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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
And consider this: the five postwar moods before the present one were conjoined as well as consecutive—each had its roots in reaction to the previous one, as have the moods of most nations through most of past history. Wartime family disruptions led logically and naturally to early postwar domesticity. The Cold War, which really began in 1945 at Yalta, bore its bitter fruit five years later in Korea. Armed conflict with our former allies, the Communists, led logically to the era of suspicion. The eventual relaxation of that crisis cleared the way for the Elsenhower years of self-indulgence. And the new energy and responsibility of the Kennedy term was clearly enough a reaction to that. In such a linear way did our history unfold for almost two decades.
And then—snap! The chain of events seemed to be broken. Suddenly we flew off in directions that seemed to be neither a continuation of nor a reaction to anything that had gone before. Disillusion with uniform and flag did not appear to be rooted in reaction to any particular superpatriotism of the preceding period; mechanized thinking was not new, but the existence, indeed the ubiquitous presence, of actual thinking machines was; the new youth rebellion could be seen as a reaction to youth passivity a decade earlier, but the breadth and depth of the response was so far out of proportion to the challenge as to make such an explanation seem entirely inadequate. The present American mood, then, in many of its aspects, has had no precedents or antecedents; it represents almost a clear break; it seems to have come out of the blue. Meanwhile, let us remember, it has not been accompanied by sharp breaks in or reversals of the broad ameliorative trends that have marched through the whole postwar period. There are no jolts or breaks around 1964 or 1965 in the charts of social progress. The nation seems to have changed its mind, or to be in the process of changing its mind, on many of the most basic matters for no immediately discernible material reason. And this occurs precisely at the time when the new post-V-J Day generation is coming of age.
“Will the affairs of General Motors be managed by men smoking pot?”
Can this conjunction of facts be more than coincidental? Indeed, must it not be? If so, then the new generation, the generation that is in tune with the new world because it never knew the old one, appears, for better or worse, as the basic force behind the new, unprecedented American attitudes. As for the statistical charts, their relatively smooth continuance through this period of violent cultural upheaval may be explained by the fact that the charts and the things recorded in the charts- matters of business, government, philanthropy—remain in the hands of the old postwar generation. It does not really live in the new world it has made, yet it still nervously holds all the levers of national power.
One who accepts such an analysis is Margaret Mead. In her recent book, Culture and Commitment: A Study of the Generation Gap , she declares that “our present situation is unique, without any parallel in the past,” and that—not just in the United States but world-wide—the human race is arriving through the youth revolt at an entirely new phase of cultural evolution. Putting her argument in a context of rigorous anthropological study rather than in the familiar one of parlor sociology, she describes the new phase as a “prefigurative” society: one in which the traditional handing down of knowledge and belief from the elder generation to the younger is being reversed and in which “it will be the child and not the parent or grandparent that represents what is to come.” No longer anywhere in the world, Dr. Mead says, can the elders, born before the Second World War, know and understand what the children know and understand: “Even very recently the elders could say, ‘You know, I have been young and you never have been old.’ But today’s young people can reply, ‘You never have been young in the world I am young in, and you never can be.’” The prefigurative society she sees emerging is, Dr. Mead says, the first one in human history.
It is a persuasive case, and, fitted together with the vital statistics I have cited, it leads to a persuasive explanation of why changes in our values and attitudes, after years of poking along like a donkey cart in a time of great transformation in our material situation, have recently taken off as steeply as a jet plane. So it comes about that the elders—whether they conservatively wring their hands over the new changes or liberally try to understand, absorb, and temper them—feel like expatriate visitors in their own country. Like expatriates, we of the prewar generation are inclined to spend our days wavering between wonder, exasperation, apprehension, disgust, and superiority toward what we see around us. Again like expatriates, we tend to cling together in enclaves, to propitiate our sense of loneliness by finding islands of our own within the new world that conform as closely as possible to the old one. The turned-on headlights of daytime drivers that have been so familiar a sight in many parts of the country in recent months are supposed to mean support of our Vietnam policy, but they mean more than that. They are a symbol by which the loneliest of the lonely expatriates reassure themselves that they are not wholly alone; they are the club ties of the American Club in Samarkand.