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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
The young have turned against careers in business, particularly in big and long-established business, to such an extent that some campus recruiters have expressed concern as to where the managers of the future will come from—although up to now there have been enough exceptions to keep the business schools from being depopulated and the lower ranks of corporate management from being undermanned.
They have made a cult of irrationality, what with astrology, Oriental occultism, and above all the use of drugs. (” We never needed drugs to drive us crazy,” the middle-aged social commentator David T. Bazelon once told me.) This tendency runs deep and wide, cutting across economic, social, and intellectual lines among the young. The sheltered, conservatively brought-up white southern darling and the would-be hippie son of liberal northern suburbanites yearn alike for the experience of New York City’s East Village, and the young Harvard intellectual is almost as likely as the high-school dropout to express or imply hostility to the traditional intellectual materials, abstract ideas, and rational comment. Curiously, the defense of irrationality is often put—persuasively—on rational grounds: that logical thought in foreign policy led to Vietnam, that logical thought in economic development led to pollution, and so on.
The young are apparently in the process of radically redefining sex roles. The question of which forces (the Pill, the obscenity explosion in the media set off by the courts’ anticensorship decisions, or the general air of permissiveness in the land) have brought about a radical change in sexual customs among both the young and their elders, remains undecided. No one really knows. What is much clearer, and perhaps more interesting, is that the traditional aggressiveness of the young American male about his maleness, which has so often led to anti-intellectualism, Babbittry, and cultural self-deprivation in general—for example, the American he-man’s hostility to most of the arts on grounds that they are effete—seems to have been emphatically reversed. The short hair and pointedly different clothing that he always used to set himself unmistakably apart from girls are more and more being abandoned in favor of long hair, fur coats, beads, and other adornments that were formerly considered feminine. The American male’s dread of appearing to be unmanly seems to be lessening. More significantly, one is struck by the new sense of community that boys and girls feel. The growing insistence of the young on coeducation is not just a matter of having sex available but one of principle, growing out of a new conviction that the sexes are not so different as American culture has decreed them to be and that the old segregation is therefore absurd.
The symptoms I have been recording are, of course, parts of a syndrome, and one that may be viewed in two diametrically opposed ways. Looked at in a favorable light, the new youth are gentle, loving, natural, intuitive, opposed only to war and obsession with money, to hypocrisy and the other agreed-upon weaknesses of modern society as organized by their elders. In a different perspective they represent progressive-school permissiveness and self-indulgence run wild: their causes are merely self-serving (opposition to the draft, for example), their attitudes are self-righteous (“Just because you are growing older do not be afraid of change,” they gravely lecture their parents and teachers), their manners are deplorable or nonexistent, their minds are flabby, their herding together indicates fear of standing alone, and the manner of their protests sometimes appears ominously antidemocratic. Macrae of The Economist goes so far as to say that some of the actions of black-power and radical white students during the winter of 1968-69 “invited the most direct comparison with the way that Hitler’s brownshirts operated in the Weimar Republic.” On the other hand Ralph Nader’s consumer-protection crusade, which clearly appeals strongly to the brightest and most idealistic among the young, might fairly be described as passionately pro democratic in that its aim is to save that most characteristic democratic institution, the business corporation, from its own shortcomings. Paradoxes and contradictions, then; and it is quite possible—indeed, perhaps it is inevitable—for a liberal of the previous generation to see the young in both lights at the same time.
For such an observer, analysis is more profitable than judgment. Consider, then, the vital statistics. The median age of the American population at present is a bit under twenty-eight years. Half of us, roughly speaking, were born before the middle of World War II and half since it. Half of us were of an age to be percipient before V-J Day, and half were not. The distinction is not arbitrary, because it was with the end of the war that the new era, the modern world, began. The time has come when “over thirty” means precisely “born before the war.” Only the younger half of the American people have never known the world of traditional values as it was without the disrupters of those values—television, computers, jet travel, space travel, the threat of nuclear extinction. Only the younger half truly belong to the new world—that is, accept it instinctively, without mental or emotional effort, because they have not any old world to compare it with.