No retirement age for rebellion

SAM SMITH, 2008

As of this day, I am one year past the biblical marker of three score and ten. According to the good book, I exist now by “reason of strength” rather than because of any inherent virtue. In fact, the Bible somewhat snottily warns, “yet is their strength labor and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.”Charles Bukowski in “Thoughts on being 71” notes: 

It’s better now, death is closer,

I no longer have to look for it,

no longer have to challenge

it, taunt it, play with it.

it’s right here with me

like a pet cat or a wall calendar

odd, though, I feel no different

then I did at 35 or 47 or 62:

I am only truly conscious of my

age when I look into a mirror:

ridiculous baleful eyes,

grinning stupid mouth.

That’s all true, but still I prefer the late Gene McCarthy’s interpretation, namely that once past the marker you are free of all biblical restrain. After all, as someone put it, just because one is no longer youthful doesn’t mean you can’t still be immature.

Cicero, naturally, dealt with it all more elegantly:

||| It is after all true that everybody cannot be a Scipio or a Maximus, with stormings of cities, with battles by land and sea, with wars in which they themselves commanded, and with triumphs to recall. Besides this there is a quiet, pure, and cultivated life which produces a calm and gentle old age, such as we have been told Plato’s was, who died at his writing-desk in his eighty-first year; or like that of Isocrates, who says that he wrote the book called The Panegyric in his ninety-fourth year, and who lived for five years afterwards; while his master Gorgias of Leontini completed a hundred and seven years without ever relaxing his diligence or giving up work. When some one asked him why he consented to remain so long alive – “I have no fault,” said he, “to find with old age.”

 That was a noble answer, and worthy of a scholar. For fools impute their own frailties and guilt to old age. . . There is . . . nothing in the arguments of those who say that old age takes no part in public business. They are like men who would say that a steersman does nothing in sailing a ship, because, while some of the crew are climbing the masts, others hurrying up and down the gangways, others pumping out the bilge water, he sits quietly in the stern holding the tiller. He does not do what young men do; nevertheless he does what is much more important and better. The great affairs of life are not performed by physical strength, or activity, or nimbleness of body, but by deliberation, character, expression of opinion. Of these old age is not only not deprived, but, as a rule, has them in a greater degree. |||

Of course you wouldn’t know it by today’s American culture which has done everything in its power to infantilize, institutionalize and ignore its elders.Yet we do the same thing to our young. Go back a couple of centuries and you’ll find 16-year olds who were captains of ships and 14 year olds who were serving as apprentices or doing a full day’s adult work on the farm. When I try to trace my own spirit of independence, the trail inevitably leads back to a 14 year old driving a tractor and a six-wheeled double-clutching Army surplus personnel carrier on a farm or sailing into a thunderstorm with no one but another teenager to two to help me. Our distorted economy has abandoned far more than the unemployment figures show. It has abandoned those it doesn’t even count.

But there is something else; I was a member of modern America’s most forgotten generation: the silent one. In part, it’s our fault. We are, for example, one of two generations never to have elected a president, a fate blessedly secured by Barack Obama’s win over John McCain. But it is also true that one of the reasons we didn’t have time for such celebrity sports was that we were too busy adapting to a new world thanks to the fact that so much of what we had been raised to believe was being proved wrong.

In this sense, the twenty olds of today are in a situation much like the twenty somethings of my era. We had been taught – whatever our ethnicity or gender – to believe explicitly in white male hegemony and in the rules of the Cold War. Within ten years of leaving high school that was no longer part of our truth. Today, the mythology of Reagan-Clinton-Bush economics and the America’s superpower status have been similarly shattered. Never again will a majority of Yale undergraduate tell pollsters they want to go into investment banking.

Our establishment was stupid, cruel, selfish and incapable of reform. Today’s is no different – just the issues. Instead of segregation and nuclear bombs we have a collapsing economy, damaged ecology and destroyed democracy.

If today’s young want some idea of how to cope, I suggest our example, not because it was any more than occasionally on target but because there are so few parallels. Our efforts ranged from a civil rights revolution to drinking coffee, talking about it all and doing nothing. But there are no right answers when you suddenly find yourself trapped in an interregnum between insanity and uncertainty. The first step, however, is to separate yourself from those who have been running the place and turn your loyalty not to the powerful but to the best truth you can find.

You won’t find the answer in the stereotypes but in the rebels. After all we produced Sam Nunn, John Dean, Robert Rubin and Antonin Scalia. But, within three years of my own birth, we also came up with Jerry Rubin,Russell Means, Louis Farrakhan, Bill Moyers, Ralph Nader, Gloria Steinem, Abbie Hoffman (born the same year as John McCain), Bobby Seale, James Brown, Woody Allen, Richard Brautigan, Elvis Presley, Gene Wilder, George Carlin, Bill Cosby, Jane Fonda, Jack Nicholson, the Smothers brothers, Stewart Brand, Lily Tomlin and Hunter S Thompson. And that doesn’t even include elders of our own generation like Martin Luther King, Dick Gregory and Jules Feiffer.

During the most determinedly conformist period of modern America, such names became joyously or vigorously familiar among many of the young, because we had learned to combat, ridicule or just ignore the grossly mistaken message of the establishment.

And the interesting thing is that it stuck with us. Unlike the later boomers, many of whom seemed to use the 1960s as a crash pad for their souls and then lost interest once the draft was eliminated, I am struck by the number of refuges of the silent generation who are still on the case. We seemed to have learned a different lesson. Which is why Ralph Nader drives some boomers so crazy; he’s refused to sell out.

A few years ago I tried to compile a list of one time Ivy Leaguers who had top positions at campus newspapers or radio stations and yet had pursued alternative rather than conventional media careers. The list was pitifully short, including such names as Bill Greider, Jim Ridgeway, Larry Bensky and myself. And the interesting thingmost on the list were from the silent generation.

Despite all the attention given the 1960s, we had somehow managed to set and maintain a course without its aid. I tried to explain it once in discussing my time at Harvard:

||| Seldom have I been so unhappy doing what I was supposed to be doing and so happy doing what I was not supposed to be doing. Both the exuberance and the despair have only occasionally equaled themselves since and while I blame Harvard for the latter I know it also helped provide the former. Few of my friends have fit the pattern the Harvard stereotype suggests, yet it was Harvard that introduced us. There have been divorces, a stay in a mental hospital, unemployment, depression, dissatisfaction with jobs that others envied them for, even a spell in Allenwood. Where peace has been found it has been sometimes after an enormous struggle that in part seems somehow, but inexplicably, tied up with having gone to Harvard.

Perhaps our problem was that we rebelled before the age of rebellion. Dissident students would later attack frontally many of the things we only picked at.

We lived in a time that did not even want to talk about things that really seemed to matter. The most active political group on campus was the Young Republicans and their main activity was drinking, The biggest collective action were riots inspired by local councilman Al Vellucci and Pogo. The drug of choice was booze except for some football players who had discovered peyote and some Social Relations majors who had discovered an instructor named Timothy Leary. The full meaning of the Bomb would not occur to most until after we graduated and even those who considered themselves liberal accepted without question that democracy’s only real threats came from without.

The most important book I read my senior year was Stride Towards Freedom by Martin Luther King. It was not on any of my reading lists. We had left high school ready to take on the world only to taught in college that the world wasn’t to be challenged, but just examined, analyzed and manipulated side by side with the right people in the right places. That some of us refused to concede this has been perhaps the major triumph of our later lives — a triumph of will if not of achievement, like standing on the runway in Casablanca watching the plane take off.

My generational peer, Larry Aubach, once said to me, “We will come and we will go and hardly anyone will know we were there.”

If true, it won’t be entirely fair. Caught between the far more assertive, self-assured and self-important World War II and Boomer eras, my generation did something for which credit is not usually given by power-absorbed historians: we adapted. And one would be hard pressed to find in the past many examples where a group as dominant as the white heterosexual American male of the mid to late 20th century gave up so much power so peacefully so quickly.

By the time we reached full adulthood, the white males of my generation would find the status that we had been promised already threatened. By the time we had reached full maturity almost everything of social significance that we had been taught had been proved or declared wrong. Instead of continuing the role allegedly held for us in usufruct by our elders, our task, it turned out, was to pass it on to, and share it with, blacks, women and gays.

While this was true of all white American men of the time, it was particularly true of our generation because we served as translators of the new to the old. We had, after all, quietly planted some of the change ourselves with the beat rebellion, the irreverence of modern jazz and the civil rights movement. Our generation was the sleeper cell of the Sixties.

 Not that many were conscious of this role. Sometimes the change just showed up as divorce, depression, or lowered expectations. And if you joined the fray you might find yourself not unlike an American volunteer in the Spanish Civil War: both committed and separate.

Historians don’t care for inchoate change built on things like anarchistic acquiescence but perhaps some revisionist scholar will discover the unnoted truth that the Silent Generation, by choosing adaptation over resistance, did far more for its country than if it had simply followed suit and elected some presidents and started a few wars. A truth unnoted but perhaps to be expected of those who had, after all, given America the idea of “cool” and “hip.” |||

If we are to free ourselves of the current madness, we must likewise retrieve the capacity to rebel even if, at first, it is only in the inefficient, awkward, stumbling way that characterized those of us in the 1950s guided by the unspoken premise that while you can seldom change history, you can always react to it.

And the fun part is, that once it become a habit, it’s not like a hedge fund at all. It will still have value after three score and eleven years. There is no retirement age for rebellion.

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