A birthday reflection in the time of Trump, pandemics, and social upheaval
I have never been much for celebrating my birthday, close as it is to my least favorite American holiday, the Fourth of July. I have always associated it with drunkenness, fireworks that terrified my pets, and jingoistic displays of a nationalism in which I’ve never really believed.
As I’ve often said, I would be very happy if the embarrassing chant, “U.S.A., U.S.A.” was replaced with “Hu-man-race, Hu-man-race.” This attitude results from coming of age in the 60’s, where a horrifying war and inexcusable public policies eventually morphed into a self-absorption masquerading as self-reliance and personal freedom, having now landed at the current point where a madman with all the worst aspects of our American character has almost managed to dismantle our country while cowards who have lost any vision of who we are or who we could be stand idly by.
But things must break up in order to reconfigure themselves in a new and more positive shape, and I think that may be what is happening now. Not since the 60’s (with the surprisingly transient blip of 9-11) have we had an event that shapes a generation. And a generation shapes a nation.
We are, in one moment of historical paroxysm, experiencing a pervasive fear for our individual physical well-being, a political and cultural anger that infects all sides of the political spectrum, and a shocking awareness that our American way of life is both fragile and unjust.
Our current circumstances will pass, but these awarenesses are now etched in the minds and hearts of an upcoming generation. What they do with them remains to be seen, but we can never go back to the somnambulant consumerism that has gripped us for the last fifty years.
They are going to have to dig deep. They are going to have to find what is good in our character — and there is a great deal that is good (witness what we did during and immediately after WWII) — and they are going to have to clear out some of what is destructive and self-absorbed.
They will never be able to think of themselves as individuals without a collective destiny; they will never be able to put on blinders and see themselves as immortal beings whose meaning can be found inside the halls of a mall; and they will never be able to look at our fragile planet as an eternal given that can survive without care and respect.
How they will act on these awarenesses remains to be seen. But they will not be able to deny this deep generational knowledge that has spread across the globe. There will be retrograde resistance from the people who think that their purpose in life is to get whatever they want and do whatever they want. That, too, is part of the American character, and those folks will not give up easily. We can already see them thrashing around in the dying embers of Trump rallies and in the mindless looting that is taking place under the cover of more worthy protests of social concern. But the heartbeat of a new awareness and the call for meaningful change is strong.
This is a chrysalis moment, for us as a culture and for each of us as individuals. We are, collectively, living through something, and we will never be the same. And so, on this birthday of mine, which so many of you have so kindly acknowledged, I look around me and see hope. It is hope wrapped in danger, and it requires that the voices of the loud and the stupid not be allowed to drown out the voices of the thoughtful and the caring. But we are, for the moment, living with a long vision, and can, if we set our minds to it, put the awareness born of that vision into practice. It will not be easy, but, in its own way, it is exciting. It’s in the hands of the young people, and the task of the rest of us is to make sure that, to the extent that they will listen, we pass on the tools and the insights we have gained on our collective journey.
So, to all of you who wished me a happy birthday, I say, thank you, stay safe, and in the immortal words of one of the thugs in my high school lo those many years ago, “Don’t let the bastards get you down.”
These are, indeed, interesting times.