Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Nobody's right if everybody's wrong

By Libby
Updated below and again

It appears to be navel-gazing day among the kool kids of Blogtopia, the question of the moment, spurred by Tom Friedman's column on what's wrong with young people today. I'm reading the reactions at Kevin's place and gazing at my own 55 year old navel, as it slowly turns into an innie from an outie due to gravity and the ravages of time and it strikes me, to paraphrase the old Buffalo Springfield song I used for the title, that everybody's right and everybody's wrong.

Courtney Martin is right that her generation is just as outraged as we were. Her point is well taken that hers is the first generation to grow up under information overload but she's wrong in thinking that it was easier for us because the problems were less overwhelming. They weren't and the cost for confronting the beast was just as great then, as it is today. Perhaps more so.

Hippies died in the 60s for their political activism and I'm not just talking about Kent State. There were many places where a guy with hair over his collar could end up dead and driving down the highway in Texas in a VW van with flowers painted on it was not a safe trip. Civil rights activists were routinely murdered.

Granted, the 60s were a simpler time and it was easier to make a statement. Growing your hair long, throwing on some ratty jeans and walking down the street was enough in and of itself to announce to the world where you stood but if you were standing in the wrong place, you could easily find yourself kicked to the sidewalk in a bloody heap. And we weren't just protesting Vietnam. There was a host of social issues we fought for and won, that young people today take for granted.

When my generation came of age, you were required by societal norms to dress to a code. Your hairdo had to conform to a norm. Women were expected to aspire to no more than to be good homemakers and docile wives who produced the requisite number of children. Divorces were scandalous and unmarried cohabitation was so taboo, it was only whispered about behind closed doors. Mixed marriages could get you killed. Many male dominated professions were closed to 'respectable' single women who had to work. People of color found the doors locked altogether. There was no social safety net for the elderly and the poor.

The Vietnam war in a way was the least of our accomplishments. In fact, looking back I don't think we ended the the war. We started the national dialogue but I think that ended largely because it simply wasn't sustainable anymore. But what we did do is kick out the doors of our societal prison so this generation could enjoy the world of opportunity it does today.

The world was just as complicated then. There were foreign atrocities, corporate conglomerates, private military contracts and we had school debt, and no health insurance. Our government spied on us and put us on lists. And we didn't have the luxury of instant information or the ability to instantly communicate around the world.

We had to create our own networks and create them we did. Thousands of small presses fired up and we passed the word on from mouth to mouth and hand to hand. And that's where Friedman is right that the intertubes changed everything. We didn't have cyber-chat rooms to meet in so we were forced to engage each other on the streets and that's what is missing today. While the internet has given us the ability to communicate over wide spaces, it makes it too easy to avoid the face to face contact that forms the real human connection between us as a people.

There's not really so much difference between our generations. I think what made the 60s so unique is perhaps that we are the only generation who so completely rejected materialism in our youth. We eschewed fine clothes, fancy cars and palatial homes. We didn't crave the latest consumer goods. We lived together in shacks. We shared everything we had, even with strangers. We didn't worry about how our activism would impact our future career advancement. We accumulated our knowledge for the purpose of changing the world. We didn't care about money. We believed in the brotherhood of man and put our energy in taking care of each other.

None of this is to imply that today's youth are all craven materialists. I know and admire many young people who sacrifice their peace of mind and material interests to pursue their activism. And I don't blame anybody for being scared. I'm scared too, when I see everything I fought for in the 60s being incrementally destroyed by this administration. But I think it's a cop-out to say there's nothing you can do, so you complain to your friends for a while and then start dancing. You can't win if you don't fight, simply because you think you can't make a difference.

Update: In reading comments and re-reading the post, I'm thinking it comes off a little cranky old hippie/scolding schoolmarmish. So let me add that I'm not unaware that we boomers had certain advantages that were unique to our generation. We were the greatest in number and the first generation of prosperity and technological progress. The newly emerging media doted on us and followed our every move. It was much easier to get noticed and perhaps it was easier to feel hope because we didn't have the means to learn too much at once.

Update two: I don't think this generation has it easy. I do empathize with the burden of information saturation and the discouragement. I suffer from it myself. And I'm not suggesting that they need to adopt the ways and means of my own. A new age calls for new strategies and I don't think marching on the street and protest rallies are a particularly effective tools anymore.

But neither do I think simply oiling the machine that rolls over us or outsourcing our outrage activism to the professionals is enough. The establishment has stacked the deck and as long as they feel confident we're going to keep anteing up, they're going to keep cheating to win. We, and I mean all of us, need to change the rules of the game.

Frankly, I don't know how to do that. I was hoping the young folks would figure it out. And by the way, what are we going to call this generation, if it must have a name? Am I the only one that hates Generation Q? What is that supposed to mean anyway? I'm thinking something like Gen2.0 would work better.

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