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 Ã 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.