Address to the Class of 1969
February 2003 & May 2008
When I was a grad student in Montana, I used to receive several free national campus magazines. As I remember, I got what I paid for; they were usually mostly advertisements or sophomoric cartoons. Yet one type of article remains fixed in my mind where the writers lamented how the students of today lack the convictions of their parents in participating in campus activism or social issues. Why, it asked, are students too apathetic to fight for the issues which the previous generation did?
Implicit in this writer's tone were two attitudes I found jarring. First, it was the writer's unspoken assumption that challenging social norms and campus activism are the proper and normative state for university students, and that those who do not take up the banner are somehow shirking. This activism is not generally the case historically. After World War II, North American veterans received lavish endowments to attend college, and few were inclined to bite the hand that fed them. Other than occasional battles between student guilds and Cambridge townspeople in the middle ages, western university students were usually children of privilege who were there to continue their place in society, not to upset the apple cart. The baby boomers were unusual in their campaign against the status quo; and, as usual, those from that generation use their experience as a yardstick to judge all others by.
Second, I was annoyed that only the liberal causes which that generation espoused are considered worthy of supporting. The article complained about a lack of interest in opposing militarism or capitalism, or in progressive social policies. I am not suggesting that global warming or the Iraq war are trivial or wrong-headed concerns, or that I disagree with those causes. But nowhere are students who involved in charitable or religious activities mentioned. If there's no picket sign, it doesn't seem to count.
As the west's group of baby-boomers nears advanced age, this year marks the first baby boomer filing for social security, and the sentimentality and obsession with the culture and values of the 60's still looms large. Our media follow the money, and the baby-boomers have it; every television commercial is still about their music and their financial and medical needs. I often picture myself travelling time to address an imaginary group of North American students about the establishment they opposed. What would I tell these people if I could warn them what would happen over the next forty years?
"Class of '69, be careful what you ask for; you may get it. Certainly, there are problems with society the way you see it here in 1969. Your parents are tied up in comfortable lives of making money and gaining material status. Many of the institutions which define your world are corrupt or self-serving. Your government wages war on other countries and on you. You are constantly told to cut your hair, wear a suit and tie, work hard, raise children, fit in, don't ask questions, and don't be an individual. Some of you aren't treated like anybody at all because of your race or ethnicity.
Your response has been to condemn or leave the system, looking for a new way. You want to do your own thing and express yourself, free from social constrictions and conformity. You want to live naturally with the earth, dressing naturally, thinking naturally, judging no one, and not being judged by anyone. Even if you don't want to join a vegetarian commune in the desert, you feel you ought to wear your hair as long as you like, and that people would be better off abandoning their servility to church and state and the whole system surrounding it. You teach that love is all you need.
Speaking from my viewpoint in 2008, it didn't work, as all utopian schemes don't work. The Soviet Union failed because centrally planning an enormous economy was impossible, and because collectivized workers had no incentive to labour apart from brute coercion. Many communes fail because they had plenty of philosophers and no one to take out the garbage. In your case, you tore away at the social institutions which hemmed us in, and you didn't bother to replace them with anything else. Duty, tradition, faith, and the family unit may have had flaws to them, but they gave structure to our communities. And now that structure is pretty much gone.
Worse, although you might mean well, your platitudes can easily be corrupted into being based on selfishness, not on altruism. You will encourage free love, only so that you can have sex without consequences and abandon people when it becomes convenient; forty years later, there are millions of single mothers and fatherless children, and a statistical majority of marriages end in divorce. You encouraged women's equality—a laudable cause, except that young female crime rocketed, and women now feel free to treat men as sex objects just as we males once did. You opposed war in Asia because communism wasn't so bad as long as you didn't live under it, or maybe because you didn't want to serve, and Cambodia endured genocide after the fall of Vietnam. You rebelled against a stagnant campus, which is now stagnant again— because you won't retire.
What were you thinking? Maybe you weren't. Or maybe you were tired of being told what to do by your parents, and like a rebellious child, you did the opposite from spite. This sort of psychological Parent / Child paradigm may explain a great deal of the establishment / hippie conflict of the 1960s. Like parents, 1969 society tells us what we should be and doesn't tolerate disagreement. Cut your hair or else. And like children, hippies want to go back to an infantile time when they could do what they wanted and life was beautiful and innocent.
And maybe the paradigm also works because many baby boomers went straight from being children to being Parents themselves in the 80's and 90's without ever being Adults. Without realizing it, you became Parents for the west yourselves, even if your values were the opposite of the previous generation. You wanted free thinking unconstrained by the old system, and now we have free thinking constrained by the new system. Intellectuals or students on the campus who don't agree with the French deconstructionists or with evolutionary theory or with feminist activism get chased off the campus. I am not saying I agree with such people or that their motives are always good ones, but increasingly the choice is being removed because it might offend you.
For much of the world, communism was the great failed experiment of the twentieth century. For North America, the hippie movement and the counterculture, while not destroying our society, sapped its vitality and credibility. The beliefs and values promoted at Woodstock only held while they were convenient, and then became as empty as beer commercial slogans. You live on as people who still cannot act like adults. You sue fast-food restaurants when you spill coffee on yourself. You sue cigarette companies for making you sick. You spend government budgets into astronomical debts for your descendants because you cannot say no to yourselves but won't pay taxes.
And for all your condescending self-congratulation as the love generation, as boomer parents you won't show much of it. You will leave your children with a colossal public debt, pollute their world with tank-sized cars called SUVs, call them slackers when they can't get a job, and vote for governments which launch useless and destructive wars, fought by other people's children, to guarantee that you have gas to drive that SUV to the supermarket.
Some of you will become incredibly wealthy. Wealth disparities in the 21st century will be bigger than they were in the Gilded Age. You will not share; you will buy giant houses and hire security guards to protect them. Outside your gated communities, imagine some areas of Detroit looking poorer and more abandoned than some of the Vietnamese towns you see in newspapers. By the way, remember China? It now has the world's second highest GDP, and it's catching up to the USA quick.
Most of you are here and had time to protest because of the cheap tuition your parents worked to ensure. In future decades you will magically turn into fiscal conservatives, refusing to fund universities after you aren't there to wave picket signs. Another reason young college students in the 80's and 90's won't be into activism is that many of us will have to work part-time to stay there. One of your theme songs of the 60's was Crosby, Stills & Nash's 'Teach your children well.' Nice teaching.
You will do some things right. My generation of X-ers thanks you for loosening up the social restrictions. We're thankful that we can marry other races or pursue alternative lifestyles. There was some great music and movies. But you did it all for yourselves. Your parents were the war generation. You were the love generation. Unfortunately, you really only loved yourselves, and the people after you will pay for it."