There was a reason for that slogan we had, “Never trust anyone over 30.” We were on to something. We believed the Vietnam War was wrong. We believed in civil rights and women’s rights. We believed we had to be better stewards of the earth. We tried to say these things and our parents would not listen. They were busy being the Greatest Generation and they could not see how much harm that was doing, so soon after all the good it did. They couldn’t move quickly enough. They couldn’t evolve.
Of course that is a vast generalization. We had our elders who saw what we saw and put themselves on the line for it. They listened to us and even, as I was told later by a researcher, allowed us to drive the agenda. (The researcher was a grad student in history. That was humbling.) The elders I knew did their own thing and had their own circle of personal and professional connections, but when they were with us they listened, they treated us with respect. If they thought one of our hair-brained schemes was not strategic, they didn’t preach at us or tell us why we were wrong. They opened a path in a different direction and if we didn’t want to go down it, they let us do what we had to do.
In general, though, those wise elders were the exception. We faced the full-on political machine, with all its entrenched interests and its back room machinations and its utterly infuriating condescension. I watched Lyndon Johnson explain that the war was really about peace and we had to meet our obligations and we could not abandon an ally when it was written all over his face that it was about entitlement and arrogance. We were mocked for our beliefs, accused of things we hadn’t done, and informed that we were traitors.
We “won.” The war ended, there were notable civil rights successes, opportunities for women improved. Earth Day, the view of earth from space and the Whole Earth Catalogue started new movements. Maybe we thought the world had changed for good. Maybe we thought our job was done. We turned 30. We bought literal or metaphorical SUVs.
Now it is 50 years later and suddenly the world seems to have taken a step backwards and all the issues we thought we had got rolling look like they will have to be re-fought. We former activists lament that we thought we had done this already but there is a gleam in our eyes, deja vú, and also adrenaline. I posted on Facebook that I hadn’t seen insults like these since the 60s and it made me feel all nostalgic. I meant that as a way of laughing off what the posters were saying – I’ve seen this all before, so bring it! – but there was danger in it. It is a different world now. The cast of characters has changed and communication is different and the configuration of energies has transformed. Our generation has not gotten over the Vietnam War yet (about which I have written and will continue to write) and we are being asked to give our agendas a rest for a minute and listen to the younger generation, and some of us are having a hard time doing it.
The younger generation is not asking us to do what we did in the 60s or relive the Good Old Days of activism, or – God forbid – tell them they don’t know what they are doing because we did it already. I have seen them on discussion boards and it is not pretty. They are generally ‘Bernie-or-Bust’ people and I admire their passion and can’t stomach their misogyny. Things weren’t so great for women in activist groups in the 60s, but they might not remember that. They have jumped back into action, which is great, but they have forgotten the part about growing up.
We are the older generation now. The spiral has wound back around and it looks like we are in the same place, but we are not. We need to learn our own lessons. For the love of God, don’t be now what you complained about then. Be what you wanted. Do you remember?
The younger ones are not saying we are not to be trusted. They are passionate about values we are also passionate about and they are asking us not to leave it to them to do alone. But we have to be able to do it differently than we did 50 years ago. Just as new coalitions must be built now (wrap your mind around ‘Bernie-or-Bust’ people joining forces with heart-broken Hillary supporters. And Occupy people. And Black Lives Matter) my generation needs, in a sense, to join forces with itself. We need to move quickly, to evolve. We need to see ourselves as having matured from loud mouths to open hearts, from drama to wisdom. We need to be their elders. The only other choice, for them, is to write us out of the story that is coming next. Our call.