From my perspective, what was good about those days is that people respected other people's opinions. They disagreed - but they agreed to disagree. It was not a Gentleman's sport by any stretch of imagination; those on one side tried to outmaneuver those on the other side - but attacks on ideas or people were not so vitriolic as what we see today. Hate of "the other" today sometimes obscures the fact that "the other" is also us.
In those bygone days, people recognized that underlying the differences of opinion there was a fundamental agreement on the rules of the game. If they disagreed on Health care, they agreed on the right to disagree and the free market of ideas. Universities went out of their way to present competing positions to stimulate a free discussion among the students; Professors were careful to present even the ideas they disagreed with.
In today's world, many College Professors see their tenure as a license to indoctrinate their students and explain to them why they should think the way they (the professors) do, using grades as leverage leverage to make it stick. Proposed pieces of legislation are portraited as "the second coming" or "the Devil incarnated", depending whether you're listening to those defending or opposing the legislation. People with ideas which do not fit what others believe is "the right way to think" are banned from presenting those ideas. All this in the name of Freedom, Human Rights and the American Way.
I grew up in Argentina and attended College during the years of the military Dictatorship. I earned my Master in Education at a private University where I paid the tuition by working during the day and attending classes at night. I could have attended the University of Buenos Aires, a prestigious State-run College which is free to all Argentineans. That would have meant to study Psychology without Freud, Sociology without Weber, Political economy without Marx and Anthropology without Margaret Mead. All those scientists were deemed to be "subversives" because they presented a way to look at the world which was different from that supported by those in power. I witnessed the impoverishment of the Argentinan intellectual scene during those years.
When Democracy returned to Argentina, the free exchange of ideas became the norm once more...for a brief period, soon to be replaced by censorship not from the right, but from the so-called left - all in the name of Freedom, Human Rights and the Argentinan way.
What prompted this disgression of mine?. Following the news, of course. Over the past couple of years, we saw a wave of change sweeping through the Arab world; dictators being deposed and popular governments put in place. Many hurried to call it "the Arab Spring" and even the "Arab Democratic Revolution". Elections were held, and people called it Democracy. But we know that elections by themselves are hardly Democracy. While elections are a good start, Democracy means the rule of a majority with respect for the rights of the minorities, whether those minorities are religious, ethnic or even political. Democracy is a system where the individual citizen can freely question the government's policies.
The so-called "Arab Spring" formally started when a street vendor in Tunizia immolated himself in protest becoming a symbol for those seeking change. The decisive impulse for that movement, however, was according to most analysts the fall of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt - arguably the most influential of Arab countries since the days of the Nasserite Revolution in 1952. Yet look at Egypt today: the freely elected President Mohammed Morsi grabbed powers bordering in Dictatorial and he's attempting to impose his poltical views on the Egyptian people who brought him to power. The proposed Egyptian Constitution opens the door for the imposition of Sharia over Muslims as well as non Muslims, giving Islam a privileged position in the "New Egypt".
The rebels in Syria continue to fight the troops loyal to Syrian dictator Bashar Al Assad, but a growing body of evidence points to the fact that Islamists groups from outside Syria are already hijacking the rebellion.
I remember the days when the ideal of "The new Man" (today we would say "the New Individual") was a free thinker unfettered by dogmatism, with an inquisitive mind to look into the facts and make up his (or her) own mind. One of the most popular people in those days was Ernesto "Che" Guevara De la Serna, the Argentinean revolutionary who joined forces with Castro to depose Batista in Cuba. It was not necessary to agree with his political or ideological leanings or even his methods to understand the appeal of the "Che"...for better or for worse, he embodied for many the ideals of the Free Thinker.
And today in the American Congress, the very cradle of the idea of "the new man", both sides of the aisle appear more interested in holding dear to their respective ideological dogmas than to reach an agreement and spare the American people the embarassment and pain of a fiscal cliff.
In many ways, our "days" today are better than they were. In a superficial analysis, we are better off materially and formally. But the inner quest for self-definition and self-improvement it does not longer seem to be the dominant force. Popularity seems to be more important than ability and meritocracy seems to take second row to favoritism.
We need an "American Spring" that will revive and reinforce the principles that made America a model around the world. A society where informing is not indoctrinating, where education does not involve selective censorship, where (in the words of Mr Spock of Star Trek fame) the needs of the many outweight the needs of the few, but the needs of the few are still taken into account. We need to recover the Free Market of Ideas which made America great.
As somebody who lived through "the dark side" of politics growing up, and who chose to join the American quest for a just society, I feel strongly that we need to listen to all sides with an open mind and with our eyes on the facts. Justice cannot exist without Truth, and Truth cannot survive without Freedom. These are my two cents, for whatever they are worth.