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A Clean Break With The Past
“In terms of change in American attitudes and American values, these last five years have surely been the crucial ones in the quarter century since V-J Day. And these changes seem of such a magnitude that every American except the very young, the very empty, and the very enclosed must now, to some extent, feel himself a foreigner in his native land”
August 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 5
Even if the analysis is right, all of this is, of course, a change still in process, and indeed still in an early stage of process, rather than an accomplished fact. The “silent majority” apparently still is a majority—of poll respondents and of voters—and even if it were not, traditional methods of succession to power have survived up to now to the extent that the older generation would still hold business and government power and might be expected to continue to do so for some years to come. Even among the young themselves Dr. Mead’s prefigurative culture is still very far from universal. There are whole campuses in “middle America” where a long-haired boy is an object of derision, where revolt against university authority never crosses anyone’s mind, where books and magazines containing four-letter words are missing from the library shelves, and where “God Bless America” is sung without irony.
But such attitudes among the postwar generation seem to represent cultural lag. They are scarcely the wave of the future. It is those older than the nation’s median age who make up the bulk of the silent majority. In purely actuarial terms, this majority is living on borrowed time; it is a majority under a death sentence.
What happens next?
One line of thought holds that the strange new attitudes and values are attributable not to the influence of youth but to the Vietnam war and the disruptions, frustrations, and loss of morale attendant upon it—its ability, as James Reston of the New York Times has written, to “poison everything.” This interpretation is reassuring to the prewar generation because it implies that when the war is over everything will revert to the way it was before. But those born in the years immediately after V-J Day, who were entering college when the Vietnam war was escalated and are leaving it now, and who have lived only in the strange new world, can scarcely be expected to go back where they have never been. I am convinced that Vietnam is not the root cause of our current malaise and that if there had been no Vietnam the young would have found plenty of other reasons to dissociate themselves violently from their elders and their elders’ regime. Certainly the end of the war, when it blessedly comes, will mark the end of our current paralysis and the beginning of a seventh and more hopeful postwar mood; but I expect it to be a mood not of returning to the familiar but of pushing forward to something new and unknown. In the traditional American cultural pattern youth has always been allowed its fling with the tacit understanding between youngsters and elders that after graduation the youngsters would “put away childish things” and “settle down.” The wild young buck who had been proud of his capacity for beer and beerinspired pranks would sink quickly into sober, hardworking domesticity, and the pretty blonde who had found it amusing to flirt with Communism while in college would become his meekly Republican, upwardly mobile bride. It is impossible for me to imagine the post-V-J Day generation following this familiar pattern. One can, for example, visualize their male hairstyle going from shoulder length to shaved heads—but not to crewcuts; one can visualize their politics doing a flip-flop to dangerously radical rightist positions—but not to traditional conservatism or traditional liberalism.
How, then, can they be expected to react to being older and to assuming power and responsibility instead of defying them? Will they, in their turn, be “prefigured” by the new younger generation that will consist of their children? How will they run the Ford Foundation? the Institute for Advanced Study? the Bureau of the Census? Will they continue the broad liberal trends initiated by the older generation that they now revile—trends toward more social-minded corporations, better-distributed wealth, more general education, less pervasive bigotry? Will they bring to reality The Economist ’s prophecy that “the United States in this last third of the twentieth century is the place where man’s long economic problem is ending”? Will, say, the affairs of General Motors be managed by men (or women) wearing long hair and beads and smoking pot during sales conferences? Or will there be no General Motors?
The fact that it sounds like material for a musicalcomedy skit indicates how little we know what to expect. Adolf A. Berle said recently, speaking of economic and social affairs in the United States, “We are beginning to evolve a new ball game.” Whether we like it or not, the rules of the new game will not be our rules. They will be devised by those born since V-J Day.