Back in the last century, the late British writer Mirabel Osler wrote an essay that’s cherished by gardeners the world over. In “A Gentle Plea for Chaos,” she advised us to lighten up. Stop trying to control everything, she suggested. If you keep it up, you’ll end up with a garden (and a life) that might look perfect to you but to others will come off as a bit, well, mediocre.
In Osler’s view, the stray self-seeder that emerges for its own reasons has something to teach the other plants in the garden, the ones that mindlessly obey.
What brought her essay to mind is a recent conversation I had with a fellow baby boomer. I told him I was doing volunteer work for Bernie Sanders. He admired my “fire,” he said in a world-weary tone that I did not entirely trust. While he shared my view that something must be done to restore “the old values,” he’d decided he was too old for politics. He had no fire except for his 2-year-old grandson. By him, he was besotted.
I detected an unsettling smugness in his tone. A judgment. He was mocking me. It wasn’t really about turning 60. He was, after all, still working. He found my activities offensive. Naive. How could I be so blind to the facts of human life? Hadn’t I lived long enough to see how history repeats itself? Didn’t I get it? It’s not this or that law or politician or corporation that needs fixing. It’s us. People were a bad idea. The sooner we’re shuffled off the planet the better.
If that were true, I wondered, how do we account for the good things we do, the sacrifices for others, our magical inventions, our passion for redemption through art?
Why my generation rejected “the old values” to begin with is well-documented and still painful to think about, if you’re a liberal. I was among those protesting the war in Vietnam and screaming bloody murder for equal rights for women and minorities back in 1968. I never stopped screaming, and not just because I’m a journalist. I chose to become a writer precisely because it amplified my voice above those whom I considered wrong, especially members of my own generation who seemed to be turning their backs on values of any kind as they joined the workforce, except the values of “family.”
This was code for “familiar” — as in, I care only about people I know, and in particular people I’m related to. The diversity movement enabled people to put the demands of their kind before that of the whole. The melting pot gave way to the salad bowl. As family was redefined, the traditional extended family went out of style and alternative nuclear family units came in. Our growing sensitivity to the travails of the single-parent family and the gay/lesbian family spoke to the growing hegemony of the nuclear family and the weakening of communities that embraced all kinds. Public schools were resegregated and rural towns wiped off the map.
It’s ironic that in the nuclear age, the nuclear family rocketed to importance even as outside-world issues like disarmament were shelved. Hadn’t our triumph over the Soviets shown that cold wars could be won and hot wars could be contained (just as we’d contained the Red Menace)?
Our acceptance of war as a necessary evil (provided it was waged elsewhere) steepened the slippery slope to community dissolution. Putting the financial needs of one’s own family ahead of the needs of the community fostered the conviction that people we have little in common with probably don’t deserve to be cared for. Conservative boomers exploited this to push their free-market, small-government agenda. Liberals wrote checks to their candidates, but hewed to the adage that politics and religion (updated to read politics and business) don’t mix.
Those “others,” meanwhile, went off to fight our wars. Upper-middle-class boomers ran into U.S. military personnel about as often as they ran into the Hare Krishna, and in the same place — airports. “Thanks for your service,” they’d mumble to the men and women in uniform who would have loved to have shot back, “Thanks for sending my nonmilitary job overseas.” We liberals made no protest when the draft was shelved along with those disarmament talks because it meant our own children wouldn’t have to serve. It was OK to lose Americans we didn’t know. Their deaths would never touch us.
We wrote checks to Democrats while pretending not to notice how our liberal politicians were moving to the right just as we were. Because we were. Let someone else’s kid serve in the Middle East. Just keep the oil coming in. We needed our SUVs to deliver our kids to soccer practice.
Baby boomers who spoke out against the new family-first agenda were dismissed as annoying cranks. I can’t count the number of times it has been suggested to me that I should sell my big house and give the proceeds to charity or, better yet, simply move to another country if I found so much wrong with this one. The liberal “friends” who made these comments were “just kidding,”
There was a time when “Love It or Leave It” was a rallying cry for my generation. “Hell No, We Won’t Go” meant more than just to Vietnam. It meant: This is our country, too. And freedom isn’t a concrete thing. You have to keep pushing to make sure it’s still there. Ask a Chinese dissident how it feels to be hated by people you love because you’ve invaded their comfort zone.
I’d rather my comfort zone be invaded than my country. In my view, the invasion of Sept. 11, 2001, has yet to be owned by the parties who caused it — our own insatiable appetite for cheap energy in collaboration with the Saudi royal family. Why is it never mentioned that Osama bin Laden was a rich Saudi, well-educated and angry? Why is public debate in the land of free expression censored on this and so many other issues? Why did we invade Iraq? Why did we intern Japanese-Americans during World War II?
What rankles my fellow boomers isn’t what I think. Most people my age seem to prefer not to think at all. They freely admit this. It’s time to pass the baton, they say. Let the younger generation figure it out.
Look at the numbers if you agree with that logic. Our generation of Americans is the healthiest and most financially secure in the history of the world. On our watch, younger Americans and the working class have seen their financial security erode. We have presided over an ever-expanding wealth gap. We have waged the longest wars in our country’s history. We ignored the warnings of scientists regarding climate change. We elected politicians who dismantled not only regulations that would have improved air quality and automobile efficiency but also that would have reined in banking. The mortgage crisis took us to the brink of world economic collapse. We caused this crisis. Poor people picked up the tab.
Our own ignorance is why we have condoned overseas trade with no strings attached. We told ourselves that “raising all boats” trumped issues like freedom of expression, worker safety, population control and environmental protection.
American products are made by foreign children working 16-hour days. Would it be fair to take those jobs away?
Yes, abundantly fair.
Call me sanctimonious. Self-righteous. Holier than thou. Believe me, you won’t be the first. In my view, worse than any of these cringe-making personality traits is apathy.
We are not too old to devote ourselves to doing our duty as Americans to right the wrongs our generation will go down in history as having committed. We can’t change that record, but that doesn’t mean we can’t change the future. Many of us are enjoying retirement and putting our hard-earned personal freedom to excellent use, whether traveling, tutoring kids, gardening organically, coaching Little League or making music.
But too few of us are using our generation’s bully pulpit. We are not willing to get on the soapbox and tell our children how we screwed up. We’re not willing to roll up our sleeves and ask the younger generation how we can help them change the policies now governing our country, with respect to food, trade, health care, criminal justice and so much more.
Before you tell yourself that your time has passed, consider what Bernie Sanders is doing to correct the mistakes made not by his generation, but ours. This man is entirely different from his rival for the Democratic nomination in more ways than gender. For one thing he’s not a boomer. He was born in 1941.
Bonnie Blodgett is a writer in St. Paul. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.