3/18/2007

My Generation: A Different America

There's a lot of talk in politics about the importance of senior citizens, Baby Boomers, military veterans, Southerners, gun owners, union members, evangelicals, and suburbanites as they pertain to elections, poll data, and the crafting of political and media messages. However, there's one group that I believe is often ignored, but perhaps even more important than any of the demographic groups I listed above: Twenty-somethings.

I myself turned 30 in January, so I believe I can relate to this group. People born after about 1975 have been shaped by an entirely different set of events than their parents. For one thing, the Vietnam War is an abstract concept. I lost an uncle in Vietnam shortly before he was supposed to return home. While obviously a sad event, his death does not touch me the way it touches my mother, who was his sister. I had not yet been born when my family was notified of his death. The whole war itself means something different to me, my sister, and my cousins than it does for my parents, aunts, uncles, and grandparents.

Similarly, Watergate is another major news story that happened before my time. When I was born, President Ford was cleaning out his desk at the White House to make way for Jimmy Carter. When I read stories about Watergate, it seems interesting from a historical perspective, but because I was not alive when this news was breaking and when Nixon resigned, again I feel a certain sense of distance or detachment from the true significance of these events.

Even as a Black male, the civil rights struggles of the 50s and 60s have a different meaning for me than they would for a Rep. John Lewis, the Georgia congressman who participated in the marches and parades and boycotts and struggles and was actually beaten because of it. These events do not touch me like they touch a Jesse Jackson, or a Betty Shabazz or even my own parents, who grew up in South Carolina and spent their childhood living under segregation. I simply cannot conceive of a reality in which it was legal for me or someone who looked like me to be treated so cruelly and so dismissively even though I was a law-abiding citizen. When I think about the civil rights leaders of yesteryear, I admire their strength. But at the same time, I cannot fathom how much strength was actually required for them to help me enjoy the rights and freedoms I have today simply because I was not there.

My generation spent its childhood in growing up in the 80s and 90s. World War II, the JFK and RFK assassinations, the Great Depression, Vietnam, Woodstock, Watergate, and the Iranian hostage disaster are all abstract concepts to us. Even the Cold War is difficult for us to wrap our minds around because we were mere children or young teenagers when the Berlin Wall fell and the Eastern European nations were slowly opening up their borders. I remember East and West Germany reuniting when I was a 7th grader. What is a 7th grader supposed to think about this? For example, someone in my family was able to get a piece of the Berlin Wall to keep as a piece of history. When I saw that chunk of rock, I said "cool." What else was I supposed to think, since I didn't know so much about the history?

So what DOES shape our generation? Well, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and the Bush family pretty much constitute all of our firsthand presidential knowledge. Culturally speaking, we are the children of MTV, computers and the internet, blogs, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, trashy TV talk shows, break dancing, iPods, video games, The Wonder Years, Will Smith, and The Simpsons. Before 9-11, the biggest news stories for us were the first Gulf War ("Where is Daddy going?"), the Oklahoma City bombing, the OJ trial, Monica Lewinsky, Elian Gonzalez, and the 2000 recount.

You could easily argue that because of our access to information via the internet and cable television, television shows that frequently pushed the envelope (Beavis and Butthead, Jerry Springer, 90210), and integration throughout all of our schooling, our generation is a lot more liberal and/or tolerant than older generations. Things that are a big deal to a lot of people don't really bother us so much at all.

For example, one of the news stories that had a major influence on our generation was the Monica Lewinsky scandal. People of our generation were in high school or college at the time. We commonly cracked jokes about President Clinton and even gave him props for being able to get some nookie in the White House. Even though he was obviously stupid for doing it (actually, we thought he was stupid for getting caught), we really didn't care. So many of us came from homes headed by one parent, step-parents, live-in "pseudo parents," or even grandparents, so the concept of infidelity was a nonissue for us. And regarding perjury, we knew that Clinton was lying because he didn't want his wife to smack the crap out of him. He was more afraid of his wife than he was of the law. The legal significance of perjury was a nonissue for us. We could not figure out why people in Congress were tripping over themselves to launch investigations and begin impeachment hearings. We listened to congressman after congressman and senator after senator talk about the importance of "the rule of law" and "family values" and "respecting the Office of the Presidency." We were thinking, "these guys are so full of themselves" and even wondered if some of those holier than thou congressmen were jealous. Most of us had no children at the time, so the "family values" argument had no meaning for us. And in general, we did not look to our elected politicians for moral guidance. That's what our friends and family and religious deities were for. We liked Bill Clinton because "he was the hip politician who wore the cool shades and played the saxophone on late night TV" unlike those "boring politicians who made speeches all the time." This whole sordid affair turned a lot of younger people off from politics, and actually soured a lot of them on the Republican Party. (These Republicans' recent hypocritical clamoring for pardoning Scooter Libby does not sit well with us either.)

This social liberalism among my generation is reflected in other attitudes as well. Since we went to school together, played together, and worked part-time jobs together, a lot of prejudices that older people have are far less prevalent among us. We learned about "the differences between the races" from our parents and grandparents. But as was often the case, what they warned us about was often incongruent with our actual life experiences. So many of us have friends of several different races. I know Blacks that fit in easily with the White J. Crew crowd, and I know Whites that are comfortable chilling with their homegirls or chicas. Many of us have dated interracially and never thought twice about it. The majority of my friends are either in interracial marriages, an interracial relationship, or have dated interracially in the past. I myself am in an interracial marriage, although I view my partner as "my wife who happens to be Japanese," as opposed to "my Japanese wife."

Anyways, the reason why I created this post was because of a recent commentary by former Republican senator Alan Simpson of Wyoming. Senator Simpson talked about how his views on gays serving in the military have changed over time and how it's foolish to discharge homosexuals from the military even though they may have the skills and knowledge that are most critical right now, including fluency in Arabic. A few months ago I saw a news story on CNN about this very issue and they interviewed a member of the conservative Family Research Council. The woman they interviewed said that "soldiers should not have to worry about a fellow soldier sexually harrassing them in a foxhole." Unbelievable. (And here is another article that further reflects this sheer stupidity.)

I think our generation is overwhelmingly more tolerant of this issue than our parents' and grandparents' generations. Even though most of us are happy heterosexuals with no desire to experiment with same-sex relationships, we really don't care about homosexuality. It's just not a big deal for us. Many of us had gay friends, gay classmates, and gay coworkers when we were growing up. We can't figure out why it seems okay for gays to be treated as second-class citizens. Seeing these social conservatives lambast gay rights today reminds us of the furor over the Monica Lewinsky nonsense yesterday. Even if many of us think homosexuality is "gross," young people just don't care and don't see why people can't be left to do their own thing. And the more people push this issue, the angrier and more disenchanted we become. Perhaps homosexuals today for our generation are what women and Blacks were 50 years ago for our parents' and grandparents' generations. Even though most of us aren't gay, most of us also realize that discriminating against them is simply wrong.

(Incidentally, after originally deciding to write this particular post, I found different commentary in the Washington Post by Justin Britt-Gibson, which talked about his own multicultural experiences and how those typified his [our?] generation. So I'm obviously not alone here.)

Anyway, young people look at all the fighting and all the tough talk going on in Washington these days and can do nothing but shake their heads. When the 60-year old politicians retire and the 80-year old politicians pass away, the younger generation will be left to pick up the pieces. My generation is the one that has to live with the consequences of the previous generation's (poor) decisions. Iran, Iraq, terrorism, and abortion rights come to mind.

For example, young people wince when they hear President Bush and his administration officials talk about or hint at bombing Iran. Doing so would only completely inflame an entire generation of young Iranians (who don't hate Americans nearly as much as their parents do) and make our lives much more difficult and impact our lives much longer than in the next 15 years a 70-year old likely has remaining in his life. Most of us were toddlers, babies or embryos when the embassy in Iran was sieged, so we can't appreciate the severity of this event as it relates to US-Iranian relations. However, the consequences of us being the aggressor this time scare us more than the actual threat.

Even though young voters are less reliable voters than older ones, my prediction is that within the next two presidential cycles, turnout among 18-30 year olds will skyrocket because at some point, young people are going to say enough is enough. Perhaps bad government has been good at heightening our consciousness of politics and current events. Iraq, Katrina, terrorism, and infringing on personal freedoms have made us, a generation that grew up in an era in which freedom was expanding, pay a little more attention than we have in the past. Politicians would be well served to take note of this. This is why Barack Obama and Al Gore have become so popular among voters our age. This is also why younger voters don't vote Republican. When was the last time you met a 24-year old who was enthusiastic about Mike Huckabee or Mitt Romney or even John McCain?

It's because they don't speak our language.

4 comment(s):

Steve Johnson said...

That post was dead on. It's weird to think that one day, 9/11 will be the JFK assassination/Watergate/etc. the the eyes of young people in future generations. The threat of "terrorism" as we know it will mean nothing to them.

Good post.

Anthony Palmer said...

Thank you very much! And I appreciate the linkage from your page. I will happily reciprocate.

Reginald Harrison Williams said...

Excellent Post, Mr. Palmer.

I look at it and look at myself in the mirror.

Two Thumbs Up!

The Blue South said...

Your post (although I tend to agree with most of your positions) reminds me of Churchill's famous phrase: "If you're not a liberal when you're young, you have no heart. If you're not a conservative when you're old, you have no brain." However, your argument about the historical/generational disconnect strikes me as dead on, particularly as you juxtapose the plight of gays today with the plight of women and blacks in the 20th century. While counter-arguments to your theory do exist, I would have to say that I agree with your premise.

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