I like to blame my parents' generation for coming so close to social change then giving up after a few successful efforts by the media and government to deface the movement by using Mansons and other hippie representatives as propaganda examples on how they were nothing but unpatriotic, communist, satanic, inhuman diseases.
- Kurt Cobain
This quote from Cobain was in the back of my mind while listening to President Obama's recent commencement address at Barnard. I livestreamed it shortly after coming home from my last exam as a high school senior, thinking about what my future holds.
One line from his rousing speech particularly resonated with me:
Previous generations should give you hope. What young generations have done before should give you hope.
Kurt Cobain was the voice of a generation, and while I don't agree with everything he said (he had a tendency to be a bit over-the-top), his point still stands. His parent's generation, the so-called "baby boomers" that came before us, led a wave of great social reform and change. But they lost steam and lost their way before the movement was ready to be over. This is why I am sad to say that while the previous generation and all they've accomplished give me hope, they also have instilled an unhealthy dose of cynicism and fear within me. The baby boomers are just one example, but all past generations are comprised of more than just the carefully picked highlights that are beautiful enough for the glossy pages of a history textbook.
In my view, the generations before us, the "young folks who marched and mobilized and stood up and sat in, from Seneca Falls to Selma to Stonewall," as President Obama referred to them in his speech, had their fair share of failures as well. Yes, the people who came before us were the same ones who fought tooth and nail for justice, women's rights, and racial equality. But somewhere along the way, they morphed into something else, a less noble group perhaps, focused more on acquiring than giving back. And, I think we can say that they also contributed to the weight of problems the United States is now confronting.
Of course, let's give credit where credit is due: The baby boomers that led (and still are leading) this country contributed greatly to the rich fabric of our history. This is the generation that created the sexual revolution, gave birth to the civil rights movement, fought for women's rights, and participated in riots and protests against the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. When that generation was my age, the country was teeming with a sense of social unrest, but a sense of purpose and mission as well. When I think of civil disobedience, of protest, of the expansion of individual freedom, I think of that generation. In a sense, they are the schematics that the youth of my generation pore over. They are our role models.
The baby boomers, however, are also the people of the generation who buckled under the pressure of conformity. These are the people who shunned Bayard Rustin from the civil rights movement due to his homosexuality. These are the people who, after pushing the agenda of the civil rights movement and witnessing the murders of Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King -- and after the debris of Woodstock was swept away -- allowed themselves to be swallowed by the establishment they fought so hard against. The movement to end injustice and inequality in America wasn't finished; social change had only just begun and there's still so much left to do. And yet it was left behind in the mad dash for... What? Financial success and status? The acquisition of more things? The desire to live above and beyond their means? To have more than everyone else?
My generation now has to pick up where the previous one left off. Not only do we have to fix the problems of our generation (unemployment, especially), but we also have to finish what the previous generation started. We need to rise up and fight the good fight. I am determined to be a part of the generation that does not lose steam, does not lose hope and does not lose its way.
I know that social change and activism sound like big and intimidating buzz words, and that this is easier said than done. I also know that accepting the responsibility to deal with these issues is scary stuff, indeed. I know it in my bones.
However, the important thing to remember is not to get ahead of ourselves. Start with the thing easiest to change: yourself. Here's where to start:
Really and truly educate yourself. We are part of a generation that is severely undereducated in a world where knowledge is power. Whether it's through Google or an old-fashioned library, educate yourself.
From there, move outward to your family and friends. Use social networking to listen to and discuss the ideas of others. We are the generation who uses the Internet the most, after all, so let's do something productive with all those hours we spend on the web.
Finally, don't feel discouraged. Patience is key, and disappointment and discouragement can only lead to a loss of steam.
Right now, my generation is seen as the punk kids who don't know much. We have to show everyone that we can rise to the challenge, that we can continue what has been left undone and go even further, do even more.
All we have to say is: "Yes we can." And... We will.