Wednesday, November 12, 2008

On the wrong side of a cultural revolution

For those of you fed up with post-election news, this post isn't really about that...not exactly. It's just that reading all the breathless coverage of the impending Obama administration and witnessing the seemingly more hopeful mood that has taken over the country has me thinking: How does it feel to be on the wrong side of a cultural revolution?
Barack Obama's election as President of the United States is a major moment, a cultural touchstone for my generation. According to Heather Havrilesky at Salon, this election is the thing that allows GenXers to finally understand the earnestness and civic activism of Boomers:

And look, we really did stand for something, underneath all the eye-rolling. We're feminists, we care about the environment, we want to improve race relations, we volunteer. We're just low-key about it. We never wanted to do it the way you did it: So unselfconscious, so optimistic, guilelessly throwing yourself behind Team Liberal. We didn't get that. We aren't joiners. We don't like carrying signs. We tend to disagree, if only on principle.

But when we watched Barack Obama's victory speech on Tuesday night, we looked into the eyes of a real leader, and decades of cynicism about politics and grass-roots movements and community melted away in a single moment. We heard the voice of a man who can inspire with his words, who's unashamed of his own intelligence, who's willing to treat the citizens of this country like smart, capable people, worthy of respect. For the first time in some of our lifetimes, we believed.
We actually believe--my generation that practically invented cynicism and snark and slackerdom; my generation that was "raised under Ronald Reagan, smiling emptily under a shellacked cap of shiny brown hair like a demon clown, warning us (With a knowing nod! With a wink!) about those evil Russians stockpiling nuclear arms thousands of miles away." Folks my age were particularly willing to knock on doors and stand in the rain and write op-eds, in part, because we've never seen anything like Obama.
Barack Obama is the first candidate to inspire me to donate and volunteer and proselytize, and I've been a political junkie since I cast my first presidential vote for Dukakis. But it's not just me and my Xer peers. Obama's 68 percent approval rating says you don't have to be born between 1965 and 1975 to lament the last eight years in our country's history--the shredding of the Constitution, the criminal partisanship, the war mongering, the xenophobia and anti-intellectualism.
As Sam Cooke said, "It's been a long time coming, but I know a change gon come." Most Americans are happy and hopeful that change is here. If Obama can harness the power of all those text recipients, canvassers, phone bankers, t-shirt wearers and rally attendees--Oh, my God, what we could do!
But what about the other 32 percent--the folks that disapprove of our President-elect? That's what I'm wondering, after observing a few die-hard conservatives of my generation. After last Tuesday, they're all po-faced and dismissive. I'm guessing they don't feel a part of any movement. Some of my conservative friends roundly reject the idea that Obama's win represents any sort of cultural moment: "Why, this is just what happens when the incumbent president is so unpopular. People don't really understand what Obama stands for. In fact, the candidate could have been anyone. Oh, but I understand how this is a big moment for African Americans."
So, I'm wondering what it's like to stand outside of a big generational happening? Y'know, nowadays you would think that everyone in the early 60s was in love with the notion of Camelot. But what about those folks who called JFK a papist and fought like hell to keep him out of office? What about the folks who tsk tsk'd at the sexual revolution, or the people who wanted to keep women in the kitchen (ERA...pfft)? A hell of a lot of people--black and white--didn't like Martin Luther King, Jr., or Malcolm X. Tell the story now and they are heroes, but back then...
There are always a good number of people fighting to maintain the status quo, but when history is written we tend to act as if everyone was in on the revolution. Do the nay-sayers eventually join the fold and never speak of their initial opposition? I've never heard anyone actually admit to, say, once believing that rock-n-roll was the devil's music, thinking the Kennedy presidency would be the downfall of Christianity, or branding MLK a trouble-maker bent on undoing society--but you know someone thought those things.
How does it feel to be on the wrong side of a cultural revolution?


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