Sunday, January 6, 2008

They Hate You. They Really Hate You.

Two of the bigger headlines coming out of the Iowa Democratic Caucuses involved the youth vote and how it divided between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. The first was that young Iowans attended the caucuses in record numbers, most throwing their support behind the 46-year old Obama. The second was that this result held up across gender lines, with Clinton finishing behind Obama among both men and women younger than forty. Given a choice between gender and generational solidarity, the young women of the Hawkeye State opted for the latter, which is terrible news for Senator Clinton as she attempts to answer Obama's Iowa victory with a New Hampshire comeback.

There is, however, another story here that may transcend the temporary issues and candidates of the 2008 presidential election. Generation gaps existed long before the term was actually invented some forty or so years ago. But rarely have they been as one-sidedly acrimonious as they are today.

During the 1960s, the hippies hated the squares, but the squares hated the hippies right back, often violently. Today, most aging baby boomers view Obama's hold on the young as nothing more than the same sort of infatuation that drew their parents toward Jack Kennedy in 1960 and themselves to Gary Hart in 1984 (they always conveniently forget that Ronald Reagan, a certified geezer, was enormously popular among young people during the early 1980s). I suspect that there is something bigger going on here: the wholesale and furious rejection of the Baby Boomer politics that has dominated American life since the days of the Nehru jacket.

In short, to crib Sally Field, they hate us. They really hate us. Well, they don't hate me; I'm more or less Barack Obama's age. But those of you born in the ten years following World War II, consider yourself despised by your grandchildren. Their entire lives have been lived to the soundtrack of old people fighting over events that have always been in their past. Yes, yes, you were all so cool back in the 60s with your drinking and toking and screwing, but a younger generation raised on fetal alcohol syndrome, just say no, and HIV testing really doesn’t want to hear about it. To them, it sounds like taunting: let us tell you how beautiful this carpet was before we puked all over it and ruined it for the rest of you.

One of the delightful things about Senator Obama, from my point of view, is that he exposes the myth that everyone born between 1946 and 1964 must be considered a Baby Boomer. In fact, anyone who came along after about 1955 did not participate in the counterculture experience. We did not live in fear of being drafted, our campuses were quiet and apolitical, and our rock stars didn't tell us what to think.

Nevertheless, long before today's young voters came along, we also had to spend our lives enduring the endless, boring tales of the Movement and how much it meant, man, and why are you kids always going to discos instead of marching on Washington? But at least we were hearing these things from people who were still relatively young and vital. Imagine what all this must sound like coming from the wrinkled mouths and gray heads of those whose next big move will be to the rest home.

Turn on any of the cable TV gabfests and if you listen long enough, you're likely to hear someone refer to the Vietnam War or Jane Fonda or the Chicago 7. Some state down south—I forget which one—actually has a specialty license plate for Vietnam veterans that bears the slogan "Ours was a Just Cause". They're still arguing about that damned war on their freaking license plates!

And here we are at the fortieth anniversary of the year 1968, when Barack Obama was but seven years old. I've already posted about Tom Brokaw's latest belly flop into generational mythology and the execrable PBS documentary that followed. In yesterday's Los Angeles Times, professional 60s-obsessive Todd Gitlin continues the drumbeat with his own article about how we ought to remember 1968 (hint: it was BIG! Really BIG!). "The egalitarianism of the civil rights movement and a spirit of cultural adventure," says Gitlin, "commingled with a whole mélange of joyful and desperate reactions against white supremacy, senseless war, empty materialism and supine obedience." (Don't you wish your generation had a mélange, kids?) Seriously, though, other than the obviously laudable decline of white supremacy, is there any better way to describe the world created by our latest Boomer president than as one of senseless war, empty materialism, and supine obedience? Mission accomplished, hippies! (Thanks to University Diaries, by the way, for directing me to Gitlin.)

How could anyone under fifty not be seduced by Senator Obama's promise to call a halt to the musty old culture wars and move us, finally, beyond 1968 and into the 21st Century? It's not Hillary Clinton's fault that she was born before 1960, but her election almost certainly guarantees another four years of hackneyed references to Timothy Leary and Huey Newton and George McGovern (the latter, by the way, is a fine man and an authentic American hero, but his name has, through no fault of his own, become just another right-wing epithet). I'm sure that young women will feel some considerable sense of pride if Senator Clinton becomes America's first female chief executive, but the concept of a woman in charge probably doesn't seem nearly as revolutionary to them as it does to those reared on a diet of Donna Reed and June Cleaver.

I know that Baby Boomers have never yielded gracefully in their lives, but perhaps now is the time to start. I'm not suggesting that they shouldn't run for president or teach in colleges or otherwise contribute to public and private life. But they should shut up already about all their unfinished business from back in the day. Because, really, whether they like it or not, it no longer matters whether those Olympians should have raised their fists back in '68 or whether Jane Fonda should have holidayed in Nam. So Boomers: please get over yourselves.

And then maybe your grandkids will stop hating you.

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