When I was a kid the whole nation didn’t ping off of a news cycle like a pinball, flashing lights, ringing bells and ultimately dying away to await the next drop of the coins. A global disaster like Fukushima, for instance, would take center court, followed up by careful tracking of the radioactive flotsam that arrived recently in Alaska, along with aggressive handling of the continued cover-up of a nuclear accident worse than Chernobyl. Have you heard about Fukushima lately? Me, neither. Yesterday’s news.
Last year’s environmental disaster, the Gulf oil spill, has been in the news lately, but less because of the eyeless shrimp and sickly children of the region than because of charges filed against a BP scapegoat on the eve of its anniversary. How quickly we forget, when there’s always a new disaster on the horizon!
I grew up in a different time, of course. That was when newscasters wagered their good names on accuracy, not a pitch for ratings. That was when a political assessment from the lips of a Walter Cronkite or an Eric Sevareid mattered, and we never doubted its veracity. Now we are treated to truthiness and infotainment with panels of pundits holding forth, or — in the case of FOX News — cranky old ideologues shouting over one another, moderated by some young thing, in an unending loop of 24/7 chatter. This is insult to much of the nation’s intelligence, but for those who prefer to have someone else do their thinking for them, it’s as comfortable as old television reruns where Pa is still in charge at the Ponderosa, Archie still insults Meathead, and Lucy and Ricky still sleep in single beds. That an entire cross-section of our political spectrum takes pride in this choice of anti-intellectualism is both a sign of our times and a tragedy.
It’s a blessing that we live in a wired world, then, able to get to other news options, since the American press is little but for-profit obfuscation disguised as debate. And because it no longer challenges those in the spotlight, it too often serves as an active source of disinformation. (As I write this, John Boehner is on CNN, pounding the podium and yelping that the ‘War on Women’ was “entirely created by my colleagues across the aisle for political gain.” Pundits chatter, tit for tat, back and forth, furthering the preposterous meme that each side has equally radicalized — a stunningly false equivalency — to go at one another with dirty tricks. If anyone thinks politics is NOT performance art, they need to watch this clip, so absurdly calculated that it deserves a spit-take.)
I have a standing argument with my dear neighbor, Fishin’ Jim, about human nature. When I grouse and growl about our loss of civility, the growing abuse of the penal and legal systems, the bald-face lying of the political class, the mis-steps of our educational system, he tells me that it’s always been that way. I disagree. I cite the period after the Big War, fostered by the policies of FDR and furthered by the GI Bill and labor movement that gave us the broadest, most secure middle class we’d ever enjoyed. We came to expect that government provided for the common good, that political checks and balances offered an umbrella of safeguards against fraud and mischief that protected consumers, that the citizens of a strong, young nation were involved in the creation of a democratic social experiment destined to set new standards for the world. If it proved only a brief, bright spot in American history, at least it set a precedent for the generations to come.
And if that period was just an uneasy truce against the darker forces of patriarchy and plutocracy, then we were well served by having such an experience of stability and national confidence. Those young ones with the courage to march against the establishment in the 1960s were a product not only of a constitution that provided their right of dissent, but also an expectation that the nation would eventually respond to their numbers and vision. When we lost our icons — Jack, Martin, Bobby, Malcolm — we stumbled on our inability to hinder hatred. Our tattered idealism finally fell apart watching a retreating Dick Nixon flash a V for victory before stepping into a waiting chopper to whisk him out of harm’s way, and thanks to a bumbling Jerry Ford, away from accountability.
It was then that this next leg of the journey began to gel — the cynicism that replaced determination, the self-interest that trumped common interest and concern. And here’s where we went wrong: we knew we were letting go of our highest aspirations in favor of a pragmatism we chose to think of as maturity, but we didn’t foresee that “we” were the foot soldiers of government, propelling it forward in our own image. Aided and abetted by international captains of industry and ambitious political movers and shakers, we came to think of our philosophical exceptionalism as one of privilege and wealth alone and threw ourselves into the game of “getting.” We didn’t think too hard about that. With apology to our newest generations, we didn’t think too hard about anything in those days.
With the end of regulations and oversight, of educational standards and journalistic integrity, and with an out-of-control military industrial complex, it’s no wonder that the population began to believe government to be lethargic and bloated, an ailing monster on an IV drip of tax flow, unable to cope with the simplest issues, and Republican presidents, opposed to governance, have spent thirty years doing everything in their power to prove it true. What we fail to understand on the right is that the American dream is as much about the benign leverage of federal power to do well by its citizens — providing for a thriving workforce, diverse citizenry and equal opportunity — as it is about owning a home, sending the kids to college and securing retirement.
What we all seem to ignore is that unfettered capitalism scavenges everything in sight, and after more than a decade of sucking the lifeblood out of a plundered globe, it has now turned its greedy eyes home, to finish off what’s left of its host. We have a dilemma. We can either throw up our hands and wait for the asteroid that’s coming to pound us into tomorrow [sic] or stand up against the mindless machinery that seeks to exploit us further. If we are to recreate the American dream as a sustainable, realistic vision for ourselves and our children, we can’t escape the fact that we will all — old and young — have to participate in the politics that ensure it.
If you’re under thirty, reading this, you will probably miss the poignancy of all we’ve lost in order to come to this turning point, and I don’t know how to give you a taste of that. You’ve come to expect a world of random violence, slippery business practice and stranger-danger. You’ve been raised up in confusion, schooled by opinion, distracted by clever PR and force-fed propaganda, and although that was also true of the generations proceeding yours, the dark distillation of a dysfunctional press abrogating its duty to the public is your karmic load. You are one of the Millennial generation — the ME generation — and frankly, it’s surprising how well you’re doing, given the particulars; but then, us old weed-pullers and way-showers have been waiting for you to show up and bring the future with you. According to Pew Research Center, you are upbeat, liberal and open to change — and considering all the anxiety and nonsense we’ve been through in recent years, all I can do is admire you and be grateful that you showed up just in the nick of time!
If we were destined to deal with the darker forces within ourselves, then all that’s happened in your lifetime has created the perfect Petri dish of bubbling ooze to get ‘er done. Family appears to be important to you, perhaps because many of you are from single-parent situations. And if you’re confused about relationships, I’ll admit that we haven’t done much to help you with that, reinforcing the wisdom that “Do as I say, not as I do” is a cosmic joke. Many of you have graduated from college, risking your future on big education costs, and now half of you can’t find work; we can’t do much to help with that either, except to make sure you’ve got a port in the storm. One out of eight of you is living with your folks. You respect your elders and admire their work ethic, thinking yours will not measure up: relax, you’re not there yet, you’ll get a chance. You’re less religious, more socially-networked and more ethnic and diverse than the other generations, and — best of all — you also seem to have a tad more compassion than those who came before you.
There are somewhere in the neighborhood of 50+ million members of the Millennial generation — age 18 to 29 — out there, and you are the most educated (likely because of failure to find jobs) and the most tolerant among the generations. You don’t have issues with race or gender, nor do you mistrust government; in fact — surprisingly — you have expectations that government will assist you. That is certainly the government the liberals would like to create for you, for all of us; that’s surely the government you must help us rebuild.
You supported Obama by big numbers, and, like many of us, you’re disappointed in how all that promise turned out. Take a moment to examine the virtual straitjacket this president, and this nation, have been wrapped in for the last few years. You appear, like Obama, to be cautious types, but fair. In the coming election, he will need every vote he can get to keep his presidency. And while young and old are disenchanted with the system, we can pretend that there is no difference between the political parties when it comes to the clout of big bucks, but it isn’t the left that is gleefully shoveling money and promises of more into the mouth of the corporate monolith. It isn’t the liberal party that wants to put school kids back into the workforce and throw Grandma off food stamps. And, if Romney is to be believed, it isn’t the Dems who want to start another war in the Mid-east, capitalizing on the traditional method to define a presidency and kick-start a flagging economy.
I’m hopeful about your future, you young ones, just as I’m hopeful about mine. Before this extraordinary year of 2012 finishes, I expect to see major changes in the way people look at this culture, this nation, this world. I don’t know how that will happen. I know how it COULD happen: if we all got a good, clear look at the inner machination of the shadow government. If the truth about 9-11 came crawling out of the can of worms, the details so obvious that nobody could look away, every one of us would have to deal with the kind of manipulations that marked not just your generation’s ability to trust the future, but everyone’s. If the messy, nasty truth of much of the American military footprint showed itself so evident that not one of us could continue to approve its darker dealings, if the inner sanctum of the moneyed class was suddenly exposed to the millions who manage their lives on the crumbs of the social contract, everything would look different in a flash.
Yes, surprises, and not just from whistleblowers but from an unexpected organic explosion of the information glut, some cosmic exposé that can’t be sidestepped no matter how hard we try. That would change the world. All of us, together — the Boomers, the occasional open-minded Pluto in Cancer folk (sometimes called the Silent Generation,) the Gen-X-ers and you — we’ve got our work in front of us. Maybe you can teach us how to let go of our cynicism, and we’ll teach you how to put fire in your belly for the kind of balanced nation we remember. Perhaps together, we will usher in justice, compassion and a new beginning. Here, at the end of an era, we find ourselves together — and that, kiddo, is what “family” is all about!