Generational Conflict and the Question of Value
This moment feels more radical, as if the very possibility of change—I'm not even speaking of a specific change—were an affront to divinity.
"We have always had clowns and tricksters in every culture. They inhabit the power places because their role is to remind us that though we may hold and even wield power, power does not belong to us. It is meant to be shared."
Joy Harjo, "Catching the Light"
There are two items we must address before we adjourn. First, the impact of generational conflict upon your generation. I've spoken to a few of you about how the present moment isn't the typical struggle seen historically between old versus new. This moment feels more radical, as if the very possibility of change—I'm not even speaking of a specific change—were an affront to divinity. If I am correct, the problem is how your generation is seen in the first place. In other words, what category you have been placed into before you have spoken or done anything.
Secondly, we must address the question of value. When someone can yell "Safety doesn't sell," put defective cars on the market, and then be hailed as a hero, you've got to wonder what the heck we value. When every politician bends over backwards to defend railroads as they cause derailments, chemical spills, and block ambulances and fire engines, you might ask if we're capable of moral reasoning. How is it possible to recover a space where moral discussion is valued?
These two concerns—young vs. old; the ability to genuinely articulate value—are related. It feels like someone is yelling at you to be quiet when you're trying to ask how things work. They want to be left alone with the TV, radio, or YouTube. By "someone," I don't necessarily mean a literal person. I mean the way society is oriented toward the future.
In his Republic, Plato presents the young as brash, militaristic, and philosophic. It's a strange combination, but it makes a certain sense when you think about ambition and maturity. A number of the ambitious would like to understand moderation and self-control. At the very least, they want the respect given to those who demonstrate self-control. In Book 1, Plato presents us with Polemarchus, whose name means something like "battle leader." Polemarchus argues with Socrates: at one point, he holds justice is good for honoring business deals, but not much more. Socrates gets him to agree that justice is doing no harm, which I think we can all see is a more comprehensive and challenging position.
Young people like Polemarchus contrast with Cephalus, the older interlocutor Socrates chases out of the conversation. Cephalus says he did a lot of bad things in his younger days. He might still do bad things, but his body wore out. So he spends his time at present making sacrifices to the gods, trying to bribe them to avoid any punishment in this life or the next.
This, more or less, is an illustration of the previous tension between young and old. The generations talk past one another. Justice, for the young, might be about finding a serious principle with which to live and establishing a regime. For the old, it is about avoiding certain consequences. There's conflict, but one side doesn't simply wish the other away.
America in 2023 is a different place. The President is 80 years old and running for reelection. Senator Feinstein, who has missed weeks of votes and hearings, is 89 years old and very reluctant to give up power. These are members of the liberal party, the one pledged to make progress on student debt and social change. I will be silent about the other party. The notion that the young can and should take charge is treated as a joke in this country nowadays. In 1776, it should be noted, Jefferson was 33, Madison 25, and Alexander Hamilton 21 years old.
It is true that there are certain things you can only learn through experience. For example, what friendships and relationships mean changes when you get older. The workings of social class and reputational goods become paramount because those things enable a say in how the world is run. Trying things and openness to trying things become more important as people become more set in their ways. Much more is at stake with regard to finding community. If you don't find or build it, life is that much harder.
Still. Not knowing these things does not disqualify you from leadership. You need to do a lot of different things in order to have the experiences you need. And you are effectively blocked from those experiences by two obstacles: people hoarding power and rhetoric devaluing anything angry people say isn't practical. Only sometimes—not even in college!—are you encouraged to paint or write a poem. Yeah, it's corny. Also, for most ages, all we have left of them is fine art.
The "old" being filled with paranoia about the young is not a rational or consistent phenomenon. One moment you're being asked how you will survive. The next you're being told everything you're learning is useless. The next you're treated as if you visited another planet and came back changed. The "old" aren't always old. It's a vibe. Someone could be 100 and firmly believe you should be allowed to take charge. Someone could be 15 and scared about the neighbors because they're different.
What makes "the young" a target varies. The effect is cumulative, observable, and felt. You are shut out of political life. A variety of social and political phenomena are not presented as necessary or empowering. To illustrate, I'll use the example of the poetry I read. Poems are not merely decorative objects. Often, they are about the moments when your mind breaks trying to figure out one thing in this crazy world. Take, say, D. Nurkse's "Psalm to Be Read with Closed Eyes:"
Psalm to Be Read with Closed Eyes D. Nurkse Ignorance will carry me through the last days, the blistering cities, over briny rivers swarming with jellyfish, as once my father carried me from the car up the tacked carpet to the white bed, and if I woke, I never knew it.
You don't need to know anything about poetry to see they're grappling with the attitude needed to deal with climate change. That attitude has to recall the Biblical flood, but Nurkse isn't Noah. They're not interested in humanity being found wanting and needing a reset. Biblical judgment is missing here. In its place are two things: an all-too-human father carrying a child where they need to be. A faith that someone, or something, will step up and help. And, to use their word, "ignorance." There is no plan for cataclysm or remedy. Just vague warnings of disaster. You couldn't know what's going to happen if you wanted.
Fine, you say. What does that have to do with politics or value? Someone wrote a poem. Cool. I still need a job, you still need one. None of this stuff matters.
The problem is so fundamental it is hard to express. You see the ethics clearer when you think about fine art versus sheer consumerism at other times. Fine art has been a call to revolution. Think David's pre-Napoleonic paintings, or Thoreau and Whitman around the time of the Civil War. You lose the arts, you lose the infinitely complex ways of valuing things. You end up with "it's destroying America" or "they're destroying America" and nothing else. There's simply no space, say, for someone who wants to understand what it means to endure an act of God. A whole realm of social and political possibilities is gone.
When people first saw how addicted we were to television, they worried about a loss of knowledge. They worried about us becoming a cultural wasteland. Those concerns seem quaint now. Mass media has aged us. Because it impresses us with authoritativeness, we feel like we know what's essential. But we just saw a 3 minute news story—maybe we heard less than 150 words. We don't feel at ease with the story we were given. Right in that moment you can identify the problem. We want to believe the story is true, but the familiarity needed to cement truth isn't there. So we're louder about what we saw because of our insecurity. We're suspicious anyone could know more. Who reads books?
I need to end with something hopeful. I can give you this. Some of you are aware that things are not in good shape. That if we have the job, the check, the home, the loving family, well, these things are coming at increased cost as time goes on. Society has devoted its resources to taking more from us each step of the way instead of devoting those resources to a sustainable world.
Activists I respect often complain that they run into people who are all talk, no action. Those same activists do a lot with the arts and humanities. It's not a disconnect. They're creating spaces where a lot more voices can be heard. There really is more out there, so much more. You don't have to take on massively unjust forces immediately and win outright. It's a process. It takes time. What's most important is being aware that it exists.