Let me continue with my thoughts about generational change and conflict which was itself a continuation of my thoughts about the Ku Klux Klan and the Lost Generation. This is one of those topics that gets caught in my craw.
I had two basic thoughts in response to what I’ve already written.
First, I was considering what it is that form’s a generation’s worldview. It is a confluence of events. There are cycles that seem to endlessly repeat (or, if not precise cycles, history does rhyme to an impressive degree). Still, no generation is ever the same as what came before. There is a unique moment in time, an era of childhood, a beginning point that forever shapes the collective mindset of an entire generation (at least within a single country and, increasingly so, within the larger world during this new era of globalized mass media).
Second, I was considering the present older generation and why it is so easy to see them as stalling progress. The situation we find ourselves in is somewhere between a stalemate and outright dysfunction. As a society, we can’t seem to resolve the simplest of issues, much less move forward in a productive fashion. This becomes increasingly relevant as my generation and the next takes on the reigns of power.
The first thought leads into the second.
So, about the first thought.
As I explained with the KKK post, it isn’t as if the members of the KKK (the ‘Klansmen’) were evil incarnate. Most of them were normal people doing normal things. The Second KKK in the 1920s was mostly a civic organization. Yes, it was a racist civic organization, but so were many others. Back then, especially among older whites, you would have been outside the norm to not have been racist.
Klansmen probably wouldn’t even have thought of themselves as racists. Most people don’t define themselves in terms of negatives. Racism was just the cultural background they were born into. It was the world of their childhood.
Childhood is that time of key formative experiences. It creates what we consider normal and acceptable. It is what we look back upon often with fondness and sometimes with righteousness. Even if our childhoods were bad, it is easy for people to not understand why younger generations should have easier childhoods that will make them soft and weak. Whatever the case, we don’t tend to be very objective and neutral about our childhoods.
I just finished listening to the audiobook version of Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine:
“a 1957 novel by Ray Bradbury, taking place in the summer of 1928 in the fictional town of Green Town, Illinois, based upon Bradbury’s childhood home of Waukegan, Illinois. [ . . . ] The main character of the story is Douglas Spaulding, a 12-year-old boy loosely patterned after Bradbury. Most of the book is focused upon the routines of small-town America, and the simple joys of yesterday.”
Bradbury would only have been 8 years old in 1928, but the fictionalized boy was 12. That is a mythical number of a complete cycle such as 12 months. In the child’s world, life revolves around summer. The end of summer in the novel is symbolic of the end of childhood with the last moment of childhood at age twelve. That last moment of childhood is the end of one period of life and the beginning of another, the ending of elementary school and the halfway point of primary education, halfway point on the way to full adulthood.
Many stories focus on this magical time of life, this point of transition. Stand by Me begins with the voiceover, “I was 12 going on 13 the first time I saw a dead human being.” Like Dandelion Wine, this is a story about the ending of childhood and the emergence of adult awareness which is most poignantly made known through death. 12 and Holding is yet another story about the dual themes of age 12 and death.
Maybe one can tell a lot about an individual or a generation in considering what the world was like when they were twelve.
For example, Reagan was twelve in 1923. That is that same quiet period as the setting of Dandelion Wine. It was the 1920s, a carefree time following the end of WWI and before the beginning of the Great Depression. I’m sure Bradbury used 1928 as signifying that innocent moment prior to 1929. The whole country was innocent. WWI would have seemed like an anomaly and anyway it was a war far away that never had much directly to do with the United States, especially for a child who would have had no memory of it at all. WWII and the Cold War were a long way off in the future.
Both Reagan and Bradbury remember childhoods during the 1920s in small towns in Illinois. Reagan considered that to be a formative period of his life. His home at age twelve supposedly is the only house he mentions in any of his books. The 1920s was a time of peace and optimism. Magnified by the memories of a pleasant childhood, Reagan carried that sensibility into his adulthood. And it was that sunny optimism that made him so popular.
Reagan spent his childhood going to school. Many of the Lost Generation, instead of schooling, spent their childhoods working whatever jobs they could find. Unlike Reagan and his cohort, the Lost Generation had less of a childhood to reminisce about. Spending age twelve in a factory or a mine would give you a different worldview for the rest of your life. The Lost Generation was unique in this way. Even the generation before them didn’t have this experience for, in their childhoods, they didn’t know mass urbanization and mass industrialization. So, neither the generation before nor the generation following could understand what the Lost Generation had lived.
Similarly, although to less extremes, Generation X had a relatively difficult childhood and young adulthood.
At age 12, the Cold War was still going on and the oppressive Cold War culture (e.g., comic book codes). As I’ve often pointed out, GenXers childhood was unique in many ways. We were the most aborted generation ever and so a small generation between two large generations. In childhood going on into young adulthood, my generation experienced high rates of poverty, child abuse, homicide, suicide and unemployment. When we were young, society stopped being oriented toward and accommodating of children. Restaurants became less welcoming of young families and less tolerant of the antics of children. Very little entertainment was made for kids and plenty of entertainment was made about evil and possessed children, rebellious and violent teens, and nihilistic and self-destructive young adults.
When most Americans were experiencing economic good times, there were two specific demographics that were hit hard in the last decades of the 20th century: GenXers and blacks. Both demographics experienced high rates of unemployment, poverty, homelessness, and incarceration. If you were a GenX black, it would have felt like the whole world was against you for everyone would have seen you as nothing but a gangsta and a drug dealer. The GenX black was the ultimate scapegoat of our society.
At age 12, GenXers saw a cynical age of greed, oppression and ignorance. That is what many in my generation came to expect as normal, just the way the world is. As a small generation, it didn’t feel like there was much we could do about it. Many of my generation embraced this worldview and so we became the generation with the highest support of Reagan. Cynical realpolitik and Wall Street greed seemed to be the name of the game. We put a very different spin on Reagan’s optimism, though, for we were better able to see through it. Optimism simply meant survival of the fittest and fuck the downtrodden. A not very nice ideal, but nice ideals were for wimpy flower children of the ’60s. That is what we learned from Alex P. Keaton from Family Ties.
That is the sad result of my generation. We played the game that was presented us, but not all of us wanted to play that game. The only other choice was to drop out entirely or at least psychologically. The advantage my generation has had is that many of us always knew it was bullshit. We never swallowed the lies to as great an extent as the older generation. Reagan actually believed what he said, an actor who became the role he played: first a cowboy, then a corporate spokesperson, and then a politician. His optimism was self-delusion. My generation at least had the sense to realize that there were alternative viewpoints.
Still, it will require a more demanding vision of the generation following mine to have a chance in hell of challenging the 20th century status quo that now bleeds into this new century. GenXers are too mired in the Boomer worldview that has dominated our entire lives, especially for older GenXers. We are more a generation of doomsaying prophets than inspiring visionaries. The main thing my generation can do is to starkly portray and grimly explain the reasons we got here. I’m part of a generation of clowns for only clowns can speak the truth, not that speaking the truth is a requirement of being a clown.
In my second to last post (of which this post is a continuation), I somewhat simplistically implied that it was Boomers were mucking up the work. To be fair, as explained above, older GenXers are also to blame. Some would even see older GenXers as part of the older generation now ruling politics, rather than as being of the same generation as younger GenXers:
“If Mannheim’s Germans constituted a political generation because in their plastic years they experienced the Napoleonic Wars, the men and women who today dominate American politics constitute a political generation because during their plastic years they experienced some part of the Reagan-Clinton era. That era lasted a long time. If you are in your late 50s, you are probably too young to remember the high tide of Kennedy-Johnson big government liberalism. You came of age during its collapse, a collapse that culminated with the defeat of Jimmy Carter. Then you watched Reagan rewrite America’s political rules. If you are in your early 40s, you may have caught the tail end of Reagan. But even if you didn’t, you were shaped by Clinton, who maneuvered within the constraints Reagan had built. To pollsters, a late 50-something is a Baby Boomer and an early 40-something is a Gen-Xer. But in Mannheim’s terms, they constitute a single generation because no great disruption in American politics divides them. They came of age as Reagan defined a new political era and Clinton ratified it. And as a rule, they play out their political struggles between the ideological poles that Reagan and Clinton set out.”
That fits some of my experience. All of history is continuous. Disruptions are perceived which depends on the experience of those perceiving. If generations exist, it is because they share a common perception of historical events. Simply sharing the same historical period would not be enough.
However you dice the generations, the older demographic dominating politics has been creating dysfunction. I think we can all agree on that much.
So, why are the older folk mucking up the works?
It’s not just that there was a baby boom. No doubt we are experiencing the slow digestion of the elephant in the python, but there is more to it. An elephant, of course, is a difficult thing for a python to digest. More importantly, why does the elephant keep struggling so much in the process? The elephant in question obviously doesn’t want to be digested and is far from giving up the ghost.
This older generation isn’t simply in the way of progress. More specifically, this older generation is resisting progress and reacting to it, fighting it tooth and nail. They’d rather shut down the government than have an honest discussion about our collective problems. It isn’t even as if they are genuinely against government as government grew bigger under their watch than ever before.
There is a lot going on with that generation. They were a more monocultural and whiter demographic. As I’ve pointed out before, they were born at the lowest point of immigration in the 20th century and I’m not sure when it had last been that low. The conflict they grew up with wasn’t between natives and immigrants but between American whites and American blacks, especially between whites from the Northern states and blacks from the Southern states. Still, even between whites and blacks, there was a sense that the country was progressing to some extent, even though less quickly for blacks.
This generation couldn’t understand what followed nor sympathize with those who were negatively impacted. This is why many older blacks also came to support tough on crime laws and the War on Drugs, despite the fact that blacks were being harmed by it and black communities were being destroyed because of it. These older people remembered a world that no longer was and they couldn’t understand why it couldn’t remain that way. They had to blame someone. The young were one useful target, young blacks being one of the best targets of all. This is why someone like Bill Cosby can say idiotic things about poor black people.
It’s also a class thing. The economic divide didn’t just grow between whites and blacks. It also grew within the races. The middle and upper class blacks found themselves disconnected from the experience of most blacks. You would think not being accepted into mainstream white society would make older and well off blacks sympathetic to the plight of young blacks, but apparently that often isn’t the case. The power of a generational worldview can be even greater than the solidarity of race, especially for blacks who never were the exemplaries of solidarity as were the Germans, Irish and Italians.
The younger generation in general and minorities in particular, who have been hit hardest by mass incarceration, don’t receive much sympathy. Their lives have been destroyed. In response, their families and communities offer them nothing but shame. The Civil Rights movement was never good about helping the worst off among blacks.
As mass incarceration continues, a new generation is growing up either incarcerated or with the fear of incarceration. Even if not incarceration, society is offering them little to hope for. GenXers were at that magical age of twelve when all this began. Millennials at age twelve saw it continuing. Now a new generation will be coming to that age in a few years and likely it isn’t going to end anytime soon. The event of 9/11 was simply used as justification for more of the same and worse still. We will have several generations who knew nothing but a police state ever increasing in its oppression.
When will a new generation come along who will be able to fondly remember the age of 12 as a time of peace and optimism?