Social media and cable news have changed the quality of reporting and have allowed competing versions of political reality to be reported to self-selecting audiences that can then repeat their own version to other like-minded people through social media – the echo chamber effect. People in the 60s and 70s tuned in Walter Cronkite and whatever Uncle Walter said carried the weight of truth. If Cronkite caught a politician lying or taking personal benefit from public office at the public’s expense, there were fraught political consequences.
Legitimate journalists today have been assailed by some politicians and actually referred to as enemies of the people by the sitting president. These attacks and his entire universe of “alternate facts” are amplified and repeated in the social media echo chamber. You soon develop a system of competing truths such as did not exist in the 60s. Devotion to democracy and the expansion of the electorate was then – in spirit at least – universally blessed. These values have been challenged in the current alternate reality as niceties designed to relegate a once dominant class of citizens (older white males like me) to minority status.
Additionally, the movement of women and minorities into roles of power is judged in that alternate reality as the gift of affirmative action rather than the result of their own hard work, intelligence and abilities. It’s hard on the ego to see the world becoming fairer as you, in turn, have to yield a little of your own privilege.
Folks often look to the generational cohorts as meaningful units of analysis for purposes of research and reporting. My generation might be called invisible since we are bookended by two of the most celebrated, the Greatest Generation on the older end and by the Baby Boom generation of the younger end. Those of us born just before the end of WW II are included in what is called the Silent Generation. The existential threats of our day were for me, as well as Baby Boomers, Vietnam and the nuclear arms race. Those were both aspects of the Cold War. For African Americans, they shared those threats and could add to them the enduring inequalities and cruelties resulting from our history of slavery.
The generations younger than the Boomers face an even more complicated set of challenges, a whole battery of crises in fact, that should be keeping us all awake at night. Most of them are the result of an economy that has pushed consumption beyond the planet’s sustainable limits. Climate change, pandemic, failing governments, human migration, the growth of terrorist organizations (foreign and domestic), deepening wealth and income inequality, growing and unmet infrastructure needs, and a government that is both unwilling and unable to meet the people’s needs are all on the list of realities that face young people now trying get educated and join the work force. On top of that, they have to deal with college debt far beyond anything I ever faced, and I come from fairly humble means.
All of these problems can be addressed but they will require the focus and work of good governments here and abroad. They must lead people to commit to the hard work and sacrifice that can make this world, once again, one that can take us into new centuries with a maturation and expansion of democracy throughout the world. These must be the kind of governments that can lead us to respect the planet and each other so that all of us can have the one thing we want most of all – an environment of peace and plenty for nurturing our children.
However, this takes me to the final point of difference that I see between the present decade and those of the 60s and 70s – our national political leadership. At the time I was hard pressed to see any redeeming qualities in Richard Nixon. He spied, he lied, he connived and covered up. Yet he took his job as president seriously and he had the grace to resign rather than put the country through any more of the Watergate agony. And there were members of his party in the congress who had the strength of character to confront him with the truth of his situation and the needs of the nation.
President Trump, in my estimation, is laughably and contemptibly inept and uninterested. He has no respect for the office he holds nor the constitution he has sworn to uphold. And the Republicans in congress do nothing to offer him any guidance or to rein him in. I recognize that these points will be argued endlessly by his supporters. I can only offer my years of witness in defense of my position and the close attention I have paid our country’s politics during my entire adult life. I cannot argue against another totally different reality.
If there is anything that I would wish for Generations X, Y, Z and Alpha, it is that we could instill in them, once again, a devotion to truth, to service to our country and the restoration of a leading role in the world for the United States. Public service can be their gift to their fellow citizens, not a gateway to grift. I hope we can help them come to see that running for political office is a high calling and that it is always to be done with humility, generosity of spirit and a dedication to the deepest values of civic purpose.
That was the kind of inspiration my generation took from President Kennedy and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. I suggest that this generation look to the example of President Obama for theirs. They will not find it in the White House today.
I have always loved these words from “America the Beautiful”:
God mend thine every flaw, Confirm thy soul in self-control, Thy liberty in law!
Needless to say, we have come up short. But we of the Silent Generation pass the torch with confidence in the ability of our youth and the strength of their character. I have known a few of them well in my family and in my church. Above all else this Thanksgiving, I am thankful for them.
Tom Fowler, Lake Jackson