Either … Or. Part 2


For the Baby Boomers, Communism proved to be a subtle and exciting enemy. While billions suffered under Soviet-style slavery, some inside the United States still preached the gospel of class war and proletarian revolution as an alternative to the “evils” of capitalism. The enemies that young Baby Boomers died fighting—the Vietcong—were portrayed as “patriots” liberating Vietnam from the Western imperial yoke. At best, these were calls for Wilsonian self-determination. At worst, it was treason and terrorism. It’s a legacy that remains with us to this day, as Sarah Jane Olsen, “soldier” of the “Symbionese Liberation Army,” awaits trial for acts of violence against innocents.

While network newscasts flooded the airwaves with Baby Boomer protesters at the Pentagon and Chicago’s Hyde Park, they also reported on the status of Baby-Boomer-fighting-men and women overseas. Traditionalists and revolutionaries staked claims to different pieces of intellectual and geographical territory
. While roughly one half of the generation chose to follow the values of their fathers and mothers, the other half chose to repudiate those same values. The division within was visible during the 1968 riots at Columbia University, where the student body—all the same age and of similar backgrounds—dissolved into warring camps of “Jocks” (guardians of the old order) and “Activists” (harbingers of the new).

Possibly more self-conscious than their Greatest Generation predecessors, Boomers thought of war in Vietnam as a proposition to be debated. In many ways, this air of contemplation isn’t surprising. Baby Boomers, overwhelmingly college-educated, used the tools and ideas they encountered in college to evaluate military action in Vietnam. Whereas after Pearl Harbor there was little if any tolerance of “dissent”-one was either working for the Nazis, or against them-the Baby Boomers celebrated speaking one’s conscience. The political, the saying goes, was personal.

Such is the case on many college campuses today.

While unity in the face of disaster was unquestioned after September 11, once the bombs began falling on the Taliban a nascent peace movement sprang up to replace the college triage centers and blood banks. Though the latest polls still indicate that support for the war on terror remains high amongst college students, anti-war demonstrations on over 150 college campuses have called for a halt to the campaign against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

Politics is still personal, and each individual student has the option of deciding whether fighting for civilization is right for him or her. Keeping the Baby Boomers’ response to global conflict in mind, our generation’s celebration of diversity and tolerance is more the legacy of the previous generation than an invention of our own times. Leather-jacket, James-Dean-style teenage rebellion may be a hallmark of our culture, yet young people today who choose to rebel against an “oppressive” system aren’t fully repudiating the values of those in power, most of whom are Boomers. Such rebellion, crazy as it might seem, actually edifies those values.

One is then left with a conundrum: How can the current generation embody the ethos of the “Greatest Generation” when dealing with the home front, while simultaneously embracing the ethos of the Baby Boomers in regards to foreign affairs?

Perhaps it is not such a paradox after all. In his much-discussed article, “The Organization Kid,” David Brooks details how our generation’s great talent lies in reconciliation. We reconcile affluence with charity work, careerism with involvement in trendy political movements (for instance, the rise in “Environmental Law”). As Brooks notes, we somehow reconcile a riotous social life with a results-oriented work ethic. As such, we have tenuously reconciled a unity at home with a tolerance of dissent towards actions abroad.

Growing up in an age of affluence, we have no problem trying to square the circle. But what remains to be seen is whether the fragile balance between the spirits of our parents and our parents’parents that has been maintained so far survives a war that even optimists say will last for years to come.

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