In this post, Steve Hayward noted Daniel Henniger’s recent piece on the eternal return of 1968. Hayward rightly noted Henninger’s conclusion that this return, though tiresome, is inevitable and necessary. We haven’t yet sorted out all of those battles. In response, I posted some thoughts about another key part of Henninger’s piece. Steve has asked me to re-post them here, and so I am.
The key point in Henninger’s piece, Steve, is this:
Barack Obama says these endlessly booming babies have been at it for 40 years. He’s right, though let’s note that like the War of the Roses (1455-1485), this one is waged today with the tireless recruitment of new fighters not born when the fires started in 1968.
It’s funny to reflect on how that recruitment has played itself out and important to remember that--as it continues--it both clarifies and obscures.
When Abbie Hoffman offed himself with an overdose in 1989, I was just a freshman in college. I remember our professor coming into the classroom to announce the news. We all looked at him with blank expressions. Abbie who? He explained. We just blinked. We had no idea what he was talking about. We’d never heard of this guy. Did he have any old hit records? Had he been in a movie? No? Oh. Well, so what? It all seemed very removed from our world . . . ancient history. It was stuff our parents might care about but nothing that had anything to do with us. The only reason I walked away with a mental note to find out more was because this particular professor had argued that Hoffman died like a coward. If Hoffman had really been true to his principles, the professor insisted, he would have taken a dozen or so out with him to prove his point. I found that to be a shocking statement, and one that I did not immediately understand. So the point stuck with me until I could find out more and thus understand what the professor meant. But that was the only reason I wanted to know more. Still, for a few days after the news (until I could get my hands on the relevant newspapers--we didn’t have the internet in those days!), I persisted in the mistaken belief that "Abbie" was a woman. My point is, if the events and the people of the 1960s shaped the world in which we--the generation born after the 60s--lived, we were certainly unconscious of it.
But as I began to become more engaged in politics and to follow events more closely, it became clear to me that whatever I thought of the people and the events of the 1960s, those people and those events were demanding to be important to me. They weren’t going to stop darkening my doorstep. The coming fall of communism was steeped in them. It seemed to me an obvious thing that the Soviet Union was a menacing and dangerous and oppressive place. Why would this be controversial? But I did not know anything about Vietnam. I could not understand why some people hated Ronald Reagan. But I didn’t know anything about Barry Goldwater--and very little about Richard Nixon. The policies on campus regarding race, male/female relations, and academic excellence were all formed in and informed by an era that had passed before I had been born. As my fellow students and I tried to examine them apart from any knowledge of that era, we were stumped. The more we argued from abstract principles of right and wrong, the more we were encountered with patronizing voices who insisted that we "did not understand" because we had not lived through the difficult days that had shaped these policies. I began to see that the core issues of my time were not going to be shaped in my time. They were going to be the unresolved issues of the generation that preceded mine. I would have to come to grips with it. But how?
This nagging thought crystallized in my mind during the the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill hearings. In those hearings, all of the sacred cows and sanctimonious rhetoric that had shaped my mainstream political instruction from birth (i.e., the mantras of the 60s that were like air and water to me) were engaged in a great battle to the death--not against some obvious tower of injustice like the KKK or forced segregation--but against each other. I could see that those who protested the loudest for racial and gender equality were running out of real enemies. They were left grasping for their own power and, thus, turned on their so-called "allies." I saw people being used and ill-used to advance hollow agendas. It did not seem to have anything to do with the truth and the subtleties of human existence. It was a narcissistic parade . . . a pagan race to sacrifice to the strongest god. And it was repulsive. I lost my innocent unthinking respect for my elders that year. Now those who got it would have to earn my respect. I saw that I would have to understand the events that shaped their thinking, but I did not have to accept their understanding of those events. Now I was suspicious of it. The more abstract and innocent ideas I had held about justice and injustice were not as irrelevant as I had been tempted to believe in the wake of all the information I lacked. Getting caught up in events could be dangerous and stultifying. We need to understand our history to understand our politics. But we need to understand justice in order to judge it.
All of this is a long way to a short point--but perhaps it is illustrative to those who pre-date my generation a bit. It may explain why those in my generation are, like Obama, reluctant warriors in these old fights. We are a bit tired of the patronizing exasperation of our elders who insist that we "do not understand" because "you weren’t there" . . . (thank God, at least, for that!) I disagree with almost all of Obama’s conclusions about politics--but the reason I understand his appeal is that, like him, I am weary of re-treading the tired old battles of my parents’ generation (though I concede that Henninger is right to point out that many over 50 are sick of it too). There are many days when I’d like the accumulated weight of their history and their politics to just "go away" so we could get down to brass tacks and start anew. Unlike Obama, however, I am resigned to the fact that this cannot be. Obama may think he is new and fresh and all about transcending those old battles but--in truth, whether he accepts it or not--he’s really just working to reignite and convolute them. (Just as those youthful warriors of 1968 reignited and convoluted the battles of their parents and grandparents.) He is the youth candidate. He is the naive candidate who--like me in 1989--thinks that nothing preceding and pre-dating his consciousness ought to have any bearing on his life or his politics. There is a certain sense in which this is right--but it is not (and should not be believed to be) simply so. Hillary may be a tired old sack--utterly wrapped up in the prejudices and history of her glory days--but Obama is a fool who thinks pretending it isn’t relevant makes it irrelevant. And the irony is that he nothing so much as the reincarnation of that generation’s rebellion. He is their most perfect son--or their Frankenstein. The 50+ crowd that created him now feels a kind of obligation to "kill" him, as he has been obliged to try and "kill" them. The enthusiastic boomers have become the thing they once they claimed most to deplore--the "establishment." I suppose it was inevitable . . . they are all now well over 30.