes their parents’ experience on top of all that happened before. I remember the Eisenhower years, the rise of Fidel Castro, the Kennedy and King assassinations, the Vietnam war. Today’s kids have to read about all that. It can never be as real to them as it is to me.

In the same way, I had to read up on things my parents remembered vividly: the Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt, World War II. These were not things in the past; they were still present. Even in the prosperous Fifties and later, most adults feared a return of the Depression. The power of this memory shaped the politics of the 1950s to a degree you wouldn’t suspect from reading about the events of the time. The Republicans bore the heavy burden of blame for the Depression; the Democrats were the party of “the little man.” If you don’t understand that, you can’t understand the time as it felt to those who lived it.

The present is never just the present. It is the present plus all its memories. But its dominant memories are also distorted by selection. We tend to remember highlights, headlines, and slogans, but not the rich contexts of events. Many of the events we remember are isolated and given an exaggerated prominence. Baseball fans remember what Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams did in 1941, but it’s harder to remember which teams won the pennants and the World Series, things that seemed more important at the time.

[Breaker quote: Or 
old people, for that matter]Our historic memories are always abridgments of the past. Today Franklin Roosevelt is remembered for “leading us” through the Depression and World War II. The details are largely forgotten; the longest presidency in American history is reduced to a couple of slogans and a few newsreel images. (We’ve even forgotten that people used to go to the movies to see the news!)

In a sense, every generation is disinherited, cut off by time itself from the things it needs to know. What was undecided and complex then seems simple and inevitable now; what seemed radical then seems normal now. And most people hardly realized that vast changes were taking place. Is it any wonder that their grandchildren and great-grandchildren don’t know?

Facing the Depression, Roosevelt took a series of steps that added up to a profound shift in the American system of government — and the Depression only got worse. Promising to keep America out of World War II, he was secretly taking measures to get America into that war, long before Pearl Harbor. But he was a power politician and propagandist of great genius, and he got away with everything. His lasting legacy is the destruction of limited, constitutional government.

Only once did his designs become so naked and shocking that they were defeated. That was when he tried to “pack” the U.S. Supreme Court, making it subordinate to him and thus tearing down the checks and balances essential to constitutional government. Even his followers turned against him for once; yet he soon wound up getting his way with the Court when several justices retired, died, or changed their minds about constitutionality.

A few observers discerned what Roosevelt was up to and tried to warn the country. They were largely ignored; today their books are hard to find. (One of the shrewdest of them, Garet Garrett, spent his last years literally living in a cave.) But he is now generally considered a great president — for doing exactly what his critics accused him of doing. And his perversions of presidential power are now used as precedents for others, with the approval of “conservatives.”

If so few of his contemporaries, following events as they occurred from day to day, managed to penetrate Roosevelt’s grand deceptions, how are today’s young people supposed to understand? Not only have they been given the wrong answers; they don’t realize there were ever questions. They were disinherited before they were born.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2003 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
a division of Griffin Communications
This column may not be reprinted in print or
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