Boomers to the Barricades
By Bob Simpson at May 28, 2008
"It's changin' out there. Just like last time. There's a storm comin' Harry. And we all best be ready when she does."-- Rubeus Hagrid from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
We do love anniversaries here in the USA. This year it was the 40th anniversary of 1968, one of those years like 1776, 1860, 1929, 1941 and 2001 where we stood at some kind of societal crossroads.
Of course the problem with anniversarial history is that the only time we're supposed to think about our history is when the Corporate Media waves its digital wand and provides us with a safely sanitized version that doesn't threaten the present Established Order.
Fortunately, I'm not a part of the Corporate Media so I can think about history any damned way I please. So can you. Like the t-shirt says,"Think, while it's still legal." So I'm going to refer to the events of 1968 in a way that I sincerely hope will contribute to the overthrow of the present Established Order.
Full disclosure: I was 21 years old when 1968 began on January 1. If you are really curious about what I was up to then you can read about it here. At the time I thought 1968 was going to be the birth of a revolution. What kind of revolution? Who the hell knew? That's what's so interesting about revolutions. You never know when they will break out, how they will proceed or what you will end up with. I just knew that the violence and oppression flowing from our nation had to be stopped no matter what. If it took a revolution, well so be it.
I was wrong. I was not at the beginning of a revolution. I was at the end of one...that long labor-civil rights struggle that began in the Great Depression and put young people like me into college during the 1960's. From the New Deal to the Great Society wasn't such a long time really. Radical groups of the 1960's like SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) and SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) started out with demands that any good Popular Front CIO striker dodging bullets and tear gas bombs would have recognized.
We were just trying to finish the job that a previous generation of radicals had started, but had been forced to leave unfinished because of the Red Scare, the Cold War and the resurgence of US imperialism. We were inspired by the civil rights movement, (many of whose older militants had been New Deal-era activists) and by the revival of the women's rights movement( many of whose early militants had also been New Deal-era activists). We set out to achieve the kind of social democracy that had been denied to our parents generation because of the political repression of the 1940's and 1950's. We actually weren't asking for much more than European countries like Sweden regarded as quite commonplace. Read the SDS Port Huron Statement for the details.
In 1964 Lyndon Johnson had been elected president in a landslide. New Deal era liberals were in power and the future had looked bright. But there had been the shabby way that civil rights heroes like Fannie Lou Hamer and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party had been treated at the 1964 Democratic Convention. Johnson had run as a peace candidate against Barry Goldwater, but soon launched an invasion and bombing of an artificially divided Viet Nam. Peaceful student protests over war and racism were met with arrests, violence and denuciations by Great Society liberals. Long before the rightwing made the term "liberal" a dirty word, student radicals had adopted it as an insult. Except for a few progressive unions like the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and Hospital Workers District 1199 we initially got almost zero support from the organized labor movement.
What the hell? We never asked for a war between the generations, but "Don't trust anyone over 30" soon became more than just an off-the-cuff quip. Too often we were pretty much out there on our own. We had to endure a rain of criticism from older people whose lives had measurably improved because of the oft violent protests of the Depression Era. Some of it was racially and gender motivated and some of it was based on the idea that mass murder was ok as long as it was directed against Viet Namese communists. That was ironic considering that these same communists had been our allies and had saved American lives during the war against Japan.
Then came 1968 with the assassination of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, the uprisings in dozens of American cities and the police riot at the 1968 Democratic Convention. With many liberals and all conservatives united against us and two of America's most capable progressive leaders dead, where did we have to turn in our increasing political isolation?
It wasn't long before the rightwing moved in for the kill. Using raw naked racism, sexism and American ignorance about our imperialist foreign policy, they got Richard Nixon elected. I wasn't at the beginning of a revolution. I was at the end of one and the beginning of a counter-revolution. When Nixon promised to "bring us all together", he meant bringing together a coalition to crush the last gasp of the New Deal era....the insurgencies of the 1960's. Nixon who had begun his career as a red baiter against the New Dealers had gotten the last laugh.
In desperation some of us turned to various brands of communism and even armed struggle on a small scale. Good lord, what were we thinking? Our forced exile from the American political process became a self-imposed exile.
Too many of our parent's generation had forgotten the ideals of the insurgent movements of the 1930's. They had forgotten the meaning of FDR's lofty speeches. They had left behind the progressive labor culture of the CIO, the very CIO that had helped build the middle class affluence of the 1950's.
Worst of all, many didn't just forget, they were actively against the very ideals that had help make their move into the middle class even possible. Many tried to prevent Blacks and other people of color from sharing in that affluence even though people of color were prominent in the the battles of the 1930's and were shedding blood for those ideals in the 1960's
No wonder the rightwing triumphed. What else would you expect when so many of our citizens had sided with the enemies of America's best intentions?
Corporate America was ecstatic. They had especially feared the rank and
file labor revolts that had broken out in the auto industry, the postal
service, the coal mines and among public employees. There was a growing
student-labor alliance that looked very promising. The organized
working class had begun to question its role in society also, although
not to the extent of their colleagues in 1968 France or in Italy's 1969
"Hot Autumn". But all of this got cut off at the knees as well and the
union movement began its spectacular decline. Our corporate rulers had
gotten quite a scare in the 1960's, but all genuine threats to their
domination receded as the long postwar economic boom came to an end.
OK Baby Boomers, you wanna know what a lot of today's kids think of us?
They think we're a bunch of spoiled selfish brats who sold out the ideals of our youth for a mess of pottage, a wide-screen TV and a balanced investment portfolio. Sound familiar? Yeah, it's an overblown stereotype, but Boomers, you know there's enough truth in there to choke on.
The Boomer presidents were Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. The most prominent Boomer presidential candidate is Hillary Clinton who voted for the Iraq War. The Iraq War was started by Boomers but fought mostly by today's young working class. The architects of the war: Bush, Perle, Wolfowitz, Bolton, Rice...ad nauseum...all Boomers. And don't even talk to me about Viet Nam vet turned peace activist John Kerry, who along with many other Boomer liberals voted for that war. He of all people should have known better. I think I'm going to be sick. Is this the best our generation can do?
So Boomers, it's time for us to storm the barricades once again. Today's kids are all right, but they need our help and we need to redeem our good name, now badly tarnished by the worst representatives of our generation.
Young people today are on the frontlines of our social movements. But the problems they face in this Age of Globalization are far more complex and time may be be running out because of our planet's environmental crisis.
Young people are short of both time and money. If they are in college, they can look forward to decades of student loan debt slavery as they rush from class to class between their minimum wage survival jobs. If they are not in college, they may be working in near minimum wage jobs where you would need to work those hours 24-7 to make enough for decent living. It's tough to change the world when you barely have time to set the alarm and you barely have enough money to buy your lover a cup of coffee.
Well guess what campers, as Boomers move into retirement, a lot of us will have more time than you can shake a stick at. Let's put it to good use and and not leave the whole "save the world" thing up to the kids.
As cocky young twerps, we were infamous for our arrogance. We need to park that, lock it and throw away the keys. Young people don't need our arrogance, they need the benefit of our experience. Sure we can give them unsolicited advice now and then, but we don't have to slather it on. And let's not make the same old mistakes all over again. Show these kids that at least we have the creativity to make some new ones. Then they won't have to make contorted faces and roll their eyes at us quite as often.
Some of us Boomers did rather well financially, although our reputed wealth is greatly exaggerated. But for those of us who did cash in, it's time for a little personal socialism. Social movements need money and the exciting new green economy needs investment. Shrink your bank account and grow the future.
We really never got the kind of solidarity from the older generation that we needed back in the old days. Too many people had been scared off by McCarthyism, had succumbed to consumeristic affluenza, had been terrified by gender equality, or they simply couldn't break away from the Jim Crow past.
We loved and cherished the exceptions: the battle scarred veterans of the civil rights movement, the old-time union militants who taught us the nuts and bolts of organizing, the "red feminists" who refused to let McCarthyism keep them down and helped us build the women's liberation movement, the WWII veterans of Guadalcanal and Anzio who marched with us for peace, the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, our teachers who refused to bury the truth and our religious leaders who wouldn't allow the political winds to cloud their moral vision even a little. And yes, there were others. But still, never enough.
Some of us are already the 21st century versions of those beloved folks. There's nothing stopping more of us from filling the ranks. It's a great feeling to be cherished and respected, but you have to earn it. Its never a freebie just because you happen to be still breathing on this planet.
I really believe that now the times may finally be a changin'. I sense the possibility of a new era in our national saga. When the workers and students took the streets of Paris in 1968, they raised the cry,"Be realistic. Demand the impossible!" And why not? Who can say with any real certainty what's impossible and what isn't?
What is possible is that our long national nightmare that began in that same year may now be over. But the enemies of America's best intentions aren't going down without a fight. You can count on that. They've accumulated a lot of power and a lot of lost souls who will follow them to the very Gates of Hell. We've seen what they are capable of in places like Abu Graib, Gitmo and those god-awful detention centers for immigrants. Things could get very nasty very quickly.
Many of today's young generation grew up on the Harry Potter books. They know that Harry and his pals could never have taken down Lord Voldemort and his legions without the help of Dumbledor and the other older characters. They also know that while not everyone comes out alive in a fight for freedom, doing the right thing no matter what the personal cost is always the right choice. Not only is J.K Rowling a pretty good story teller, but she's also a pretty shrewd political analyst.
"There's a storm comin," as Rubeus Hagrid said, but no one should face it bereft of support and solidarity.