We are being told something happened on Saturday that was not only important, but will define a generation. The New Yorker made this triumphant statement: “It is, at least, a generation that has now defined itself. Regardless of its long-term effects, the March for Our Lives is the first major statement by Americans born after 1999, who have presented a new template for protest.” Such statements are nonsense, and history shows us why.
The Parkland student-fronted anti-gun-rights movement is not the first time teenagers have been painted as a progressive and powerful force that will overturn the legacy of their terrible predecessors. The Baby Boomers, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, resemble these protesters in myriad ways. They were a big generation absolutely dedicated to social and political change. Or so it seemed.
In 1968, the media was awash in flower power, peace and love, and the kids who were destined to change the world by rejecting the conservative ideas of their parents and grandparents. Corporate America was quick to cash in on their music, style, and attitude, and cash in they did. Once that generation took power and established its leaders, everything was going to change. Let’s review how all of that worked out.
The Hippie Track Record
Twelve years after the summer of love, in 1980, when these would-be transformers of society were in their early 30s, Ronald Reagan, arguably the most conservative president in modern history, was elected. Fourteen years later, while the Boomers were in their 40s, Republicans took over the House of Representatives for the first time in almost five decades.
The Boomer generation gave us three presidents. The first was Bill Clinton, whose entire political program was based on moving the Democratic Party back toward the Right to erase the gains Reagan had made among conservative “Reagan Democrats.” The second was George W. Bush, who launched the biggest and longest wars in American history since Vietnam, Boomers’ signature point of protest in the late ’60s. The third is Donald Trump, who ran a successful campaign using a new brand of white identity politics.
To put it bluntly, the long-term results of the hippie generation that was meant to transform America and its politics was basically more of the same. It was the same slow progress towards greater rights and inclusion in American society that we have been slogging through since the Revolution. In some areas, like gay rights and the empowerment of women, there was slow, steady progress. In other areas, like the economic condition of black Americans and ending war, people on all political sides will readily admit progress has been slim.
It has been interesting to watch the Left investigate itself regarding the fact that mostly white kids from Parkland have sparked a nationwide movement with fawning coverage while Black Lives Matter and protestors from Ferguson were not able to break through. Time magazine has a cover with kids, including white boys from Parkland, exclaiming “Enough!” Teen Vogue, in an editorial effort to redress historical imbalance, has a few similar covers that eschew the presence of white boys.
In a way, many on the Left are basically saying, “Yes, we get it. These well-spoken white kids with the advantage of a good school district are more marketable.” They don’t like this unfortunate truth, which they have convinced themselves of, but for the greater good they are willing to look past it, or at least tolerate it. At least these kids are using their privilege for good. We used to call that noblesse oblige.
This phenomenon of pretty white people being great on TV was also seminal to the American protest experience of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Black Panthers were scary; Jane Fonda and John Kerry were just like us, only better. Of course people welcomed them into their homes through the TV screen and felt sympathetic. And of course both Fonda and Kerry wandered into middle age and beyond as purveyors of moderate politics who were too busy being successful to man the barricades and lead the revolution.
Who Really Defines Generations?
In a documentary about Jack Kerouac, the poet Gregory Corso discusses the Beat Generation, of which he was a part. He basically says it was a handful of guys. And a handful of guys a generation does not make. Kerouac was born in 1922. He is actually part of what we now speak of as the Greatest Generation, and his slightly younger cohorts were part of the Silent Generation. But dig it: neither of these generations, and in fact no generation at all, is defined by artists, thinkers, or media-hyped paradigms of what they think and do.
Each generation, to the extent they even exist, is defined by the same people — the people who become cops, fireman, construction workers, plumbers, nurses, and office managers. The people who have kids and raise families define generations. The people more worried about putting food on the table and ensuring opportunities for their kids define generations. And these so-called generations aren’t as unique or different from each other as we all like to believe.
Twenty-five years from now, these kids will be 40, and there will be documentaries about their powerful star turn in 2018. Their kids will quietly nod and say, “Okay, dad,” when regaled with the tales, just as I did when my parents told me about the Sixties. John Lennon, one of the great heroes of the hippie ’60s, said, “Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans.” It was meant as a warning, one the Boomers did not heed.
But it’s not a warning, it’s just a fact. For decades, the rest of the Western world has been taking guns from their citizens. In America, we haven’t, in part because we are constitutionally resistant to having the state take away our rights. But it’s also because the angry, young, loud voices always become the stewards of the republic, and eventually blush at their youthful ideas.
Nothing changed on Saturday. It was another in a long line of manufactured moments playing at being transformative. It was, as Shakespeare put it, “A tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” A miniscule number of teenagers grabbed our attention, as has happened before. But the story of the future will be made by the millions more, outside the spotlight, who will continue to be Americans desirous of their rights.