I was born in 1947 which put me in the college class of 1969. By 1966, with many in my generation I was horrendously disenchanted with our country. We couldn’t get no satisfaction. We were not gonna take it anymore.
By 1967, I with many in my generation, had decided we were outlaws in the eyes of America. Confident, brash, committed, we would change the world. And we did. Uprisings everywhere. Minds bending, breaking, realigning. Revolution in the air. Hard rain no more.
But even so, it wasn’t all roses because as much as my generation accomplished, we didn’t accomplish nearly enough.
We revved up nicely, for a good start, riding roads blazed by the Freedom marchers, lunch counter sitters, and civil rights disobeyers. Zero to sixty faster than a souped up Chevy. Peeled out with pizzaz and quickly exploded from campus to campus and community to community.
Tumultuous weeks and months passed. We adopted new personas and mindsets. Good. We congealed those personas and mindsets beyond flexibility. Bad. We fought the state and private power. Good. We fought each other too. Bad.
Clashing certitudes. Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong. The inflexible self we saw staring back at us from the movement mirror disturbed all who lacked a self delusion gene.
A few years of pyrotechnics, and for some of us our own stridency became too much to bear. We went to where it was quiet. For others of us, harsh and persistent repression dissolved our dissent. Our motion melted into the tracks of our tears. Depression and hopelessness hurt, and we pursued more private paths – slip sliding away from dissent. Ultimately, all too few retained new views. The few persisted year in, year out, and slowly, incomprehensibly, advanced toward gray. Time waits for no one.
Racism diminished. Sexism diminished. Authoritarianism diminished. Pollution diminished. Wars were blocked. We achieved very much, very quick. But it wasn’t all roses. There is no point denying that we sought the world, but attained much less.
Blacks, Latinos, Asians, and others benefitted. Jim Crow died. But, for every two blacks who were slaves in 1860, one black now languishes in jail. Tally the effect of jail on that one person and on that one person’s relatives, and the scale of devastation is incredible to behold, and, somewhat understandably, most don’t look. Racism persists.
Women benefitted as the most public patriarchal gender and sexual differentials were addressed. But rape persists. Violence persists. The insanity of deference and indignity persists. Gay marriage is meaningful progress but the new world we sought was not supposed to have one in five women raped over the course of their lives. Yet that is America, and that too, for most of us, is more horrifying than we can contemplate. Perhaps not wanting to contemplate such horror explains why so many peruse Tweeter feeds about J Lo or Justin Bieber, instead of rape surveys. Where did all the flowers go. Sexism persists.
Authoritarianism declined too. Seeing what it was next to what it now is, you would surely agree. But even so, authoritarianism persists, as millions and even tens of millions simultaneously watch Twitter feeds – caught a giant idiot wind that makes tornados look like summer breezes. Our lives data-ized into the greedy hands of government and corporate overlords. Cops and courts still run wild. Remember the hippie/radical demand: do not fold, spindle, or mutilate? Sadly, we are folded, spindled, and mutilated – and most peculiarly, many of us applaud and sing gimme more, more, more.
Ecology, though dealt with seriously over the years, now nonetheless threatens humanity like never before. Temperature rising. Hard rain falling. Humanity approaching cliff. The abyss invisible due to entertainments and smokescreens blocking the view. We may plummet, applauding.
And private power? It thrives. I read the news today – oh boy. It told me the planet’s 85 richest people now have more wealth than its 3.5 billion poorest people. Is that the crown of creation?
You don’t need an acid trip to visualize the meaning of that. Jam the rich 85 into a single large magic bus and you could even have you, me, and our immediate families ride along as servants in the last 15 seats. Figure that the bus is 150 feet long. Shove the poor 3.5 billion half of humanity into a line of 35 million buses stretching to the moon and back, and up to the moon again, and back again. That’s a hell of a caravan.
One bus, out front, would have you, me, and some of our sisters and brothers huddled in the rear watching the 85 rich folks up front celebrating under a flag displaying a dollar sign that waves wildly overhead, with the 85 enjoying the most opulence any humans have ever experienced, and with us goggle-eyed. Then would follow 35 million more buses, each one sparse as a desert, and if not aligned through space in 4 lengths to the moon, then aligned circumnavigating the planet 40 times. How convenient. There is no need for a cop to tell the poor to go to the back of that line. The poor aren’t even in telescope range of seeing the front of it.
We wanted the world. We were smart. We had courage. What went wrong? The traditional left answer is that we were great but the times were just not propitious. “Objective conditions” didn’t permit us to do better.
I don’t buy that. In my view, my generation, even at its best, was not all roses. Yes, the rich and powerful did everything they could to commandeer the lead bus and to relegate billions to the rear. And yes, the rich and powerful had the lawyers, guns, and money – plus the media. And yes, the rich and powerful used their every advantage at every opportunity and in every manner they could conceive, including even murdering us. All true. All a factor. But not the whole truth.
I bemoan the miserable trajectory that has left us where we are because my generation contributed to that trajectory. We fucked up.
When we thought we could win a new world, when we thought that the ship could come in, when we were prepared to dance on the graves of mastery – our dreams were not naive. The better history we sought could have occurred between fifty years ago and now, just like it can still happen between now and fifty years from now. Not easily, of course. But possibly. The answer was indeed blowing in the wind then. But we let it blow away, blow up, blow out. The liberating history didn’t happen, but it could have happened or at least we could have been well on the way by now. Objective conditions are always tough – but human will can always rise to the occasion. And so the fact that a better history could have and should have happened over the past five decades, is the locus of my apology. My generation should have solidified our views while retaining sensitivity and flexibility. Objective conditions did not make that impossible. We should have turned our protest into positive program and molded our separate desires into a shared agenda. Objective conditions did not make that impossible. And had we done such things, history could have been different.
I like an IPad as much as the next guy, even more I bet – but would I like an to have IPad or to see peace? An IPad or justice? An IPad or dignity? Ten billion IPads or liberation? Was that the choice? If it was, we all would have said, give me liberty, keep your damn IPads. However we knew we could have had liberty and spiffy electronics too. We could have had it all – though we didn’t.
The Freedom riders had discipline. They had perspective. They had unity. But in the end, we who came next didn’t have enough of any of that. Not enough dignity. We weren’t serious enough. We weren’t informed enough. We didn’t inform ourselves and others enough.
Millions upon hundreds of millions of people did nearly nothing. But our current plight, and their’s, and that of their kids and of our kids, is not mainly rooted in that massive failure to act. Oh, sure, if everyone acted, everything would be different. But to ask for universal resistance without stages and steps by which it could develop is to ask for magic. I am not bemoaning missing magic. I am bemoaning what was real and what could really have happened, but didn’t. I am not talking about everyone being revolutionary magically, at once, without any patient, persevering process. That was impossible. I am talking about huge numbers of people becoming revolutionary over an extended period via a plausible process that would have rested on those in my generation who first followed after the Freedom riders. That was possible. And so certainly got going, and arrived at a lot of revelations, and my point is, if we had made better choices once we were on the move, once we saw what’s going on, our impact could have percolated and multiplied way farther than it did, even yielding a profoundly different trajectory from then until now.
Suppose that I and many like me in my generation, young, strong, ready to rumble – and who, for whatever reasons of upbringing and luck happened to understand the patriarchal, racist, and classist horrors of society, and who had been luckily blessed with some confidence, and who had luckily seen clear to some activist insight – had done better. Can you see the potential?
What if instead of one Howard Zinn, there had been 100,000 as wonderful as him by 1975. I won’t list other exemplary folks, but the point is evident. Take all the people who chanted to win a new world, all the people who marched to win a new world, all the people who cradled rocks and ideas to win a new world – and ask, what would have happened if a million people in the U.S., from 1968 forward, had been patient enough, disciplined enough, committed enough, and unified enough to stay the course?
What if we had not only marched, but had developed organizations able to plant seeds of hope and desire and able to orient and magnify the inclinations of each individual participant into collective action by all participants together. What if those who went first had welcomed, nurtured, and empowered others into participating as well, and then they had done the same with still more people? Can you see the prairie fire of change that would have swept society? That didn’t happen, but it was not because it was impossible. Objective conditions weren’t pleasant but did not preclude greater success. Rather, we lacked sufficient will.
I read the news today, oh boy. The news told me that there is a new punishment for young folks who irritate their parents in the geographic center of the best and the worst – which is, of course, America. Hey Johnny, hey Susie, you have been bad. As punishment, put aside your electronic gadget and go out and play. Yes, it is now considered a punishment to tell a child to stop texting, stop instant messaging, stop Facebooking, stop Tweeting, stop gaming, and go out and play with a real friend. Where have all the flowers gone – where has sanity gone, too.
So my fury is for those who saw society’s nasty truths but turned themselves off to changing society. It is for those who initially joined the fray but later left the scene. Their exit, stage right, was understandable but also horrible, and I admit that I feel some fury for the millions of my generation who awakened but soon retreated. I feel some fury for my generation raising kids who are themselves now nearing fifty – can you believe that? – such that more often than not those kids don’t know shit from shinola, as the saying goes. But the biggest fury I feel is for myself.
With others, I sought to build massive media. It isn’t massive.
With others, I sought to create and spread vision. Some is created. Little is spread.
With others, I sought to build lasting and worthy organizations. Some structures emerged. They aren’t lasting.
With others, I sought to create unity in diversity. But we don’t have much unity – with diversity or otherwise.
So the reality is, I, and others, failed.
1964 was fifty years ago. In 1964, looking back fifty years, was World War 1, and when I was listening to Dylan and the Rolling Stones at the beach while getting ready to go to college, to me World War 1 was the age of dinosaurs. Hell, to my ears, even World War 2 was prehistoric. And so by analogy I understand that my generation’s glory days are not the age of Aquarius but instead the age of dinosaurs for today’s youth. And I understand why today’s youth don’t know beans about my Sixties, and don’t care that they don’t know beans about it. But, and now I direct my words to today’s youth – please don’t forego the associated lessons that could be had from what we did back then – and especially the lessons that you can learn from our mistakes. There is no need to reinvent every wheel. I wish we had taught our lessons vastly better than we did – and our not doing so is still another reason for self-directed fury. But despite that we didn’t teach as we ought to have, please discern and learn the lessons anyhow. Once you have done so, use your wisdom to do better. Your lives depend on it.
But is it too late – as no doubt many feel? Is there no road from where we are now to where we need to be later?
No, it is not too late. Our time is not yet forlorn. Our history is not yet over.
Fukishima, austerity, the NSA, and fracking beckon us into barbarism. Communes in Caracas, mass marches in Athens, indignation in Madrid, squats all over, and whatever new resistance arises tomorrow, wherever it arises, in whatever form it arises, beckons us into a better future. The question, ever more pressing, is barbarism or liberation?
There is high water everywhere. Humanity drowning even looks likely. But we need to see that there are ladders humanity can build up and out of the rising tide, and we need to see structural opportunities to lower the waters, as well. The ladders will be slippery. The structural innovations are daunting. Nonetheless, we need to climb above the tide and build alternatives pressing it back down. Just like we needed to do years back. But we need to climb and build better this time.
Find a vision. Share it with others. Snag it to the present with program and strategy. Point it to the future with gains that improve people’s lives today while arousing desires for more gains tomorrow. Create alternative structures that plant the seeds of the future in the present. Act on what you believe. But don’t do it alone. Do it united with others.
My generation – lost, lost, lost. But history reveals that in seeking social change, you lose, you lose, you lose, you win. Generations are entwined. Mine and yours. One with the next, one with the last. And now it is your turn. We did the losing part. Start winning.