Richard Warren Field
Wake Up Call for a Generation
(First posted on August 23, 1998)
We marched for free expression in colleges and universities. We protested
against the war in Viet Nam. We told our parents they were too materialistic
and that we would not worship money. We would run the world with peace,
love and understanding. We called for a celebration of diversity and tolerance;
the world should be a utopia where people can "do their own thing." And
we argued that the world would be perfect if we could just change "The
Establishment" or "The System," and its narrow ways of dealing with people.
Where has all the time gone? It is now 1998, and with the election of Bill
Clinton in 1992, we are "The Establishment." We are the ones running "The
System." What happened to these ideals we felt so certain about back in
the 60's and early 70's? Were they just silly notions we outgrew? The truth
is worse than that. We have selfishly abandoned our ideals and sacrificed
them for short-term personal gratification, comfort and wealth.
The 90's are shaping up as a decade of cynicism and complacency. We are
a society in denial over serious environmental concerns, unresolved social
issues and looming international storm-clouds. There are discernable parallels
between the 90's and the 20's. The villains of the world have been largely
vanquished, the stock market is exploding and prosperity seems assured
in perpetuity. The complacency of the 20's ushered in the two worst decades
of this century: the meltdown of the world economy in the 30's, and the
most devastating war in history in the 40's. When viewed with that historical
comparison, the complacency of the 90's is frightening.
How did the baby-boomer generation get to this point? The first President
from our generation epitomizes what has happened to us. Bill Clinton clearly
opposed the Viet Nam War, and involved himself with the progressive elements
of our generation in the 60's. He subordinated his idealism to making money
in the 80's and taking power in the 80's and the 90's. And though flashes
of that youthful idealism occasionally emerge during his Presidency, he
is also apparently mired in sleazy and cynical manipulation characteristic
of the previous generation's Presidents.
In fact, Bill Clinton's path is the one many of us have taken. In the 60's,
and the early 70's, we were youthful idealists. By the 80's, the "hippies"
of the 60's had completed their transformation to the "yuppies." The hot
degree was the MBA, and the MBA mentality converted us from viewing the
world idealistically, to viewing the world as a place we could subdivide
into centers of profit potentials.
Here in the 90's, we find ourselves with our "yuppie" prosperity. We set
aside our idealistic goals as we chased materialistic goals. But most of
us can still recall that 60's idealism. And we also realize we have largely
abandoned it. So our defense mechanism is the hard-edged cynicism of the
90's. Since we have abandoned those ideals, they must have been silly.
It is easier to belittle the old ideas, and find flaws in them, and in
everyone and everything, than it is to admit our own failure; that we have
abandoned what we once believed in now that we are "The Establishment."
The cynicism is self-hatred. It comes to us in the form of Howard Stern,
and The Simpsons. We celebrate selfishness and ridicule altruism. Haven't
we become worse than we ever accused our parents of being?
I believe it is not too late to rediscover our ideals and make our mark
on this world. Our parents and their parents made their marks. Among other
things, they defeated two of history's greatest villains, Nazism and "Communism"
(actually totalitarian regimes masquerading behind that label). Were these
victories won without mistakes? Of course not. No generation handles its
challenges flawlessly. But it is now our time to step up. And at this time,
we are off to a slow start.
There will be disagreement as to exactly what shape this renewed idealism
should take. And space does not allow me to make my recommendations more
specific in this essay. But I would like to pull three principles from
60's idealism that can serve as inspiration. They are "Peace, Love and
Understanding" (for all our fellow humans), "Do Your Own Thing" (celebration
of tolerance and diversity) and the idea that material prosperity should
not be the only important priority of a modern, enlightened society. The
hardest of these principles to embrace is going to be that last one. It
is material prosperity that seduced us away from our idealism. Once we
fight off this seduction, and realize that we do not have to run "The System"
the way our parents did, we will come up with our own, new ideas for achieving
a healthy environment, a harmonious society, and a peaceful, prosperous
world that will define our generation's contribution.
Our parents' generation has provided us with a comfortable living. It is
this prosperity that will allow us the luxury of pursuing loftier goals.
But we must summon the will to look beyond short-term gratification to
discover that long, idealistic vision. This country exists as the result
of a successful idealistic experiment, designed by political dreamers.
So we must reward our modern politicians for having the guts to articulate
broad visions, and penalize those who try to bribe us with short-sighted
The prosperity we have now should be viewed as an opportunity to create
a world that will cause future generations to look back and say "Those
idealists of the 60's walked their talk when they took charge of the world,
and we are all the better for it." Or, we can be known as one of the most
selfish, spoiled, over-indulged, and underachieving generations in American
history, as we meander short-sightedly ahead, leaving our children and
grandchildren to reap the rewards of our cynicism and complacency.
Copyright © 1998 by Richard Warren Field
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