Sunday, July 20, 2008

The not-so-great generation

New York Times Op-Ed columnist Bob Herbert urges us to take Al Gore seriously, the way we took JFK seriously when he said we should shoot for the moon. But Herbert notes that a spirit of inadequacy, dependence and apathy seems to have stolen our resolve and our capacity to respond to inspiration where it is needed and when it comes. Don't you know that in so big and diverse a nation, there is always someone who is saying the right things? The question is, who is listening?

In Herbert's view, one I largely share, the nation is stuck in the conventional belief that we Americans just won't and may even think we can't make do without petroleum in earth-parching quantities. Perhaps we should do to the car company ad campaigns what we did to the tobacco company ad campaigns...we are after all a very suggestible population.

Herbert asks but does not quite answer this question:

The correct response to Mr. Gore’s proposal would be a rush to figure out ways to make it happen. Don’t hold your breath.

When exactly was it that the U.S. became a can’t-do society? It wasn’t at the very beginning when 13 ragamuffin colonies went to war against the world’s mightiest empire. It wasn’t during World War II when Japan and Nazi Germany had to be fought simultaneously. It wasn’t in the postwar period that gave us the Marshall Plan and a robust G.I. Bill and the interstate highway system and the space program and the civil rights movement and the women’s movement and the greatest society the world had ever known.

When was it?

Now we can’t even lift New Orleans off its knees.

But he does confirm that that sense of helplessness is more substantial than mere perception by a few liberals like myself:

Americans are extremely anxious at the moment, and I think part of it has to do with a deeply unsettling feeling that the nation may not be up to the tremendous challenges it is facing. A recent poll by the Rockefeller Foundation and Time magazine that focused on economic issues found a deep pessimism running through respondents.

According to Margot Brandenburg, an official with the foundation, nearly half of 18- to 29-year-olds “feel that America’s best days are in the past."

Well, I have my suspicions. And unfortunately, my generalizations don't sound any more tolerant or aware than Mike Savage's. In a word, I have to blame my own generation, the so-called Baby Boomers. We were the most privileged and pampered cohort...and one of the largest economic forces...in human history. We quickly took for granted our ease and the historical aberration of having resources that cost a tiny fraction of our incomes. We came to act as if this accident of prosperity were our earned entitlement. When? It is hard to say because it creeps up on us as we grow accustomed to ease. The relative fossilizes into the absolute. The phase becomes the norm and expectation. I share the view that it was that coddled mindset, unconsciously wincing at the vicissitudes of age and the clamoring third world, that quietly betrayed its future and its fleeting '60s values. We did not grow soft suddenly, but by turning from the dogged do-good morality of Jimmy Carter to the comfortable twaddle of Ronald Reagan, we marked a point of testing when we came up against something hard to do. Reagan was too simple to be the cause of anything. He was the symptom.

While the "greatest generation" had worked hard and suffered to bring us to the height of what was in fact a very unbalanced advantage:

  • so far ahead of the undeveloped world we could buy them out
  • so unscathed relative to the European countries that we could buy cars and dishwashers while helping fund their reconstruction of ruined cities and factories,

It is also true that America's decades of apparent ascendancy carried two distinct messages around the world:

  1. We seemed to have found some key to prosperity and lived a desirably luxurious life
  2. We took our prosperity as a mark of our superiority in every other measure you can make of a people.
We are the same kind of people that our parents were but that is the problem: we are just human. It is in our natures to take good times for granted but to find the virtue in hard work and sparing use of our supplies only when hardship enforces the lesson. The mental frameworks and illusions in which we dress our times and circumstances allow us to think or preclude our thinking in constructive ways about what is coming at us on the path of history. That path, some of us need to be told, is on the earth. The extent to which the sun, the water and the dirt have yielded the goods we commanded in our heyday is still largely unacknowledged in the daily media bombardment that has become so prominent a part of our experience. There was no profit in objectivity in the short run. In the long run, we are finding out we may not be so long running as our lulled and conceited self esteem would like to believe. I suspect that on a psychological level, the baby boomers simply never had to face the massive uncertainties and discomforts of the generation that endured a massive depression and fought an overt and hateful fascism all at once. Our willingness to deal with uncertainty has atrophied. We leave it to the children of the baby boom to relearn this strength.

They too are human. They can do this.

6 comments:

Davo said...

Um; are you,as am i - getting to the stage where one thinks 'oh shit, am too old for this'.

Passion does not always belong to the young.

Davo said...

Am writing this 'cos have paid for another 12 hours of internet access.

Have no idea where political passion goes my friend, do we need to transmit it to the younger generation? I have no children to 'manipulate', never decided to be a 'teacher' .. there are very few young people in this country with fire in their belly - though there are the encouraging few. Have we succeeded too well? Given the next generation a far too 'comfortable' life?

Will the coming difficulties be too much for them? Hope not, and for some strange reason .. still have faith in them ..

Davo said...

.. but the worldwide political climate HAS changed, America is NOT at the centre of the Universe - it never was.. despite the hoo har and pumped up fantasy bullshit. Perhaps the young people of America are slowly discovering where their place in world truly is .. ?

Davo said...

.. though have to say that the extreme display by one of the American swimmers was particularly ugly and distasteful; to me, and probably the Chinese. Not guaranteed to win friends and influence anybody.

GreenSmile said...

regarding the american generation that is comming into its own and soon to take the reins and voting booths:
Do I think they are a little wiser than their elders about their nation's place in the world? Yes, many of them are but the rest are voting for McCain. There is a whole class of humans who are happier with a lie if its comforting.

A passion for complaining is a good thing to lose...and mine is definitely AWOL of late. When I get my foundation laid for a life in the era of the post-imperial America in which we actually now live, I will have more time to chat it up on my blogs.

Right now, Davo, I find I am not only repeating myself when I bitch about the war mongers, the kowtowing to corporations who care not for our futures less than they would for a spoon full of rat droppings and the near universal waste of dwindling resources by bloated populations...I am repeating the words and thoughts of many others. I despair of changing any minds to avert slow-onset disasters so I have shifted gears to making a kind of ark in which I and mine can weather the storms I see coming.

With a little luck, I will live long enough and go far enough in my little low-tech march to the left that I can return to the internet to blog a how-to manual.

In about two generations, far more of us will distrust the empty schemes of prosperity built on the rape of nature. "Simple" lives will become a virtue after they have become a necessity...that is the nature of our particular family of apes.

Davo said...

G, In about two generations, far more of us will distrust the empty schemes ...

The "Great Depression" came and went, few learned, but some remembered ..
All that some of us can do is hunker down and figure out how to survive .. heh.