Mind the Gap

It was probably 1982 when we had the conversation with the McMinnville school superintendent. We were reporting for the local rag, but the conversation wasn’t professional — at least not the line we still remember clearly three decades on:

“The Sixties were an aberration.”

The superintendent was in his forties, maybe fifty. We were 23.

What gave rise to the line is lost to memory, but we were probably discussing some social issue of the day. And we — personally — probably expressed some form of shock at an unpleasant turn of events: But Americans aren’t like that!

Based on our experience, of course. Which, conveniently for our perspective, began in 1959.

Our childhood — our entire life — had been spent in an America that was inexorably moving forward: the Civil Rights Act, the Moon landing, All in the Family, the Watergate hearings, Roe v. Wade, Saturday Night Live, the Equal Rights Amendment. Sure, there were setbacks, but they were easily bracketed as exceptions.

Childhood is the world you take for granted. That was ours.

But the exceptions started piling up late in the Seventies, and by November 1980 they could no longer be denied. What we probably told the superintendent was that we were shocked that America was moving backward. To which he responded that it was more like a course correction.

He wasn’t necessarily advocating for it. Just patiently explaining that our limited perspective was missing some key data.

For ten years while we were growing up — ten years that maps neatly to the development of our consciousness — there was no Death Penalty in the United States. Capital punishment was, from our peculiar perspective, inconceivable, as irrelevant as Prohibition.

And even when it came back, it was weird: An execution. By firing squad. By choice. In Utah.

After that, the other 1,267 executions have all been a blur. Until last night.

A popular conservative theme for decades has been to return America to the golden years of the speaker’s childhood. And finally, after hearing it for decades, we’re starting to understand the impulse.

Because in our childhood, America didn’t execute its own citizens.

Especially innocent ones.


Hey, let’s not be too harsh. The US only ranks #5 in terms of annual executions, trailing those bastions of personal liberty China, Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Things could be much worse if we really had our hearts in it.

Seriously, the chart shows a consistent downtrend since 2000. Even my reactionary state only has 15 people on death row and hasn’t executed anyone for the last few years. I have the hope that my kids and grandchildren will eventually look back at the period we’re in now as the real aberration to the trend that began in the Sixties.

So executions peaked under Clinton?

New Mexico ended the death penalty under Bill Richardson, who needed some liberal cred for his presidential run.

Executions stopped after Supremes outlawed all then-current death penalty laws, not because people all of a sudden saw the light. This is why Charlie Manson is still alive. Then the states found ways around the decision and the killings began again.

@Dodgerblue: Supremes didn’t outlaw the death penalty until 1972 — which surprised me, I had thought the entire ten-year gap was a SCOTUS joint before looking it up last night. So there’s five years that, for whatever reason, executions just stopped.

Which doesn’t change the practical facts: between my age 8 and 18, executions never happened. It’s a peculiar perspective, an accident of history, but it’s the world I grew up in.

I also grew up in a world where torture was inconceivable, if y’all want a more relevant example.

@nojo: Sadly, these will all be norms for my little niece who turns 4 in 2 weeks. I fear for her generation.

@rptrcub: I’ve been using that framework for years, probably starting when I realized that there were Conscious Adults who knew nothing but Reagan and Bush I.

The Fifties mean nothing to me. And you can play that forward through the Sixties, Seventies, Eighties — and now, the Nineties. Those are worlds, for significant and growing numbers of Americans, that are just history.

This reflection on the Gap is interesting. The 60s are also the America that the rest of the world remember(s/ed) – Kennedy, Food for Peace, even ‘nam. But the world is also getting increasingly younger, which means the great bulge is going to remember us only for torture, terror and iTunes.

@Nabisco: Sometimes it feels like Whoopi Goldberg when she discovers that Denise Crosby is alive and well on the alternate-timeline Enterprise: This isn’t right.

Unfortunately, we have yet to master temporal mechanics.

@nojo: I know I’ve said this ten million times, but ever since the day the Sue-preem Kort installed Dumbya, it’s like we’ve been trapped in one of those hellish alternate realities and the starship Enterprise needs to blast Dick Cheney with with about a hundred photon torpedoes to make things right.

And they also need to figure out a way to fix the timeline too.

BBC had a story on this morning about news interviewers, with Katie Couric and Piers Morgan as guests. Apparently my idea that journalists were better in the past is also an anomaly of the 1970s.

I tried to find a link for it but couldn’t. Maybe they’ll repeat it at 5 pm. It was close to the end of the hour.

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