Since we’ve been talking about the antiwar movement or lack thereof –at the Washington Post, John McMillian writes a column called “Missing in Antiwar Action” wondering why young people aren’t engaging in the antiwar movement. McMillian is a Harvard history professor, and his column is mostly about the low-key reaction to the war by his students. An obvious reason is the lack of a draft, of course. McMillian suggests some other reasons:

First, today’s young people claim to be under more pressure to succeed than we were. I believe this is true, and I’ll elaborate in a minute. But I think it’s a lame excuse.


… today the gauzy idealism that circulated among teenagers in the 1960s seems almost freakishly anomalous. According to a recent U.S. Census report, 79 percent of college freshmen in 1970 said that “developing a meaningful philosophy of life” was among their goals, whereas only 36 percent said becoming wealthy was a high priority. By contrast, in 2005, 75 percent of incoming students listed “being very well off financially” among their chief aims.

Certainly, acquiring wealth was less of an issue for us because we grew up at a time when the American middle class got more affluent every time it breathed. The road ahead didn’t seem all that intimidating when viewed from the 1960s — a big reason, I suspect, we may have felt less pressured than students today. We would have a harder time than we realized, since the post-World War II economic growth that seemed endless to us peaked about 1972. The economy slowed down after 1973 and never quite recovered. Although it may be that Boomers as a group are less frugal than our parents were, we struggled more than our parents did — with two-income families, for example — to keep up appearances. And I think our children will find appearances slipping no matter how hard they work. It’s bleak out there.

Some of my students suggested that they might not even be capable of experiencing the kind of indignation and disillusionment that spurred many baby boomers toward activism. In the Vietnam era, the shameful dissembling of American politicians provoked outrage. But living in the shadow of Vietnam and Watergate, and weaned on “The Simpsons” and “The Daily Show,” today’s youth greet the Bush administration’s spin and ever-evolving rationale for war with ironic world-weariness and bemused laughter. “The Iraq war turned out to be a hoax from the beginning? Figures!”

As I wrote last week, we Boomers were raised to be naive and idealistic. As we caught on to what our government actually was doing, we felt betrayed. Most of us remained idealistic, however, even as we protested the government. Consider also that our parents had gone from being the Greatest Generation in the 1940s to being the “Gray Flannel Suit” generation in the 1950s — from military regimentation to social and cultural regimentation, creating a society so oppressively conformist that if the hem of one’s skirt deviated by even a half inch from standard specifications — mid-knee length in a below-the-knee year, for example — eyebrows were raised. Of course, hair length on the boys was every bit as regimented, and facial hair (other than the occasional rakish mustache à la David Niven) was a no-no.

Naturally, when the Boomers hit adolescence the cry of rebellion was heard throughout the land. We decorated ourselves with beads and feathers and wore our hair and our skirts any length we damn well pleased. The books we all read were mostly about either oppression, liberation, or transcendence — 1984, Animal Farm, Hesse’s Siddhartha and Steppenwolf (although you might not have made it all the way through Steppenwolf), The Prophet, Jonathan Livingston Seagull (you tried to forget that one, didn’t you?), The Lord of the Rings.

What are the young folks reading these days? I don’t even know.

McMillian’s piece ends rather bleakly:

“Just like [in] the 1960s, we have an unjust war, a lying president, and dead American soldiers sent home everyday,” one student wrote me in an e-mail. “But rather than fight the administration or demand a forum to express our unhappiness, we accept the status quo and focus on our own problems.”

That’s sad, considering the status quo is even bleaker for them than it was for us. All the taxes we’re not paying now are going to end up in their laps, for example.

On the other hand, this study from UCLA says

This year’s entering college freshmen are discussing politics more frequently than at any point in the past 40 years and are becoming less moderate in their political views, according to the results of UCLA’s annual survey of the nation’s entering undergraduates. … the percentage of students identifying as “liberal” (28.4 percent) is at its highest level since 1975 (30.7 percent), and those identifying as “conservative” (23.9 percent) is at its highest level in the history of the Freshman Survey, now in its 40th year.

Good luck, young folks. You’ll need it.

31 thoughts on “Steppenwolf

  1. It’s not that they’re not paying attention, people.
    It’s that they’ve rejected the old, tired lines that the democrats and then foisting on them for the last 40 years.

    Whatever else may be said, we haven’t raised a band of idiots.

  2. Whatever else may be said, we haven’t raised a band of idiots.

    Right. Like they’re original or something.

    I say they don’t get to pat themselves on the back until they come up with a plan for progress. Until then, they’re just whiners.

  3. I used to think young people were indifferent. Now I believe they’re cynical. They don’t have any hope of change.

    Another point about 60s radicalism v. today’s restraint–back then, it was the liberal party that started the war. There was no way we could delude ourselves that the party of Goldwater and Nixon might be the way out of the morass. The whole structure seemed rotten, and that’s what made me “bring the war home” radical. The situation today is reversed–the party of the insane have gotten us into this mess, and there’s still some legitimate hope that the sane people in the other party, if they could just get up some courage, could do something.

  4. there’s still some legitimate hope that the sane people in the other party, if they could just get up some courage, could do something.

    I agree. I think that even though in many ways our problems seem bigger now, I also think real change is possible. If anything, there’s a more urgent need for change now than before. What happens in the next couple of years could make a huge difference in the next several years. And the young folks are the ones who have to live with it. They need to wake up fast.

    Also: Re Bithead in #2, seems to me cynicism is just another type of idiocy. Young people are being idiots if they sit on their butts now.

  5. Read all those books (except Seagull, heh). Just read (again) The Journey to the East – Hesse is hypnotic, baffling, soothing, inspir(it)ing. I’m anti-antiwar, go figure.

    I’m surprised though at the, unintended, irony of Dr. MacMillian, and also the fobbing off of blame to Stewart, Homer I mean, come on, he’s at Harvard , the Vanguard of THE Elite – they have set the tone as much as anyone these last 50 years.

    Remember Maha, the WTC videos are to the kids what Tet/Cronkite were for you. Anyway history has a way of waking folks up. Some Harvard prof named George said that, wish we still had him around.

  6. the WTC videos are to the kids what Tet/Cronkite were for you

    I hope you’re not talking about those damnfool “it was controlled detonation” videos. Because those are not today’s Tet/Cronkite; more like today’s Symbionese Liberation Army. Fools and crackpots.

  7. I don’t think you can underestimate the effect that 25 years – more than the sum of these kids’ whole lives – of rightist, Social Darwinist propaganda has had. They have grown up in a culture that overwhelmingly worships only 2 things: $$$ and entertainment. They’ve been hearing “Look Out for #1” since they were tots and parents have been so frightened for them that many have known what college they were going to since first grade.

    I taught adolescents for years, and I am convinced that, underneath, they are as idealistic as teenagers have always been, and at the same time just as cynical. But the balance has changed significantly. We were more ideals than cynicism; they are more cynical than idealistic.

    Your point about the 60’s generation’s rebellion to the autocratic 50’s and an economy that seemed to have no bottom (remember our pride at being able to furnish apartments with stuff other people had thrown away?) is central, I think. The new generations may have ideals but on top of those is the fear that without a concentration on “getting a job”, they may wind up on the street. They consider it their duty to plan for the future. Though many would rather not, they feel like they don’t have much choice. They see an unforgiving economy and shrinking options.

    They simply don’t believe in the “promise of America”. They’re mostly aware of a capitalist culture that is eating itself in the pursuit of profit, and they have no expectation (required for hope) that anything they can do will change that. To me, that’s the most dangerous and destructive effect of the right-wing’s insistent call for selfishness: the dominance of that POV has drained the society of hope by convincing it that their will to greed and power is the way things have always been and the way they always will be and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. That that’s just the way it is.

    I once had a conversation with a young man in his early 20’s, an artist, who was complaining about how difficult it is these days to create something original without corporate “weasels” swooping in to co-opt it and turn it into a sales gimmick.

    “So what would you do if Pepsi offered to buy one of your images for an ad campaign?” I asked.

    He shrugged. “Sell it to them. What choice would I have? I gotta think about the future.”

    The prevalence of Social Darwinism and unbridled consumerism has killed their youth. These kids are old before their time. It doesn’t surprise me that many hold onto their non-existent childhood by playing video games, nor that they’re not exactly eager to repeat what they’ve been taught were the “mistakes” of the 60’s by becoming politically aware, much less active. They literally have no hope that doing so will change anything at all.

    Before they can be enlisted in the cause, they’re going to have to be given hope. I have no idea how that can be done.

  8. NOT talking about the Truthers. Talking about the 1st generation to see an attack on U.S. soil since the Grey Flannel Suits. Talking about Santayana.

    Talking about mm-mm-mm-yyy geh-geh-geh-generation (not).

    “It seemed that, in time, all substance from one image would flow into the other and only one would remain: Leo. He must grow, I must disappear.” (TJttE)

  9. They simply don’t believe in the “promise of America”.

    Isn’t it ironic that this is the result of the “Reagan revolution”? And Reagan was supposed to be all sunny and “morning in America” and all?

  10. Talking about the 1st generation to see an attack on U.S. soil since the Grey Flannel Suits.

    Do you think 9/11 had a different impact on younger people than on the rest of us? I’ve noted that 9/11 had a different impact on New York than on the rest of the country (in a nutshell, New York dealt with it; the rest of the country went batshit crazy). But I hadn’t thought about a generational difference.

  11. Maha-

    Re # 11… It is scary how some of the younger people feel about 9/11. It’s often the only time they’ve seen their adult male role models (like their dads) fall apart and cry, for example. I would be interested to see polling of pre-college people on the subject, but I am unaware of any that’s any good. I think they were impacted more by this than we realize and are more likely to support future attempts to limit basic civil rights, etc. in the interest of “security.” They may realize that the country was fooled into war, but they are likely to continue to look up to Authoritarian leaders like George Bush standing on the fire truck after 9/11 for the rest of their lives.

    I hope I am wrong.

  12. Don’t believe the hype, Maha, especially from Harvard history profs. There is something about America that brings out the best from each generation, whether the prevailing ethos is left or right. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. (Harvard prof, doh!) speaks convincingly of the ideological swing we experience every 30 or 40 years.

    Even if the kids retain some MTV type shallowness for a little longer than I held onto my Knights In White Satin moroseness, the world makes you play catch-up very fast. They are distracted possibly, but they are not stupid – at least the ones I know (and I know many). They get “the promise.”

    BTW: re: Hamsher/Vanderleun/Wolcott: This is the kind of crap that does no one any good, and they’re all complicit. In fact they’re mirrors. Wolcott wasn’t exactly civil with the Anchoress, nor was Boehlert, and she’s no more a veins in the teeth righty than you are a … (fill in lefty diss/smear here).

  13. mick in #8 has some good points to make.
    I think one huge difference for today’s youth is that they live in a different economic world than the youth of the 60’s. Back then, hope was a part of feeling that one’s options were pretty wide open. Since then, there’s been a subtle long-term tightening of the economic screws for the majority of families as the income gap continues to widen and the middle class declines.
    In 1961, I went to college, not with a moneymaking career as target, but because I loved ‘learning’. My first year, all college costs totaled $1,260. It was doable for me to finance my own education with part-time and summer work and some scholarships. Today, a year of college costs many, many multiples of that and necessitates loans that saddle the young graduates for many years afterward. I do not know whether it is even possible to ‘work your way through college’ today. But, it seems to me that the option to get an education for its own sake, [deepening one’s mind] and not just for a career is no longer possible except for kids of the wealthy.
    What is called cynicism in the young might better be termed ‘feeling trapped’. This is an economy that stifles passions and artistry, offering praise and status for income production almost exclusively.

  14. Wow, many good comments.
    A young fellow that was helping me with some weekend projects joined the Army at the end of last summer. He was going to college, and his reason for joining the Army was not patriotism, but he needed the money and the benefits. His recruiter offered to pay his tuition, $60,000 to sign on, and offered him a choice of jobs. Up ’till that point, he was attending college and squeeking by on the weekend work pay. When I told him he was likely to see combat, he replied that it wouldn’t be that bad (according to a friend that served 2 tours in the marines and participated in the attack on Fallogia.) however, he was concerned about the roadside bombs.
    Mick’s comment hits it, these kids have grown up in a totally different world. Parents and teachers have lofty goals, and not everyone can attain them.The world is full of vultures. I feel sorry for this generation, and I fear the world they will take over.Better pick out my nursing home now.

  15. The point needs to be reinforced that the ’60’s youth revolt was global, and due in part to the post-WWII baby boom which set such a huge cohort of Young in motion. In the USA, the revolt occurred in a context of Progressive governance run amok. The Young were rebelling against Progressives not against “Conservatives” or Conservatism, but against arguably the most Progressive government this country has ever known and may ever know in the future. They were rebelling in part because they saw the fraud and hypocrisy of so much of what was being promoted as Progress. The Vietnam War was part of it, but not all of it by any means. Racial segregation, restrictions on free speech, an ossified market economy, corruption, and on and on, were all part of the Progressive legacy the Young were inheriting, and they saw — and said — it was a crock (in many ways.)

    And they got their heads cracked in or they got shot or hosed down for their trouble — as happened in other countries, too. And it was a shock, a big shock, to the Progressive Powers That Were to be so openly and forcefully challenged by their own offspring.

    The Radical Conservative/Fascist Powers That Be of today are barely moved at all by their opposition (though Nancy Pelosi seems to have got the White House goat yesterday by calling the war escalation “tragic.”) They are not shocked or embarrassed in the least — no matter what horrid revelation is exposed. They are unmoved by marches, by elections, by direct accusations of malfeasance. They don’t care what you (or I) think.

    And there’s seemingly nothing we can do about it, short of pulling the plug — in ways that are sure to have unexpected consequences and no doubt will bring more harm in the short run to many more than are being harmed now.

    But is it true they can’t be shamed?

  16. Che Pasa — How old are you, son? I just want to ask before I skin you alive for some of the crap in #16.

    Remember, lad — I was there.

  17. “…to be so openly and forcefully challenged by their offspring,” is as old as dirt and is the destiny of every generation.

    The odd thing about progress is that we seldom recognize it unless we look back at what was before. Lord Acton would have hanged both Burke and Robespierre.

  18. Che, it’s utter crap to say that the counterculture was a reaction to progressivism. The Johnson Administration may have had a progressive domestic policy, but the counterculture wasn’t protesting Johnson’s domestic policy.

    First, there is a direct connection between Joe McCarthy’s witch hunts against the State Department and American involvement in Vietnam. McCarthy led a purge of Asia experts in the State Department because they “lost China.” Had genuine “progressives” been in charge of the State Department in the 1950s and 1960s it is doubtful the Vietnam War would have happened. Details here.

    Johnson’s decision to send troops to Vietnam was a political one; he was protecting his right flank, literally. He feared that if South Vietnam became Communist the righties would be after his head because he “lost Vietnam.”

    Re “progressive government run amok,” I assume you are referring to Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society program. The “run amok” part is rightie propaganda; whites resented the Great Society because they saw it as taxing them to support blacks. Don’t blame progressives for that.

    Progressive Democrats started going out on a limb for desegregation beginning in the Truman Administration (the desegregation of the Army) and Hubert Humphrey’s speech at the 1948 Democratic Convention calling for desegregation, which caused the Dixiecrats to walk out.

    During the 1960s the progressive wing of the Democratic Party — not a majority of the party, unfortunately — stood up for equal opportunity and desegregation, which enabled Richard Nixon’s “southern strategy” — using race baiting to win the support of working class whites, who had been Democratic voters. I wrote more about this here.

    It’s true that the New Left helped bring about the old New Deal coalition, which is something I’ve written about a lot here, but that’s because the more centrist and conservative elements of the coalition and the Dem Party did not work hard enough for racial justice and against Vietnam, among other issues, to suit them. Again, “progressivism” was not the problem.

    Tell me; how is this the fault of “progressivism”? I don’t remember that anyone on the Left had a beef with Social Security or Medicare or the Great Society for that matter.

    “Racial segregation, restrictions on free speech, an ossified market economy, corruption, and on and on, were all part of the Progressive legacy the Young were inheriting” what unmitigated crap. Segregation was the legacy of the failure of Reconstruction, not progressivism. Restrictions on free speech were coming entirely from the Right. The “ossified market economy” — I’m not entirely sure why that was a progressive flaw or what about the economy of the time was “ossified,” — wasn’t on anyone’s radar except on the Marxist fringe. I don’t remember corruption being a progressive invention, either.

    Absolute and utter crap, I say. And it pisses me off, because all you’re doing is repeating the narrative that righties believe in. It’s not what really happened.

  19. Che Pasa, I also was there:

    In the USA, the revolt occurred in a context of Progressive governance run amok. The Young were rebelling against Progressives not against “Conservatives” or Conservatism, but against arguably the most Progressive government this country has ever known and may ever know in the future.

    The young were not rebelling against progressivism per se. They were rebelling against “the system”, which at that time happened to feature a government run by progressives that had made great gains for ordinary people since the Depression, gains that were completely taken for granted by the young. Kids were rebelling against everything old, especially 1950s conservativism/conformity. If anything, the kids of that time wanted the government to be even more progressive and less conservative.

    mick’s comment (#8) was especially insightful and touching. It saddens me whenever I meet a young conservative (what a sad term – fortunately this age cohort is peaking in numbers, I gather) who never grew up with the fantastic sense of hope, idealism, personal freedom, and optimism that I completely took for granted as a child. I feel so extraordinarily lucky to have grown up in the 1960s. And so very disappointed by what has followed.

    One of things I don’t think anyone has mentioned in this thread (or, my boomer eyes missed it) is the Draft. This hugely galvanized the kids of the subject generation. It’s something that’s always brought up whenever studies like this are done.

  20. Maha,

    McNamara stating (pardon the paraphrase), “We got bad intel because Tailgunner gutted State,” sounds alot like something, ahem, very contemporary. Or contemplameorary, if you will.

    Also, there’s a gap/gloss here that doesn’t mention that little JFK/Lodge/Diem dustup.

    Re: Dixiecrats. Republicans brought the Civil Rights Act over the line. Granted some did so to stick it in the Democrats’ eye, but others (Dirkson, in particular) were with the angels.

    Just throwing that out there. History has many voices, and yours is a POV that ought to be, as I’ve heard someone say today, part of the conversation.

  21. Don’t forget the impact that music had on the generation coming up in the 60’s. I used to play my air guitar to Steppenwolf’s— Born to be wild. Music shaped our attitudes toward the establishment. Kids today don’t even know what it’s like to feel groovy.

    I wouldn’t want to be a young one starting out in todays economy. I see it as much more difficult to get a piece of the pie, my last vehicle cost more money than my first house.

  22. [post deleted because I don’t have time to respond to it; Che is using a definition of “progressivism” that had some validity a century ago, but is not what the word means now.]

  23. “Some even wistfully remarked that they would like to be part of a generational rebellion” John McMillian

    I wistfully remember being a part of that generational rebellion and often tell my children how sad it is that their generation is not doing more regarding this war.

    How ironic that 1960s parents preferred that their children not get involved in war protests where many of us today wish that our children would.

  24. I agree with Joe at #1. And violent ones at that… I see ad’s for war games on TV all of the time.
    In honor of Bill Maher, I think we ought to have a “New Rule:” You can’t buy violent video war games unless you’ve served in the military.
    We have a real “War Game” that they could play, instead. I’m against the war. I’m an anti-war activist in North Carolina. But maybe if we had the prerequisite that you had to serve in the military before you could buy a violent game, that would get the kid’s out in the street’s.
    I doubt it, though. Many of them are too busy building fake video “Sims” lives, instead of being concerned about others lives.
    I will give today’s kid’s one thing – their focus. I know a few that are so focused on their studies, that they really are not all that aware of what is going on in this country.
    Maybe I’m being too pessimistic. “HOPE” is the only acceptable four-letter word. After all, THEY are OUR future. And I’m not givimg up hope in them…

  25. I realize our hostess doesn’t agree with me, nor in fact are many likely to agree with my hypotheses regarding the youth rebellions of the 1960’s vis a vis Progressivism — as Progressivism was being practiced by those in power at the time. And I realize the situation in California at the time may not have reflected the situation elsewhere.

    But I’ll stick by my point. I’m trying to figure out why — when we rebels were right about so many things back in the day — the Reaganite reactionaries, and now the Bushevik totalitarians, have been so successful in dismantling much of the Progressive legacy and are hell bent on a full restoration of Archaic Feudalism. How did we as a nation go from trying to improve and perfect a flawed Progressive system to the current situation where the denizens of the White House and their lackeys are trying to undo the American Revolution?

    And what can today’s youth do about it…

    Understanding what the revolt of the 1960’s was about and who and what were being rebelled against and what the revolt was intended to accomplish might be helpful. My perspective is that Progressivism — as it was being practiced by those in power (albeit in California) at the time — was a chief focus of the rebellion.

  26. Che — California may have been an anomaly; I’m thinking of the country as a whole. But again, your definition of “progressivism” is bound by late-19th century ideas of progressivism that nationally didn’t survive the 1920s, and the sins of the Democratic Party and aging New Dealers were not sins of progressivism but a lack thereof.

    I actually do see where you are coming from; it’s your choice of words and your notions of what “progressivism” is that are off base and, I think, playing into rightie fantasies.

    And as for progressivism being the chief focus of the rebellion, let me say,


    You keep saying that, but you’re not providing any examples that make sense. Young people rebelled against conformity, racial injustice, repression of civil liberty, and Vietnam, and none — NONE, sir — of those things was rooted in progressivism in this time-space continuum.

    That said, any “ism” can be taken to extremes, which is why progressivism must always be paired with liberalism, for reasons explained in this post. But I have no more time to discuss this today.

  27. The draft is I think the big difference. The kids in college are not facing a trip to Baghdad when their student exemption runs out. Right now, even more than then, it’s mostly poor folk going to die. The well off kids who have the resources to go do protests, support a music culture, and in general make a lot of noise are not directly affected by the war. Ergo, they don’t care and so there are not many massive protests, not many songs denouncing the war, and no real concern. Those who are worked up can make a blog post in between cramming for exams.

  28. Swami hit on a BIG point in #23. There was a relationship between the events and the music. Artists were informed, involved and unashamed to have their music be a declaration of their passion. The music moved the masses and the world changed.
    Example: CSNY 4-way Street.

    The music and video games culture that youth is exposed to today does not lend itself to social involvement. The children of Woodstock believed they could be an irresistable force. Yes, a backlash to that movement fueled Nixon’s rise to power. But I long for some sign of life, awareness and passion from today’s youth. They seem totally unaware of the dire risk and consequences of the erosion of civil rights here and the global distrust for those policies which contadict our principles.

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