Man and Woman of the Year: The Middle Americans

  • Share
  • Read Later

(8 of 11)

teeters on the edge of a different fear: What if all that death and maiming were to amount to little or nothing, if so much sacrifice made no real difference to Southeast Asia, to the containment of Communism? American sons keep coming homeward in zippered plastic body bags, and a sizable percentage of Americans tell the pollsters that they believe Viet Nam will eventually turn Communist in any case.

MORALS. When their own children desert to the "counterculture" and in effect become strangers, Middle Americans say in bewilderment, "Either we neglected them or we spoiled them." A surprisingly large number of Middle Americans attribute the weakening of the family structures to the fact that so many mothers have gone to work. In the youthful disrespect for American institutions they see reflected the breakdown of their own parental authority, although a great many still control their children and command their respect.

The proliferation of drugs seems to the Middle American an apt metaphor for his sense that American life has grown contaminated. The spectacle of Woodstock—quite apart from the nudity and the mess—was offensive to Middle America because it seemed that everyone was dropping something or smoking something and the police stood by and watched. At the same time, the widespread use of marijuana, sometimes by their own children, is leading many Middle Americans toward a bit more sophistication, an ability to distinguish between the use of pot and harder drugs. For some months of his presidency, the distinction seemed lost on Nixon and his Justice Department, whose crackdown on marijuana induced a pot famine and sent many of the young to amphetamines, barbiturates and other more serious drugs. Said Abbie Hoffman with typical hyperbole: "Richard Nixon was becoming the biggest pill pusher of them all." At a White House conference on narcotics in December, Nixon confessed: "I thought that the answer was simply enforce the law. But when you're talking about 14-year-olds and 15-year-olds, the answer is information. The answer is understanding."

INFLATION. Treadmill inflation has betrayed Middle Americans' faith in the work ethic; American affluence seems infinitely expandable, all right, but prices expand just as rapidly, or more so. Last year, despite his wage increases, the average American worker barely broke even in actual buying power. Inflation has a profound psychological as well as material importance, for it stacks the deck against the old American gamble. The nation has always bet—with extraordinary diligence, skill and luck —that the promise of opportunity could be redeemed, that the nation's natural fertility would justify the values of hard work and individualism. Now many of the Middle Americans, who have banked on the work ethic, find themselves in a losing streak with a loser's psychology.

This feeling is reinforced by an all-round frustration. "Nothing seems to work properly any more," says Political Analyst William Pfaff. "Industry makes cheap goods but wrecks the landscape and pollutes the air and rivers. Technocrats tell us all problems are soluble, but their submarines sink at the dock and scientific administrators spill nerve gas onto grazing lands and then lie about it. Bureaucracies make the system function, but they meddle in private lives."

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3
  4. 4
  5. 5
  6. 6
  7. 7
  8. 8
  9. 9
  10. 10
  11. 11