My generation

I was eight years old for the Summer of Love, and geographically, not even all that far away, living in an apartment in San Francisco’s Richmond district on the north side of Golden Gate Park, just a block or so south of the Presidio which was then still an army base.

The Summer of Love centered in the Haight-Ashbury, to the east of Golden Gate Park and south of the “panhandle.” Other social movements, including the Black Panthers and anti-war movements, whose legacies are all but lost, arose in the East Bay.

I have long admired the hippies and for decades considered myself an “I think I would have been if I could have been” hippie, which probably isn’t all that far removed from a wannabe. I spent decades searching for them, but I never found my way into any communes (now called ‘intentional communities’). They mostly scattered, some back where they had come from, some to the slopes of Mount Tamalpais (Mill Valley and Larkspur in particular), some farther north (Mendocino County), and some elsewhere. And I now understand that hippies were very much a product of their time, that I never really could have joined them.

In the Richmond district, I might as well have been on the other side of the planet (and I suspect my father would have made certain that was the case). But geography and chronology don’t fully explain what happened. Even in high school, years later, I saw but failed to fully appreciate the difference.

To set a scene, I need to digress into how school attendance was kept then, at least at my San Francisco public high school, in those days long before technology was available to render something called ‘homeroom’ or ‘reg’ superfluous.

The system worked like this: In addition to classes, students attended homeroom or reg, which pretty much lasted just long enough for the teacher to take attendance and for any announcements to be briefly made. Mostly, it was a waste of time, but back in the school office, lists of absent students were compiled and distributed to teachers of all the other classes.

If a student missed a class but was on the list of absent students, s/he was assumed to not be ‘cutting’ class. And if a student on that list nonetheless attended a class, the teacher probably wouldn’t even notice or care. Which I took full advantage of one semester when I had physical education (P.E.) in the earliest morning period prior to reg. By missing both P.E. and reg, I avoided P.E. and avoided most of the consequences of cutting that class (I still got a ‘C’ for P.E., but a ‘U,’ unsatisfactory performance, for ‘citizenship’ in reg, and if my mother noticed, she seemed unconcerned).

And I hated P.E. with a passion that really still burns. Which was only one of the ways that I never fit in with my fellow students. I was never really interested in athleticism, never interested in football, never interested in being abusive toward girls, and for all that and more, as I would much later learn, I earned the epithet ‘fag,’ which did not reflect my sexual orientation but is rather a mechanism of social control among teenage boys.[1] I was teased mercilessly for being different, I never understood why, and I was helpless in my efforts to fit in.

So one day the reg teacher came in with something different. We were to vote on an idea to stop requiring P.E. It’s been many years, so I don’t know the exact status of the proposition. I assume it would have required legislative action to be enacted and this would have been a long ways from that.

Understand that this was not a suggestion to eliminate or even cut back on P.E. It was really just about whether kids like me who had no interest in it and would never (really) gain anything from it would be required to take it.

There was exactly one vote in favor of the proposition, that is, in favor of abolishing the requirement: mine. My classmates all voted in favor of compulsory P.E.

Those kids, separated from Barack Obama by only a couple years and a much greater distance, by the way, did not form a ‘live and let live’ generation, but rather one which I can now recognize as given to a form of universalism: If it works for them or they like it, then it doesn’t matter that it might not do for everyone. And larger concerns of the Vietnam war, justice, and the environment were entirely subordinate to football.

In Adam Curtis’ narrative, meanwhile, hippies had seen that people were getting killed for being hippies. Hoping that if enough people followed their example, authoritarian structures might wither away, they turned inwards, to continuing their exploration of consciousness. This rapidly went awry, especially as marketers discovered they could sell mass-produced products by appealing to a sense of individualism.[2] (If you’re bewilderd by that, I can’t recommend his documentary, Century of the Self, highly enough.)

I think Curtis speaks too broadly. There is, I’m sure, much more to the story. And another part of that story is that my generation betrayed not only those hippies whose mantle it should have picked up but, in turning to be business of making money, betrayed succeeding generations.

My classmates certainly were not interested in expanding their consciousness. They were interested in football and in money. They were neoliberal before neoliberalism was identifiably a thing.

My generation was the first of a few, each more self-centered than the last. It wasn’t until the dot-com boom that ended in 2001 that I began to see young people with an interest in social justice and the environment. But it is my generation that has, with the exception of a few senior positions, now largely assumed power and with its reckless disregard for anything other than themselves, paved the way for the expanding social inequality that is now such a problem.

Yes, inequality was of course a problem before then. The country was formed as a republic favoring wealthy white men and especially their property rights.[3] They held slaves and slaughtered American Indians. They treated women as chattel.[4]

But the uprisings of the 1960s and early 1970s, while I was still a kid, possibly represented our last chance as a species to save ourselves. Now, when I look at where we are relative to where I think we need to be, I see no hope of getting from the former to the latter in time. In turning toward greed, my generation bears direct and a mostly unique responsibility.

  1. [1]C. J. Pascoe, Dude, You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School (Berkeley: University of California, 2007).
  2. [2]Adam Curtis, The Century of the Self [DVD], BigD Productions.
  3. [3]James Madison, “Federalist No. 10,” in The Federalist Papers, ed. Garry Wills (1982; repr., New York: Bantam, 2003), 50-58.
  4. [4]Linda K. Kerber and Jane Sherron De Hart, eds., Women’s America: Refocusing the Past, 6th ed. (New York: Oxford, 2004).

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