A child of the '60s comes home
Ex-activists, commune-dwellers, and dropouts from the '60s have finally put aside the last of the differences that kept us at odds with our parents when we were young. Visits home are tranquil now; after-dinner conversation revolves around the necessity of keeping a guard dog, the unpalatability of winter tomatoes, the relative merits of K cars and X cars, rarely touching on the passionate certainties of 15 years ago.
It seems, perhaps, that we have become conservative and self-absorbed, disenchanted with our idealistic world vision. Our parents are relieved this has happened; at last we have consented to be normal. But some still cultivate small plots of bitterness and bewilderment, sown at other homecomings when we checked in for an uncomfortable few hours to accuse, or to retreat to our old rooms from the accusations.
It was our parents' dream to raise superior children. They believed that the world would be improved by the improvement of children . . . their children. They believed that a decent world was not only possible but, with careful application of new knowledge, practically inevitable.
They succeeded, of course, in producing superior children. By the 1960s we were taller, healthier, better educated, more comfortable, more tolerant of difference in race and class, and, if not happier, surely better understood than any group of children that had preceded us in history. Why, then, were we suddenly so willing to denounce the values our parents stood for, so outrageous in our judgment of society, so appalled at the world we found waiting for us?
Not that the world was worse than other worlds at other times; in fact, it was getting better. Not that our parents' values --freedom, education, honesty, initiative, and fair play -- were antithetical to our own. We simply failed to understand why we were so special. Why had our parents concentrated so totally on us and neglected to apply their ideals to the rest of the world?
Brought up to be tolerant, we were alarmed to find that racism still existed in our own homes; admonished to tell the truth, we were sickened by the artificiality expected of us in social and professional life; infused with an excess of spirit we were dismayed at our parents' acceptance of boredom; raised without violence, we were quite certain that war was unnecessary; nourished with hot breakfasts, we were outraged to discover that other people's children still went to school with a handful of potato chips in their pockets. Our superior education had included memorization of certain ringing documents from American history and a daily pledge of allegiance to a free and just nation. We had learned to be proud that we no longer lived in a land of the privileged few, only to discover, to our embarrassment and dismay, that we were the world's new elite.
Our superior upbringing had left us naive. If all men were created equal, why couldn't everyone have been raised as superior children? If everyone had the inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness, why were babies being eaten by rats in the ghetto?
It made us deeply angry, this gap between the world's realities and what we had been taught was right. And if our parents had been so shortsighted as not to have made the rest of the world whole, it was clearly our job to do so. We burned our draft cards and grew organic pumpkins; we announced that we hadn't learned anything of value in college and marched off to the slums to conquer poverty; we grew our hair long and proclaimed the coming of the new kingdom of peace and love. As hurtful and ridiculous as it must have seemed, it was a predictable reaction to our discovery that we occupied a position of privilege in a world where populism was the ideal.
"Change takes time," cautioned our parents.
"Time is merely an excuse to prolong privilege," we fumed, "and you're actually enjoyingm yours."
Fifteen years later, we've mellowed some. Guitar pickers have become professors, and earth mothers now scribble letters to the editor. Our babies, once so easy to love, have become teen-agers with faults remarkably similar to our own. The poor, whose lives we so confidently believed would be changed by our hard work and self-denial, have, for the most part, remained poor. We underestimated the effect of their upbringing and the extent of their apathy. We have gradually become aware that it is possible to consent to remain downtrodden . . . a consent sometimes disguised by anger and self-loathing, sometimes accompanied by remarkably little emotion at all. We have come to understand that it takes hope and unimaginable self-sacrifice and strength of character to make a new life, and that we cannot provide what is necessary merely by wrenching money from the government and organizing love-ins, hot lines , and storefront therapy.
It is for this reason that we now appear to be disillusioned with our old ideals. It is true that we have moved out of the inner cities in disgust (fully and guiltily aware of our privilege to do so), that we have given up teaching the dispossessed after years of watching so many small hopes smashed against slum realities, that we have discovered certain persistent flaws in human nature which preclude communal bliss, and that we are even ready to liberally embrace conservative solutions, provided they will solve something.
But while this is all true about us, do not make the mistake of thinking we have abandoned our vision of Utopia. A few setbacks from saving the world have not eroded our optimistic nature. Our naive astonishment at injustice will always be with us; our idealism is as irrational as ever.
Children who were lulled to sleep to the strains of "South Pacific," who skipped around the kindergarten class to slave spirituals and mountain fiddle tunes, who were sent to visit the churches and synagogues of their friends, who trick-or-treated for UNICEF, who were dressed in uniform at camp so that class differences wouldn't spoil friendship, and who learned the comic futility of unrestricted greed from Uncle Scrooge McDuck bathing in a mountain of money -- such children cannot erase the effects of their superior upbringing. Our enthusiasm may be tempered but, with all due respect to our parents, we cannot forgive what we were so carefully taught.