Tom Engelhardt has obviously been reading this blog, as he too is composing graduation speeches he won’t deliver in person. In his case, it isn’t just popularity lack: he addressed his own Class of 1966:
The answer, class of 1966, is: just begin. Just believe that for every measure, there is still a potential countermeasure. That you matter. That we matter. That we’re not too old. That it’s not too late. That it truly isn’t right, even now, to leave all this to our children. That the future by definition isn’t and can never be known, which means it’s no more Rex Tillerson’s than it’s ours.
So, class of 1966, potential graduates of life-thus-far, prepare yourselves. You may not move as fast as you once did, but that’s okay. When you’re ready, just head for the entrances, not the exits. It’s time to begin.
I think the rest of us have had enough.
Engelhardt, the slightly pre-Boomer (technically the first Boomer college class was ’67) is calling his classmates, brain cells reduced in number by recreational drugs, to “arms” once again to make the world a better place. He’d like to think that they can solve the problems in the world; what he doesn’t realise is that they’ve largely created them.
Let me make one clarification: when I speak of the Class of ’66 and those immediately following, in many ways I’m speaking of two classes. I tend to lump Boomers into one group, and in some ways that’s justified, but in others it isn’t. This generation is bifurcated in many ways; one went the William Ayers route, and the other went towards a more conventional, traditionally American way of life. That bifurcation has defined just about everything this past half century; our politics, our culture, you name it.
Engelhardt’s place in this fork in the road is obvious when he spent his last night before graduation (he’s an Ivy Leaguer, what else?) with his girlfriend and stuck his parents with the bill. He tries to deflect the natural reaction by explaining that “Despite what you’ve heard about the 1960s, this wasn’t acceptable behavior.” Acceptable to whom? One of the things the 1960’s is “about” is that some behaviour that was not acceptable became such and vice versa, especially when you could stick someone else with the tab. Without meaning to, his blasé act of pleasure is emblematic of what his generation really wanted to do with themselves and everyone else.
Engelhardt’s prose is strange; he informs us that, unlike today’s planet with global warming and what not “we had one lucky thing going for us which you, the class of 2013, don’t and won’t have going for you: the illusion that we couldn’t and wouldn’t destroy our own planet.” But then he reminds us that destruction of our own planet hung over us like the Sword of Damocles via the nuclear arms race and (I should add) the budding environmental movement. So which is it? In any case such an environment was the fuel for the apocalyptic thinking that dominates our national discourse to this day, and this in a country whose elites love to parade how “rational” they are.
It didn’t take long for his class to start leading everyone else astray and ultimately making their life miserable, as I document in The Geniuses Commit Suicide. Some plotted and marched and murdered to stop wars (Engelhardt’s favourite cause) and others simply peddled their unworkable ethos to captive audiences in classrooms around the country, brutally suppressing dissent with an absolutist view of life worthy of any totalitarian state, which is the genesis of the speech codes we see on college campuses today.
Engelhardt would probably say that the wrong side of his generation won, with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan following. But I think that, after breaking American society in profound ways during the 1960’s and 1970’s and having the largesse of Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson behind them, if the left could not clinch the deal then, it was and is their own fault. The core problem was that Americans were more aspirational economically and theistic in their world view to supinely accept what the left had to offer. After all, there was an atheistic society out there with ostensibly egalitarian way and active in the world peace movement, and that was the Soviet Union. The threat of extinction via nuclear weapons was the result of fending that off, but it’s too easy for Engelhardt to forget that, had the Soviets triumphed, his ability to speak his peace (which he has made a career out of) would have ended.
Today we live in a country which has turned civil rights upside down for the benefit of economically prosperous groups who are useful to those at the top of society; which keeps promising to end wars but drags it out while sons and daughters, who have little in common with their ultimate superiors, die and are wounded; which keeps telling people to achieve and yet rigs the system in innumerable ways not to make it worth the bother; whose debt will eventually sink the benefits (good and bad) of dollar hegemony; and which has now created a security apparatus for a populace scared of its own shadow which would make “Uncle Joe” Stalin proud, this in the “land of the free and the home of the brave”.
Much of this is the result of a generation whose lack of introspection is only matched by their hypermoralism, moralism proven unjustified by acts like Engelhardt himself did before he took the Ivy League sheepskin. The rest of us have had enough. Social Security isn’t what I would call a “golden parachute” but it’s the best we can afford, and it isn’t our fault if thrift wasn’t your strong suit. I agree it isn’t much to “tell our children and grandchildren, you, the graduates of 2013, that we failed you, that we left the world in worse shape, and that now — thank you very much — we’re dumping it into your laps to deal with”. But it beats more of the same from Engelhardt’s colleagues. Please retire before it’s too late for everyone, you’ve done enough damage and then some for one lifetime.