Thursday, July 28, 2016

Musing on generations ...

Watching the Democratic Party convention this week, a friend wrote: "Clearly there's room for everyone in the Big Blue Tent but yowza, this grey haired white lady is glad for the youth and for change."

Me too!

A discussion ensued, and I felt as if I might have some thoughts, but found they contained enough disparate strands that I wanted to let them percolate. Those thoughts still go off in several directions, but they seem good fodder for a blog post.

It's going to take more than the right mattress ...
For nearly a decade and a half, I've been interested in and advocated for generational leadership transitions in progressive political organizations and activities. This usually took the form of whining: "we Boomers need to get out of the way." I believe that very strongly. I'm not down on my generation, but we are such a large cohort and participated in such good, wrenching social changes, that we can be awful know-it-alls. I am lucky enough to be able (mostly) to trust myself to mean it when I say to myself, "Back off!" If folks come along who think they are finding a better way, my instinct is to respond "please, take it and run." My (relative) ease with this is not universal.

On the other hand, there are very particular situations in which I've badly mishandled generational transition work. A consequence of putting in the time in struggle, especially for women, especially for queers, and (I think, but can't say) for people of color, is that if you've exercised leadership, you've learned to some extent to be more dominant in many interactions than the entitled white males who default to assuming that leadership is theirs. Our prospective president is from this mold. In an interview with Ezra Klein, Hillary Clinton asserted:
... governing is the slow, hard boring of hard boards ...
I'd paraphrase that to mean something like "I'll study harder, work harder, be less romantic, and become even more hard-headedly 'realistic' than any of you. She may be speaking truth about herself, but the result is not too likable.

Clinton walked into a shitstorm in her August 2015 encounter with Black Lives Matter activists. She tried to explain:
“I don’t believe you change hearts,” Clinton told Julius Jones in an candid moment backstage after a campaign event. “I believe you change laws, you change allocation of resources, you change the way systems operate. You’re not going to change every heart. You’re not. But at the end of the day, we can do a whole lot to change some hearts, and change some systems, and create more opportunities for people who deserve to have them.”
That's using a hyper-"realistic" dominance approach to people who are building a beyond-the-possible movement based in their love for one another and a moral vision of justice. It's not going to be taken well. And this is very often what happens when experience collides with righteous zeal.

I know. When working in good and valuable electoral campaigns, I've sometimes tamped down the idealism of people (many younger and/or less experienced) around me because I've learned the day-to-day technical work of an election is a long, often boring grind but I believe you just have to slog through. This grind can yield certain kinds of power, certain wins, for the 99 percent who need those wins. But being a wet blanket who smothers some of the joy of struggle does not contribute to building the world we all want. I have sometimes lost my balance. The job of experience is, usually, to find balance.

When I first encountered pop sociological divisions into generational cohorts -- Silent, Boomer, Gen X, Millennial, etc. -- I was profoundly skeptical. And I still am. But referencing these granfalloons can sometimes provide a useful shorthand in conversation.

The other day I found myself talking with a neighbor, a Millennial or maybe Gen Xer, about whom I know little except that he posted a bevy of multilingual Bernie signs on his windows during the primary. He asked, "what do we do now?" This was an honest question, not some kind of gambit for some ideological lecture. (Nice, huh?) I shared that I believe my Boomer generation had flunked "inside/outside strategy" -- that coming out of the 1960s, we, including me, didn't try to contest for institutional bases within the electoral world. (No, I didn't go into any of what were often rational reasons for this failure.) We left the conventional members of our generation -- the people who had been the high school student council presidents, etc. -- take the reins in the Democratic Party, while most artists and most radicals wandered off to form communes and/or later populate college faculties. Would the world have been different if more of us had worked inside as well as outside? (And no, I made choices that led me outside as well.) We don't know. But I hope the Bernie folks don't replicate this. My neighbor wants his tribe to leave their mark and more power to 'em.

What's glaring this year is that the significant figures in the electoral arena -- Bernie, the Donald, Hillary -- are all really old, just as the Millennials become the numerically largest segment of the electorate. Why was no one younger able to break into the top tier? That's an important question. Something is wrong.

Oh -- and, have to say, sometimes I'm in awe of the young people I see coming up -- so much more sophisticated in multiple ways than we were, back in the day ...

1 comment:

Hattie said...

This is very thoughtful, as usual. My Boomer friends have done well for themselves, but they do feel hurt and bewildered at the ageism they are encountering now. This is not a group that was too easy on the previous generation! So I say grin and bear it. There is still a lot of work to be done!

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