“Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be…” (Yogi Berra)

 Looking back at looking back:
A Retrospective Essay

Tim Weiskel, Yale ’68

Yale-Bulldog-50thLooking back at the past in the age of computer data storage and internet exchange has created an entirely new setting for college reunions.   Although he may not have been the first to say so,  Yogi Berra was surely right in observing: “Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be.”

The reasons for this are numerous and obvious, but its implications are not yet fully appreciated.  One of the new phenomena that emerges from the technologies of  multi-media storage and instant retrieval is that we can revisit old ideas and resume past conversations — conversations begun, perhaps, fifty years ago but never brought to satisfactory closure at the time (or for that matter, since).  Here, then, are some of the conversations that will, no doubt, be continued at future reunions of the Yale Class of 1968.

There are, of course, countless conversations that we will all engage in, but because this particular graduating year — 1968 — was packed with so my major life-re-orienting events and stark choices, it is no surprise that our ongoing conversations at reunions have often touched upon the nature and future of the human prospect itself.   At this point in their lives, the alumni from the class of 1968 who gather for their 50th reunions around the country need not shrink from these dilemmas fifty years later.  After all, in the intervening decades many of them have surely learned something that deepened their insight about themselves and enlarged their understanding and sense of compassion for one another.

By many accounts of those who attended it the 50th reunion of the Yale Class of 1968 was truly exceptional in this regard.  At the very beginning of the reunion events, the class organizers thoughtfully convened a class-wide gathering — operating on the principle of a “Quaker Meeting,” — where any class member was allowed to stand and say what the Vietnam era had meant for them at the time and since their graduation in 1968.  The exchange was deeply moving, setting a tone of open honesty, humble self-reflection and mutual respect that came to characterize the full range of remaining events throughout the entire reunion.

In marked contrast to this mood, however, on Saturday afternoon, the class as a whole was invited to attend a staged interview that was described by one classmate as an embarrassing display of “alternative reality.”   The topics ranged from the ownership of a professional baseball team to President Putin’s dog, but at no point was anyone from the audience allowed to ask a question of the invited speakers in the staged-managed event.

Many of the assembled classmates couldn’t help but think of the haunting remarks of the recently fired Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson.  In a commencement address delivered to newly commissioned military officers former Secretary Tillerson described the danger of Americans becoming enthralled by “alternative realities that are no longer grounded in facts.”

As it turns out, the bizarre  “alternative realities”  represented in the interview provoked many classmates to consider “alternative narratives” of their own, encapsulating more  fully and faithfully what they remember about what has happened since the U.S. military invasion of Iraq fifteen years ago in 2003.  The computer technology of instant recall and rapid communication has guaranteed that nostalgia in this domain has forever been changed.   “Alternative realities” can now be contrasted instantaneously against the evidence from “alternative narratives” both across the country and around the world.   In fact, many “alternative narratives” are already available to a wide and growing audience, challenging the validity of both the casual recollections of individuals and the official narrative of events.

and:
Perpetual War for Permanent Peace
* The Carlyle Group
* Graduations & Class Reunions – Yale 1968
* Fracking the Future
The Tragic Legacy of The Class of 1968: Carbon Fuels, Catabolic Climate Collapse and the Future of the Human Prospect  
and:
* Yale Class of 1968

One feature of the last fifty years that has become abundantly apparent to the whole world is that modern industrial civilization has been hijacked by those who extract, process, refine, store, deliver and ultimately oxidize fossilized carbon as their principal source of energy.  When one considers all the associated occupations that have become supporters of this approach throughout the energy sector and in the petrochemical, pharmaceutical and defense industries it is no wonder that we have become subject to the domination of a fossil-fuel elite.  We may think we live in a democracy, but in fact America has, effectively, been hijacked by an “oiligolopy.”

It would seem that these individuals and their cheerleaders — and, indeed, a great many of our culture’s major institutions — are now irretrievably committed to the unidirectional conversion of terrestrial carbon into atmospheric carbon at a rate that has rarely ever been paralleled in the entire geological history of Earth itself.

The implications of this global transformation are truly staggering.  We have come to learn over the last fifty years that contemporary scientists now assert quite bluntly that if we wish to survive as a civilization we must transcend the institutions we have inherited and created.  We need to change direction.   The reason for this is that many of our culturally important institutions are headed in their default mode toward system-wide collapse.

Yale-50th-top-slide

The particularly disturbing and difficult aspect of this recognition is that we need urgently and quickly to learn how to transcend the institutions that we have inherited or created.  This is not something that can be accomplished easily by anyone in history — especially by those who feel they have achieved so much and are quite proud of their accomplishments.

Nevertheless, we should, perhaps, ask ourselves: What have we learned about transcending  the institutions and conflicts that we have inherited?  Don’t we run the danger of simply replicating the outlook, the grievances and the tensions we have inherited — and,  more dangerously, perhaps — institutionalizing them for generations to come?

It may well be that some kinds of transformation are possible.  In our midst, in fact, we have a remarkable example of personal transformation.

The BBC’s John Donaldson recently interviewed Pulitzer Prize winning author, Lawrence Wright, about his new book on Texas.   Wright pointed out that the state was both large and complex and not accurately summarized by its “gunslinger” cliché representation:

In his political career, however, George W. Bush chose to identify most with the customary gunslinger cliché images of Texas.  This was a remarkable achievement in its own right.  As an person who was born in New Haven as the grandson of the Governor of Connecticut and nurtured through the privileged New England schools of Phillips Andover Academy and Yale, George W. Bush has emerged, with the help of his publicists, as the quintessential symbol of a different state quite distant from his origin and upbringing.   Moreover, for eight years he and his advisors and handlers worked assiduously to represent this cliché version of Texas as the essence of America itself.   What some have called “the Jesus Factor” seems to have contributed to this conversion as well.  Who could argue that willful self-transformation is not possible in America?

If we are honest, however, we need to ask if this represents a fundamental change.  Are we individually or collectively really able to transcend the institutions that we have inherited and created?  This may not prove to be so easy, especially as we grow older and more committed to the institutions that we have sought to shape, strengthen and uphold.  Whether or not they are aware of it, faithfully replicating the mistakes of the past seems to mark a syndrome of behavior frequently found among those who think they have made a radical break with their previous circumstances.

In addition, as they grow older, some people understandably embrace and defend the institutions within which they have circulated in their careers.

“I became a confirmed institutionalist…”  (Strobe Talbott)

What other perspectives are being marginalized or ignored altogether from this “institutionalist” perspective? It may be understandable that those who are largely in charge of institutions have become “confirmed institutionalists” but what of those people or countries who have been the target of institutions like NATO or whose own institutions have been repeatedly manipulated by “outside influences?” 

“We don’t even think about what other people think. We just think about what we think. That’s the ‘exceptionalism’ of our position. We’re right. What we want counts, and we don’t even hear… what the other side is thinking.” (Oliver Stone)

In assessing the legacy of any graduating class or generation it is useful to consider what institutions they have strengthened or weakened during their time in positions of power of prominence.  They reason this is important has to do with who takes up the reigns of power when they retire from the stage.  The question is what comes of their legacy when they cede power to others — often to others from their same generation?

Bush-rushmore

As difficult as this may be to believe it turns out that the systematic abuse of state power both at home and abroad and its near total capture by private corporations may not prove to be the most shocking accomplishments or enduring legacies of the Yale Class of 1968. 

In recent years — largely under both the administrations of President Barack Obama and President Donal Trump — a much larger and seemingly irreversible  transformation of industrial civilization has taken place.  This far-reaching change has been described with great enthusiasm as a “revolution” by the internationally important participant-observer — Daniel Yergin.   Moreover,  it has now been documented with great clarity by Dutch investigative journalists.  

Because it has extended the “fossil fuel era,” the tragically myopic and delusional thinking underlying this “revolution” has built into industrial civilization an ever stronger pattern of fossil-fuel dependence for the foreseeable future. 

As the Class of 1968 considers what legacy it is leaving to its children it needs to recognize that both corporate and state institutions are now committed to the continued or expanded use of fossil-fuels well beyond the point of global ecosystem stability.  An honest “cost-accounting” of this strategy for future human fuel systems has never been undertaken.  

If an honest cost-benefit analysis is ever to be undertaken by future generations as they examine the legacy that has been left to them, it is understandable that they might well be left with an abiding sense of bitterness and betrayal toward their elders in the Class of 1968.   There is no escaping the fast that we have failed them by our inability to transcend the institutions that we have inherited and created.   

In fact, this sad failure has been emphasized again and again by the very same people we should have learned to listen to 50 years ago.

Context and background for discussion:

as well as:

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s