Backwards 

The people that time forgot

This time tomorrow—assuming you're reading these words on Wednesday, Oct. 4—I will be 70 years old.

No, stop. Thank you for your kind sentiments, but I tell you not to solicit felicitations. I limp into this with something less than glee. Having already gone five and a half years beyond the average life expectancy of an American male in the year I was born, I am grateful. On the other hand, show me a man who claims he is happy about turning 70, and I will show you someone from whom never to buy a used car.

The reason I bring it up is it presents yet another opportunity to talk about the shared Boomer experience. Back when I was considerably cockier, I would have argued how that shared experience would makes us the most unique generation to ever bless the planet. We could never compete in the Greatest Generation category, of course. That would require the one ingredient we lacked most: adversity. I suspect in some mid-century families, the most bothersome part of daily life was having to walk all the way to the television set to change channels.

Still, we were the first generation to come up under the blue glare of a communication innovation that put the entirety of creation before our unblinking little eyeballs. How could we not have been homogenized when we were all laughing at the same comedians, bouncing to the same music, cheering for the same sportsmen and following the same news. I realize this caricature is tilted heavily to white Boomers, but as there were so few ethnic presences on early television, children of color had little choice but to swim in the same cultural pool (if not the same municipal pool) as the white kids. One has to wonder if this early exposure to the smugly comfortable settings of Father Knows Best and Leave It To Beaver didn't contribute, in some way, to the movement that culminated in the Voting Rights Act (the year I graduated from high school, incidentally).

As to that movement: We were the first generation to watch, in real time, such a dignified and persistent social revolution on our parents' 21-inch screen—to witness those we had been warned about as they waged their struggle to live like us, and as a whole (I thought), we Boomers decided they weren't at all as undesirable as we'd been told. Add to that, we were the first generation to watch, as narrated nightly by Walter Cronkite and David Brinkley, a war—an actual war, sans John Wayne—and our elders were surprised when so many of us decided we wanted nothing whatsoever to do with it.

In short, it felt that we were moving as one tide, we Baby Boomers. We shared the same music. We shared the same literature, the same taste in film, the same education levels, the same philosophical epiphanies, the same clothing choices, even. And it felt like our momentum was forward, ever forward. That, in spite of temporary setbacks—Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan come to mind—we were actually propelling the world onward with our optimism, our shared enthusiasm for an end to the social evils that had plagued humanity until we got here.

Trouble is, we were only seeing what and who we wanted to see—our mirror images, those who thought like us, behaved like us, voted like us and aspired to a more kindly world like us—and we ended up missing those who wanted nothing to do with us or our suggestions as to what needed to change.

No, that's not quite right. We were aware of them, the Jerry Falwells and George Wallaces, the Spiro Agnews and the Pat Buchanans. The malicious mouths that preached and politicked evermore stridently against the grand strides forward we thought we were making. And of course, we were right in thinking so. Anyone who doubts that there have been grand strides forward in minority rights, environmental consciousness, equal justice, career opportunities and educational access, need look no further into history than that decade when I Love Lucy was one of America's most popular ways to pass a half-hour, and Dean Martin could hold a No. 1 spot on a Billboard list for a month.

But while we—what I had so often deluded myself into believing was the great majority of Boomers—grew complacent and content with ourselves, those malicious mouths grew ceaselessly more preachy, more political. In retrospect, it's understandable. They had—have—the most to lose. Were we to have achieved a completion to minority rights, it would interfere with their desire to avoid minorities. Were we to achieve environmental health, it would be at the expense of their habits. Were we to achieve equal justice, equal career opportunities and equal educational access, it would erode their conviction that only they were destined to be on top.

And now, as I limp into my 70th year—six and a half years shy of the average life expectancy of a modern American male—they are once again in control. Their dislike for us and everything we thought we'd achieved was stronger than our commitment to protect those achievements. Is this just another temporary setback? Or has the forward momentum been an aberration? Worse, an illusion? Have we, in truth, never moved beyond savagery as we told ourselves we had?

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