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Civilization and Its Malcontents

Posted on May 26, 2011
Mr. Fish

By Mr. Fish

(Page 2)

Regretfully, however, after spending my entire adolescence memorizing, first, all that had inspired the ’60s enlightenment period—namely, the turn-of-the-century European and Russian intellectualism as demonstrated famously by the worldwide propagation of Marxism, psychoanalysis, existentialism, individualist anarchism, modernism, bohemianism, naturalism, realism, nihilism, agonism, futurism, decadence and absurdism—followed by a thorough examination of all the players responsible for igniting the democratizing era that ran for about 14 years known as The Sixties, I eventually came of age in a culture composed of significantly less symbiotic parts than I’d been preparing for. Gone, suddenly, was the worldwide peoples movement that had promised to socialize empathy, communalize self-reliance, intellectualize the passions of the id and to institutionalize a radical intolerance of institutions. In its stead was something that appeared to be its opposite, exemplified by such things as the war on drugs, the yuppie movement, Reaganomics and fashion trends that, like a network of completely perplexing diseases, sociologists are still wary to approach for close analysis for fear of contracting a truly virulent strain of Jan Hammer. 

Staring open-mouthed at 17 in my Buddy Holly glasses, chinstrap beard, espresso-stained insides, putrid Chuck Taylors and newsprint-smudged fingertips, I wondered what had happened to the world into which I was hoping to enter so well rehearsed. Had the idealism of the ’60s been so ethereal as to have dissipated like cherry smoke, a victim of its own weightless optimism, or had it been dismantled by the super-sizing of corporate America? Had it been forever destroyed by the massive deregulation and privatization movements begun in the 1970s and early ’80s; movements that had given unprecedented amounts of power and influence to business markets which had then in turn—by being, at their philosophical centers, nothing but private anti-democratic tyrannies capable of corrupting even the most humanely driven among us (Jerry Rubin being the most famous example) with what Lewis Lapham once referred to as “enlightened selfishness”—bribed its participants, literally, away from their ideals with the most excessively narcissistic and ego-gorging of creature comforts?

Existing both in celebration of all that was promised to my generation by the artists and writers and public intellectuals from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s and in mourning of all that the 21st century has failed to collect upon with respect to those promises, I find myself everyday straining hard against the tether of time, back toward a past that had every indication of becoming some sort of dawn for the Age of Aquarius and away from a future that more and more feels like a pre-apocalyptic dusk that pre-empts the inevitable arrival of a very brutal and very dark nighttime, and I have to ask myself: Where is one expected to direct his rage when the enemy is the turning of the whole wide world and you’re met with the agonizing realization that, no, you didn’t say you wanted a revolution?

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By Light, June 10, 2011 at 3:37 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Mr. Fish:

a) Thank you.

b) you wrote:

” celebration of all that was promised to my generation by the artists and
writers and public intellectuals from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s…”

I don’t think anything was promised, but many doors were opened and many
curtains were thrown back by the revolutionary art and thinking of the ‘50s,
‘60s, and ‘70s. The question is: How many boomers caught a full bout of
revolutionary fever and stayed with it for their entire lives? The answer to that
question may be the source of your frustration. To varying degrees, the
revolution affected many boomers in many ways. What are those solar panels I
see, what is this passive-solar home design, what is this windmill generator in
the field out the window? That is a just one sign of the revolution’s footprint:
self-sustaining off-the-grid dwellings.

I think the revolution seeped in much deeper than you are willing to admit.
What you desire is revolution on a mass scale, an overt retooling of the Earth’s
societies, in just one or two generations. What we have here is the slow ripple
effect, and I believe we can see that effect, right now, in many current social
expressions, and even in the bloody revolutionary outbursts in places like
Yemen and Syria.

I believe that the scumbags at the top of the food chain know that their days
are numbered. They know this because, during the revolution it was made clear
that the rich are pigs and that greed is evil. We all know this now, high and low,
thanks to the revolution.

The pigs will fight in many ways to maintain their doomed position. The pigs
will brainwash the citizens using propaganda and advertising. When necessary,
the pigs will kill. Citizens most deeply infused by the experience of the
revolution will quickly see through the pigs’ bullshit and call them out publicly.
But most citizens, much to your dismay, will be either subtly or overtly swayed
by the bullshit. 

The revolution, the Sixties, wasn’t the “dawn for the Age of Aquarius.” That
dawn occurred thousands of years ago, way before Christ.

Two years ago, when thousands of German citizens cheered Obama in the
streets of Berlin, they were really cheering the revolution that took place in the
USA between 1963 and 1975.

You say the immediate future “feels like a pre-apocalyptic dusk.” That is
because right now the pigs are winning.

Our revolution, the Sixties, was not Round One. Reform is an age-old battle. We
can’t escape the pendulum. But we can play our part in the ongoing revolution,
with gusto and imagination, which you have done in spades. Again, thank you.

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By Patricia Miller, June 3, 2011 at 9:14 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Cut up my dragon embroidered bell-bottoms after I finished breast feeding 30 years ago, thinking no one would ever wear such things again.  Couldn’t find a peace sign to wear in 2001 when it was desperately needed,but now Asian factory workers have created enough for every WalMart. Don’t despair, Mr. Fish, and read again, Thomas Payne and Thomas Merton. Freedom and personal responsibility.  We’re not done yet. My kids and grandkids are infiltrating the same establishment I did. Hope is not the new four letter word to them. Cynicism comes with our territory, not theirs. The misinformation campaigns out there scare me the most, so we have to speak a little louder and still longer. Combat Palinized fast food for thought with reason and logic.  Don’t let our legacy be marginalized to fashion statements from box stores and endless reunion concerts.

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By Orley Allen, May 29, 2011 at 1:37 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Dazzling overview of what’s happened. The path of excess leads to the palace of
wisdom. Take a look past the MSM blather and wonder, excessive compared to
what? The DFH majority was never as excessive as the nightmarish
neoconservative reaction our counterculture spawned. Thank you, Mr. Fish.

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By Non-Compassionate Liberal, May 29, 2011 at 11:31 am Link to this comment

@LocalHero:  Wasn’t Creation supposed to end last week?

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By LocalHero, May 29, 2011 at 11:00 am Link to this comment

I love the article but, like some others here, I have the distinct feeling that it’s overly cryptic. All is NOT lost. The Powers-That-Be know how powerful we are - the 1% that actually understands Creation and our place in it. That is why we’re seeing them holding and clamping down as hard as they are. Yes, they know their days are numbered but they don’t know any other way to react. They are, in reality, seriously, terminally mentally ill.

They won’t go quietly - and they’ll take some of us with them - but they WILL go.

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By jdukuray, May 29, 2011 at 9:38 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

This is such a brilliant article.  As others have said, it matches something I feel
deeply but have never been able to articulate so well as Mr. Fish has.  At the very
end of my 60th year, I am grateful for his effort.  Someone said the article was
overwritten.  Maybe that is how he got the feeling to ring so loud.  The only
cultural reference I had to look up was Jan Hammer.  Somehow I missed out on

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By junglejill, May 29, 2011 at 5:42 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Wake up. Things are happening all around you. What you see on TV doesn’t reflect the actions of young people, and there are numerous ways to support your beliefs by changing your lifestyle choices.

Inform yourself about the animal rights movement. You may find there’s something you can do every day to resist industrial cruelty and human indifference.

Support co-ops of organic farms, fair trade, non sweatshop products, small-owned businesses etc. You’ll find out that there are still people out there not completely disillusioned with the idea that a small group of dedicated people can change the world.

Make a personal example of energy and water conservation in your own house. Some of the most inspiring homes I’ve seen use incredibly low-tech solutions to reduce their environmental impact.

There is a lot to see in the world, as long as you don’t try to find it in an Andy Warhol painting.

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By Dennis, May 29, 2011 at 3:07 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

in the dim haze the disappearing lines between the complainer and the protester, the activist and the freedom fighter, and further down the same dark hallway, the hated and feared terrorist but whatever you call yourself along the continuum— they are watching you, your movements, your mobile chatter, your web presence or the projected algorithms of your life twenty-four-seven.  One day you have a private life, the next day a stone face mob raids your living quarters, taking with them, posters, baby pictures, flags, letters, and the guts of every electronic device in the house, anything with a memory and a mind imprint; anything you have committed to outward expression, no matter how brief, mundane, or seditious in the moment.  It seems nothing less than a willingness to commit to going up against it will do and it is a full time job.  Applications are filled out in paperless whispers. The pay is poor at best, the rewards are fleeting, and betrayal is eminent, but you may preserve your dignity, if your constitution can ward off the shadows constantly moving across the landscape of your life.

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By THX 1133 is not in the movie..., May 29, 2011 at 2:01 am Link to this comment

Oh, and I like Fishes’ musings; they have that ring of

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By THX 1133 is not in the movie..., May 29, 2011 at 1:33 am Link to this comment

gerard, May 26 at 9:22 pm
How I love this one—as a statement closer to me than
I could ever put into words!  What can we DO with
these memories?  Are they merely to waste away in the
sour grapes of wrath?
Good and accurate memories are valuable for seeing
past realities; to be used as a measure of today; and
for the goals of tomorrow.
People were kinder and the police weren’t the storm
troopers of the present, to be feared.
I’m thankful for one thing though; having been born
in ‘45, I have now seen through the Maya so carefully
woven through the many generations and I am now free
to see the real world stripped of illusion.
This frees me to live out my life knowing the choices
that are truely important.

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By MK77, May 28, 2011 at 9:51 pm Link to this comment

This article is overwritten, and it adopts the tonality and in some instances even the phrasing (e.g., “weightless”) of Lewis Lapham, with whose many excellent essays some of us are intimately familiar.

I’m also put off by all the cultural allusions and tags, the clear implication being that pop culture is somehow a realm in which meaning inheres rather than one in which it is cynically and cheaply manufactured. There is no such thing as the Age of Aquarius any more than there is such a thing as the “counter culture,” any more than there is such a creature as the deeply refined and intellectual woman of Woody Allen’s imagination. It’s all concoction and farce.

I can relate, though, to the author’s sense of loss and his apparent disgust for our vapid, selfish, atomized, and money-revering society. Life today in many respects is unbearable, and there doesn’t seem to be anything one can do about it except to withdraw from it all.

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By Peter Knopfler, May 28, 2011 at 5:41 pm Link to this comment

lightening come to mind, thought ejections.
History is JUST A MAD HOUSE, it turns over all the
stones, and it is very careful reading LEAVES YOU
” I I HAVE LITTLE NEED, AND of the little need, I
have little need “

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By prisnersdilema, May 28, 2011 at 3:35 pm Link to this comment

Luckily for me my own family stopped believing the comfortable ideologies of this
country long before I was born. Instead of religion I was given a book on the Worlds
greatest religions, at the age of 7. You may remember it. I promptly chose the picture of
a Sadu in a forest in India to dream about.  Ten years later a life long study of Yoga
would begin.  I feel thankful that I grew up then, in a time when, the ideological
underpinnings of the American society, no longer closed the minds of it’s citizens, to the
world of experience both outside, and inside. As Freud believed and wrote about in
Civilization and It’s Discontents, society cannot exist if everyone is free to do what he or
she feels like. A large part of American society seems to think just the opposite, that self
satisfaction, is ultimately the only judge of things that matter. The self has become our
God, and our guiding light, and our justification. This has led us to believe there are no
consequences to any of our actions, and a belief that we are not responsible for the rest
of humanity, or for the Earth. Reason then has become a disguise, behind which we
hide our evils. We have heaped on high our greed, and call it beautiful. But that just
means our eyes are as corrupt as our hearts. Is it any wonder then that we are ruled by
secrets, and suppression? Greed and secrecy are the same. Those that keep the
secrets are responsible, for all. Better a life in prison than an eternity in hell.

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By mrfreeze, May 28, 2011 at 12:04 pm Link to this comment

I also grew up in the 1970’s. Here’s why Mr. Fish’s observations are so visceral for me:

I grew up believing that the U.S. would learn some valuable lessons from Vietnam and that somehow the U.S. might take the lead in solving problems instead of creating them.

I grew up believing that we might someday detach ourselves from the tyranny of using fossil fuels for everything.

I grew up believing that an educated and active population was the prerequisite to a strong country.

I grew up believing that the work of all people is valuable.

Today, I feel like a stranger in a strange land. I no longer recognize us as a “country.” We have become nothing more than another Yugoslavia: a bunch of loosely connected (and often contentious) regions “united” in name only. We have become a nation’s whose national motto has devolved into “Live Rich or Die.”

I really hate what we’ve become.

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By John Poole, May 28, 2011 at 11:23 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

To JDmysticDJ:  Battles LOST= Vietnam since lessons were learned but not by
progressives (next time no draft etc.). Dope may have engendered some
enlightened thinking during that era but recreational drugs were its built in
achilles heel.

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By JDmysticDJ, May 28, 2011 at 7:40 am Link to this comment

Civilization and Its Discontented

Progress, excess, digress, in the final analysis the good was lost and the evil was retained. An idealistic discontented youth movement was infiltrated and contaminated by chronic malcontents and opportunistic reprobates.

Battles won: Civil Rights, Social Programs, an end to a horrific war, a corrupt President driven from office; short lived victories, soon rolled back by reactionaries supported by a public reaction to excess.

A magic elixir; a portal to a new world, a new world quickly contaminated by excess.

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By Lafayette, May 28, 2011 at 12:45 am Link to this comment


e2: The key (imho), is to recapture the idealism that burned inside us back then, add the wisdom that 40 years have given us

Nice imagery with words.

I think we’ve come full circle. From the hopes of a Great Society, we’ve come round to the need for a Great Society - having passed through the wilderness of the Selfish Society.

We may all have a fundamental belief in freedom, as do all peoples. But we are first a collective of individuals - where the values of the collective must prevail over that of the individual.

This past half century has seen the construction of Colossal Fortunes in the wink of an eye. But, they are of the kind that were also prevalent at the turn of the last century, that of the 20th. We called them then, the Robber Barons, as we must call them now the same.

Any nation that adulates wealth is off the right track. The true richness of a nation is in its people, in harmony, mutual respect and, above all, in dignity.

Let no person be so unfortunate as to lose their dignity - that quality of being worthy of respect embodied in their unique self-esteem.

We need not keep up with the Joneses if our values are measured internally (to our families) and not externally (to the world). Consumerism is a necessary element of any economy, since it provides employment.

But excessive materialism is of little value since it is not necessary for our well-being - which is simply a good or satisfactory condition of existence.

And happiness? Happiness has nothing whatsoever to do with either financial or material wealth. It is an emotion and like all emotions, it comes and it goes. And it comes back again, because it is ephemeral.


Aristotle: Dignity does not consist in possessing honors, but in deserving them.

Martin Luther King, Jr.: All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.

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By Non-Compassionate Liberal, May 28, 2011 at 12:15 am Link to this comment

I was born in ‘52.  I read somewhere that it was because we thought we won, so we turned our backs on politics because of its distaste—which gave “them” an opening and they took it.  I thought the corner was turned forever, but I was surprised, too.

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By Lafayette, May 27, 2011 at 11:54 pm Link to this comment


MF: the news analysis offered from “That Was the Week That Was” and “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” was often eminently more insightful than that offered from Walter Cronkite and CBS News or Bishop Sheen

Oh, I dunno.

I recall vividly a lecture of Bishop Sheen that employed this dictum:

Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Sheen did not look in the scriptures for this saying, because it is not there. It was first employed by Baron Acton, an Englishman in the 19th century.

Sheen was very well read, which was the source of his Moral Fortitude and rendered him both interesting and believable. Which is why he was popular. He gave lessons in public probity that were missing in the Sunday morning church homilies.

And is missing in the vacuous garbage that passes for political commentary in the Great Wasteland that is American TV. (And is like commercial TV around the world that must appeal to the Least Common Denominator of public interest.)


The dictum above, btw, describes very poignantly today the power struggle that typifies American politics on both the state and Federal levels.

In the highly competitive society that we have become, “winning” is THE ONLY CRITERIA worth noting. Nobody remembers who came in second.

The Rambo-ization of America, some call it. Where concoctions of notional steroids have replaced intelligent discourse.

Where, oh where, is today’s Bishop Sheen?

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By entropy2, May 27, 2011 at 8:49 pm Link to this comment

I came of age in the early 70s, always one step behind the main baby boom curve. Wanted to farm, live in a dome, generate my own energy, etc. My life path took me far afield from these hopes, but I never truly gave them up. Now, in my 50s, in the gloaming of all-dominating, all-commodifying, all-consuming state capitalism, strangely, I’m seeing possibilities once again.

The key (imho), is to recapture the idealism that burned inside us back then, add the wisdom that 40 years have given us, connect and use the tools that the masters have fashioned for our servitude to free ourselves and the generations that will come.

The lion falls…the worm rejoices.

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By Igloo, May 27, 2011 at 8:05 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

One thing is clear: the path does not point to a Renaissance.  If we can avoid another Dark Age embodied in a fascist corporate dictatorship then we might count ourselves lucky. But the signs are not hopeful to avoid that fate, which Oswald Spengler already foresaw in the 1930’s.

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By Tom Patteson, May 27, 2011 at 7:02 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The man in the hat with the pipe is looking down a toilet bowl.

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By dailyplanet, May 27, 2011 at 6:03 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The counter culture was a cultural spasm aggrandized and ultimately fueled
into prominence by the media via photo-ops and print frenzy by the likes of
Life magazine and its counterparts.

I was “the right age” during those years and while there were some sincere,
committed individuals working for substantive change, most of the activity and
preoccupations were Sex, Drugs and Rock n’ Roll. When people got tired of
partying, burnt-out, or too old to sustain the momentum…they checked into
mainstream America. One morning, in about 1973, they collectively threw away
the love beads and decided they wanted…no Needed… a Porsche.

Yes, we’re the Baby Boomers who legitimized the corporate/financial elites’
stranglehold over this country. America has by increments been relegated into
the cultural and political crapper. This is the result realized by a generation
who at the time were popularized as the avatars of a new age of enlightenment,
believed in equality of opportunity, espoused the expansion of human
consciousness, and voiced abhorrence that corruption and hypocrisy were
endemic to the public forum.

I was one of those fortunate enough to get to know Abbie Hoffman during the
early/mid 1970s. He was having a difficult time of it then, the FBI working full
time to make his life as uncomfortable as possible. He impressed me with his
intelligence, his wit and commitment. He was the real deal, a man of courage
and principle. If he’d lived to see what his generation had wrought, he would be
crying. He was man enough not to be ashamed expressing his humanity, and
enough of a realist to understand how, why and what had happened to America.

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By caped amigo, May 27, 2011 at 4:54 pm Link to this comment

Mr. Fish, your incisiveness and eloquence is awe-inspiring. You must come to
dinner some night. I need to talk with you. In the words of Zorba the Greek, a man
like you should live a thousand years.

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By NorCalChuck, May 27, 2011 at 4:30 pm Link to this comment

My fear it that even though today I recycle everything that I can, live modestly in a small house I built myself and attempt to do all of my original ideals that the motivation and thinking that got me here will be gone when I am gone.
I do not see anything, especially in our present government, both on the state and federal level that gives me mush hope.
The dominate theme seems to be more individual controls on individuals rather than individuals expressing the idea of self reliance.
I have evolved into a die hard cynic to the extent that Mr Fish’s statements from the above article do not go far enough.
I hope that I am wrong but only time will tell.

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By kerryrose, May 27, 2011 at 1:24 pm Link to this comment

I love Mr Fish today. I almost cried reading this wonderful cultural perplexity.

I remember my brother, a child of the 70’s, turning me on to Huxley, beautiful Beatle albums, poetry, and alternative theater.  I would visit him in college to watch his directorial debut as an MFA in the Iowa Playwrights Group. He even chided me for artwork that was too self-referential.  His theater space for new directors, new actors, and new playwrights on Theater Row in Manhattan (I used to work the lights) is long gone.

Last I heard my brother’s day job on Long Island has become six-figure with benefits.  Sadness for a opportunities missed culturally, politically, and personally.

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By greer, May 27, 2011 at 1:10 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The counter-culture movement is alive and well, thank you. It has simply evolved, grown up so to speak, and we are the organic farmers, teachers, counselors, businessmen and women and others who prefer doing meaning work instead of chasing the almighty buck. We continue to shop locally, raise chickens, orchards and vegetables, drive fuel efficient cars or ride bicycles, eat food from the local farmers markets,take responsibility for our own health, know our neighbors and share our time and resources with each other.  If you slow down and look around, you might see us.  We look alot like you.

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By rollzone, May 27, 2011 at 1:09 pm Link to this comment

hello. it was an age of the cosmos, come and gone. it
scared the establishment, bribed our ideals, and
squashed what has transcended into present day human
intellect. the passion for knowledge and cerebral
circle pumps; went out even before the advent of video
games. this generation of complacentents is on the eve
of peace. the establishment does not even know it.

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By adamcrazypants, May 27, 2011 at 12:44 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

plus ça change, motherfuckers

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By John Poole, May 27, 2011 at 7:41 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

It’s good to rethink the ‘60s vibe. Much of it was callow idealism so let’s not get
too “elegiac” about those distant times.  I was thinking of how powerful Buffalo
Springfield’s FOR WHAT IT’S WORTH seemed too me back then and even did a
YouTube version recently using the title followed by “ominous update”. Dark
times are ahead but the real idealists will prevail.

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By DarthMiffy, May 27, 2011 at 2:06 am Link to this comment

With you on this one, Gerard. Myself, I’ve been wondering if my
memories of the past were simply the usual, “Back In My Day…”
nonsense, or if there really WAS something more glorious from the
early days of my life that has indeed passed into legend. Certainly the
future looks like the final testing zone for humanity, and the results
are not looking promising. NPR, for instance, as “radio news”. Ugh.

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By gerard, May 26, 2011 at 9:22 pm Link to this comment

How I love this one—as a statement closer to me than I could ever put into words!  What can we DO with these memories?  Are they merely to waste away in the sour grapes of wrath?

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