We who attended school in the U.S. have a little chip in our collective unconscious that gets activated this time of year. It happened to me as I walked by the water yesterday afternoon. Even though I’m not planning a vacation and don’t have kids in school, something about the angle of the sun and the color of the sand set off that little frisson that says “School’s out for summer!” Then came pell-mell a succession of images that represented summer vacation half a century ago: palefaces lying in the sun until our skin took on the color of old leather, picnic meals of well-charred meat followed by copious lashings of refined sugar and saturated fat and long, aimless, gas-guzzling car trips just for the hell of it.
“Oh, to be young and innocent of the fact that absolutely everything one did carried long-term consequences,” I thought, “to know nothing about SPF 30, autoimmune disorders, PCBs.” But youth doesn’t equal innocence: it occurred to me that many of the young people I know today are anything but innocent of life’s perils. They know about safe sex and never talking to strangers and eating organic and recycling and a whole lot else.
Suddenly, there I was again: obsessively considering the difference between then and now, as if it held a desperately needed key to the future. Yes, I’m still conducting phone interviews with teenagers for a consulting project, and consequently still being brought face-to-face daily with my questions and doubts. The question that obsesses me today is rooted in my own activist youth–as Zonker in Doonesbury cartoons likes to say of his days in the Walden commune, “back in the shire.”
In the mid-60s, I was an antiwar activist and draft counselor (helping young men make and implement their choices about the prospect of service in Vietnam). There were many things to outrage us, many things to oppose: segregation, unjust war, urban poverty, institutionalized sexism and racism. So it would be incorrect to say our movement wasn’t oppositional; our passionate desire to stop the injustices undertaken in our name was a powerful motive force. But I think it is more accurate to say that our social imagination—our propositions about the possibility of creating a just and healing society, our sense that what we believed mattered to the world, that it had a fair chance of coming to pass if we worked hard enough—sustained our oppositional activism. We felt the institutions of the dominant society were hopelessly flawed, and believed we ought to be preparing the ground for the new and better social arrangements we would create in their stead.
All of this took place in a prosperous time marked by an experimental spirit in both art and social relations, heightening a pervasive mood of possibility. In rather a different sense than Adlai Stevenson meant it when he coined the phrase, ours was a “revolution of rising expectations.”
The idea we held was prefiguration: we thought we should live now as if the conditions we hoped to bring about were already in place. What was the point of waiting? Some of the food co-ops and free clinics, the childcare programs and barter micro-economies created by 60s activists have outlasted the popularity of that idea. Whether it was foolish, prescient or premature, history will tell. But I’m beginning to think it’s worth another look.
Today we are seeing growing activism among young people. The spirit of the times is very different from the 60s: terror seems stronger than hope and all around us is pervasive confusion in the face of overwhelming pressures. The chief focus of contemporary activism is stanching the flow of resources, blood and democracy. And how could it be otherwise when, as a nation, we are being drained—are draining ourselves—of the energy, liberty and altruism that mark the best in American history?
This difference has been worrying me. How can young activists sustain themselves, I wonder, without the serious pleasure and delicious incentive of a revolution of rising expectations? I worry that they will spend themselves pushing against the injustices they oppose, and thus preoccupied, lack the energy to cultivate possibility.
But then I realized I often encounter younger activists who are putting as much energy as we did—maybe more—into creating alternatives. The thing is, they’re not so much doing it out of grand utopian hopes as of necessity. I see people creating communities focused on alternative energy sources, sustainable agriculture and permaculture. Sometimes they talk about preparing for the changed society that will arrive when the global peak oil crisis has ripened. Sometimes they are involved in social networking or other ways of pooling information that circumvent or subvert the massive commercial media and communications sectors. Sometimes they talk about a different type of sustainability, one grounded in collaborative businesses and other social arrangements that seem safer than the public sector to young people who came of age in the post-Reagan era.
Last week an old friend and I were at a birthday party, an occasion for reminiscence about (two guesses) the 60s. After listing all the things we missed about that time (having first stipulated the impossibility of distinguishing nostalgia for one’s youth from nostalgia for the era in which it unfolded), my friend suddenly looked serious. “All we saw about what was going on then,” he said, referring to Vietnam, “I wouldn’t have said we’d be torturing people. It makes me heartsick that we are torturing people.”
Privately, I thought “What are you talking about? What about the Mai Lai massacre?” But it wasn’t that kind of discussion—more a matter of trying to hear each other over loud music and a dozen other conversations—so I said nothing. When I thought back on it, I found myself considering whether my knee-jerk response was valid: is there a distinction that makes a difference between atrocity and torture?
To end someone’s life is a greater crime than to injure them terribly in a way that admits the possibility of a future. But beyond that there can be no moral hierarchy between two such repugnant and irredeemable acts as slaughtering women and children and torturing prisoners. Each was undertaken in the service of an equally unjust war, so not much distinction there. But one difference is germane, I think, and that is what each act says about its perpetrators.
In Vietnam we saw the beastly barbarism of troops long in the field under terrible conditions and unrelenting pressure. What transpired may have been rooted in the Cold War realpolitik that got us into Vietnam, may somehow have been facilitated by the lack of noble purpose behind the war. But we can also understand it as men having gone mad under pressure. In Abu Ghraib and in Guantanamo, we have soldiers in conditions of relative safety—indeed, by all reports, boredom with long empty hours was a strong incentive for Abu Ghraib guards to stage their torture tableaux—choosing to further dehumanize unarmed captives who are powerless to harm them. There is not much room here for comforting fantasies about the society that countenances such conduct, not much on which to base a revolution of rising expectations.
When the great opening of the 60s ended with Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, it was a tremendous blow to progressives of my generation. It told us that our sense of possibility had been written in dreams, that far from knowing the hearts and minds of the American people, we had lost touch with a great many of them. In fact, for much of the country, my 60s generation had come to symbolize all people wished to expunge from our national culture. In part, that heartsickness my friend talked about is a byproduct of the death of illusion.
So maybe it’s not such a bad thing that today’s young activists are mainlining far fewer illusions about the scope of their own influence and social imagination than my generation did. Maybe, by a very different route, they are arriving at a point similar to our own, of growing disengagement with dominant institutions in favor of cooperative, self-managed, independent ones. Maybe knowing the risks will stand them in better stead than our innocence.
I hope so, because I have that summer vacation feeling, and while I can’t get a sunburn or go back to the shire, I wouldn’t mind dipping my toes into the waters of prefiguration.