The excitement and energy stimulated by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton last week held forth significant hope for a better future for our nation. Seeing the young generation rally to Obama was déjà vu for those of us in the baby boomer generation–the generation that turned on its elders and took to the streets to demand an end to an unjust war, civil rights for all, and a radical change in America’s course.
But it also carried with it the bittersweet reality that, amid the campaign promises and lofty ideals, our once-rebellious and idealistic generation has, in so many ways, simply failed to live up to our dreams–and in doing so, has failed the young people of today.
It’s hard to believe now, but the pivotal year of 1968 was four decades ago. President John F. Kennedy, to whom so many are comparing Obama, never lived to see 1968—he was shot down in Dallas in 1963. His brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., equally inspiring figures, both met their violent deaths in 1968–King from an assassin’s bullet in Memphis and Kennedy from a gunshot only months later in Los Angeles.
Combine these tragic events with the full-scale race riots raging in major cities, and there’s little doubt that my generation had every right to protest, rebel, and plot a different course for our future. And plot we did. The “back to the land” movement spawned a sense of self-reliance, the “free love” movement rejected societal restrictions on sex and love. Our music, literature, and heroes of the day pointed to the dawning of a new age in which, as the radical musical Hair proclaimed, peace, love and understanding was just around the corner. Our motto was “Don’t trust anyone over 30.”
But somewhere in the ensuing decades we lost our way. Following the energy crisis of the 1970s, when the Arab oil embargo left Americans waiting in long lines for gasoline, President Jimmy Carter urged us to turn down our thermostats and put on a sweater. Instead of being applauded, Carter was ridiculed for his commitment to conservation. Instead of being supported by his own party, Carter was undermined by those who had already left their ideals and the greater societal good in the dust as they pursued self-serving careers, bigger homes, fancier cars, and the accumulation of wealth.
When Ronald Reagan took the presidency in 1980, the hoped-for transition to an enlightened America came to a brutal end. James Watt became Secretary of the Interior with the single-minded goal of raping the nation’s public lands for the sole benefit of corporate interests. That Watt was eventually driven from office was a tiny victory, but the dark cloud of an even darker future roiled America’s horizon. Reagan tottered into his last term, almost breaking our nation in a Cold War with what he called “the Evil Empire” of the Soviet Union, only to have Soviet society come apart at the seams.
In quick succession, President George H.W. Bush stepped into office and took us into a new war in Iraq. President Bill Clinton, while championing a host of the now-old ideals, likewise took us into war in Bosnia–and we’re still there. And of course, President George W. Bush has plunged us into the most disastrous military engagements of modern history, with the invasion and ongoing occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan—neither of which we have any hope of winning.
Young generations have every right to ask: “What happened to your ideals?” With the nation tumbling further into recession by the day, I suspect my fellow boomers would have a very rough time trying to honestly answer that question.
It’s pretty tough to paint a happy face on the future with gas following diesel to $4 a gallon or more as we are once again “held hostage to foreign oil”–a situation our incredibly lame Congress has been promising to remedy for 34 years now.
Or how about the state of the oceans? Vast dead zones stretch across the Gulf of Mexico and the West Coast, while fish stocks are decimated. Our drinking water is so polluted with pharmaceuticals and chemical toxins that no one in the scientific community is capable of telling us what it will do to us or to the aquatic communities that live in it–let alone how we’ll ever clean it up. Extinction of species continues at an alarming pace as their habitats are destroyed. The latest curse, global warming, will plague us for centuries to come.
The military-industrial complex, which President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned about a half-century ago, is consuming the wealth of our nation as we rack up trillions of dollars in debt. Who among us can justify spending $3 billion a week in Iraq? For what? For whom? In the meantime, while it’s great to hear Clinton and Obama talk of ending the war, both candidates have time and again voted to continue funding the conflicts.
Congress is filled with boomers, commerce is filled with boomers, and our sorry president is a boomer, as are the members of his war-mongering, neo-con cabinet. It’s tough to conclude anything other than that we, the boomers, have failed the future.
So here’s some advice, my young friends. Take that energy Obama stirs in you and use it. Since we show so few signs of changing, if you need to, push the boomers out of your way and fight like hell for your future. Hopefully, you won’t make the same mistakes we did.
Helena’s George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at firstname.lastname@example.org.