Monday, September 13, 2010

Ages: Part I

Maybe we need to be a little more cognizant of what might be called “the Age of the Times.” That is, the dominating forces that seem to be at work during a particular period of time that, in a real sense, help to define what is going on.

There was a column in the New York Times yesterday, September 12, 2010, titled “The Presidency, Chained to the World” that set me off thinking in this way. To quote: “The farther we get from presidencies, after all, the more we tend to view them as belonging to periods rather than individuals, as sometimes overlapping clusters along the country’s historical continuum.”

The specific concern of this piece was this: “When historians look back 50 years from now, in what era will they place Mr. Obama’s presidency, and what does it say about the challenges he faces?”

I have been trying to put the major issues of my lifetime into a perspective to help me define what went on.

Of course, one of the major things to take place in my lifetime was the Viet Nam war and the events of the 1960s. My daughter asked me one time, several years ago, what was the big deal about the 1960s.

I had the chance to talk with Andrew Young one time when he visited the campus on which I was teaching. After discussing several other things, I mentioned to him the question that my daughter had asked me. And, I then asked him: “You were there. You were on the front lines. You faced smoke bombs and dogs attacking you. What do your children ask you about that period of time?”

His answer: “The same question that your daughter ask you.”

I was taken aback by this answer.

Certainly, a person that went through this period could honestly say that the person they were entering the 1960s was entirely different from the person they were beginning the decade of the 1970s. But, what was the difference? What defines the era?

Or, does this period have to be put into a larger picture?

Going into the 1960s, America was a country that became the predominant economy in the world during the 1930s. The country emerged from World War II as the unquestioned military power in the world. We were at the top!

Within this context, maybe the 1960s saw how the hubris built up over the past 30 years or so got applied to a little, insignificant war over in Southeast Asia. And, this war channeled feelings that were growing in the 1950s relating to civil rights and equality for women. And, these were all “hot buttons” for the young growing up during this time.

The young had been raised on becoming individuals, individual authenticity, and ideas about freedom and rebellion from the stuffing old society and norms of their fathers and mothers. Marlon Brando, James Dean, and others were our role models. There were also the Beat Generation…and there was the war!

I saw some of the effects of this war in my teaching at Lansing Community College in the 1963-1964 period. I had grown up with the expectation that I would go to college and graduate, get a job, and work for the next forty-some years and then retire and play golf. The “kids” I taught at this time…they saw themselves as getting out of community college, getting drafted, and getting killed…all within the next two to three years. Their future collapsed into a very short horizon and they believed that with such a future…what was wrong getting drunk on a regular basis…taking drugs…having sex where ever one could…and so on and so on.

Attitudes like this began to permeate the culture…at least to the younger folk.

But, this also got tied into civil rights. We were talking about freedom. And, then there was the women’s movement. Note that this came along with the “pill” giving women the opportunity to have casual sex on a regular basis…just like the guys. Of course “the guys” supported this liberation, this freedom…what a gift…girls became readily available when it used to be so hard to have sex with any of them on a regular basis!

This was not all, but the future was never the same.

Was this a part of something still bigger? Information technology was advancing and information was spreading in a way and at a speed it had never advanced before. I remember seeing the war in Korea on television and George Wallace fight integration in the south. I saw John F. Kennedy speak to the 1956 Democratic convention. I saw a Vietnamese general shoot someone in the side of the head on national television. And, there was, of course, a lot more. But, many people were a lot more aware of the world…in real time!

Let me put this in another context. Going back to the New York Times article: “What historians are suggesting is that the modern president may simply not be able to exercise that same firm grasp—or at least not most of the time.” The reason is that we have moved into an age of global interdependence.

“With global interdependence comes a certain lack of control, a vulnerability to disparate influences beyond our territorial borders that are less obvious and less easily answered than the launch of a Soviet satellite. And those influences, perhaps, directly undermine our ideal of what a president should be.”

In the 1950s, the United States was at the “top of the heap.” It was Number One. In the 2010s, the United States is one among many…at least in a lot of things.

I was growing up in the 1950s. I am near the end of my career in the 2010s. What took place during this time period? How can one define this age?

Something happened after the 1950s. I feel that something else is happening now, something that is moving us on to the next “Age”.

I saw a movie a week ago Friday. The movie was called “Going the Distance” and starred Drew Barrymore, Justin Long, and Christina Applegate (the daughter on TV’s Married with Children). The movie, seemed to me, to present a glimpse of what young people are facing today…few jobs, no leaders to provide role-models, no direction, nothing to believe in, and basically searching for something to latch onto, to hold onto, and such. No one is confident about the future. The main characters seemed adrift in a way I didn’t recognize, in a way I didn’t feel a part of.

So my quest in these posts is to try and add some definition to the last sixty years. To interpret how this time period led up to where we are now. And, to try and get a hold of where things are going. Thus, this commentary will consist of a number of parts. Of course, it is just my interpretation.

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