I feel very bad for Generation Z because everywhere they turn, they face another existential threat. I was born in 1949 and I had to deal with the threat of nuclear war but that was averted by President Kennedy and then everybody knew that the Mutually Assured Destruction or MAD strategy would keep us from getting vaporized. That was the strategy of making our enemies aware that if they started a nuclear war, we should respond in kind, and we would all be destroyed. And yes, there was the Vietnam War but most of us were never directly involved even though many of us knew someone who was scarred by the war and many of us assuaged our collective consciences by demonstrating and carrying protest signs, even if it was really just all about having long hair and tweaking our noses at the straight establishment. But the war ended and that was that. Pollution was a problem but all kinds of environmental laws were enacted to stop water and air pollution and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was created to enforce the new laws. To be sure, there was government corruption right to the highest levels but the system worked and Nixon was forced out of office. We had big storms, hurricanes, blizzards, flooding, prolonged periods of drought but we accepted it as part of the normal weather landscape. The words “climate change” or “global warming” weren’t invented yet.
And when we went to school, we felt safe and the worst that might happen is a bully would take your peanut butter and jelly sandwich. As far as drugs, you knew better than to mess with the dangers of marijuana, because you didn’t want to fall into the bottomless pit that was reefer madness. Nobody worried or thought much about heroin or cocaine because we all knew that those were the bad drugs from the cities, not in our manicured, landscaped white suburbs. So, instead, on the weekends or after school, we drove cars to liquor stores in upstate New York to buy Boones Farm Apple Wine and we got wasted while driving around town. But that was OK because it was just booze and drinking was a macho thing to do and besides nobody really became alcoholic. Sexual abuse was something that happened somewhere else by some weirdo in a black trench coat and a few girls got pregnant but that was because they were careless and loose. We weren’t concerned with how the culture cruelly mistreated minorities because there were none in my town and besides, we all knew the the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was a great leader who would help to find a way out of the racial strife while we generally disagreed with the politics of some “Black Power” advocates, like Malcolm X and the Black Panthers, who supported armed rebellion that could never succeed. There was no pornography because the only place you could find it was on Times Square. Homosexuality, I think not, except for the fairies that everyone ridiculed. Everything I just wrote is pure bull but we believed it because we were innocent and ignorant. Our elders, fresh from the horrors of a world war and the extermination of millions, wanted it that way, they wanted to shield their children from bad things. Only, it didn’t work.
The reality was that nuclear weapons proliferated and we teetered on the brink of nuclear conflagration; the Vietnam War was just one in a continuing line of proxy wars; polluters kept polluting but they got smarter and covered their tracks and made campaign contributions to candidates who promised to back off enforcement. And the weather was not just part of the normal weather landscape but rather it was the earlier round of a tsunami of climate change and while the bullies didn’t threaten me, there was plenty of domestic violence to go around where violence against children was kept out of view. Drugs were ubiquitous, from the pills known in suburbia as “mothers little helpers” to the stimulants that baseball players swallowed like candy, known as “greenies.” Homosexuality was as prevalent then as now, only then the young gay men and women had to stay locked away, with their only salvation too often being suicide. Alcoholism was plenty prevalent in families but it also was a dirty little secret that shamed children and desperate spouses tried to deny and ignore. Kids were bullied and it certainly left deep emotional scars on the weaker children who couldn’t fight back. Sexual assaults against children were all too common and were often committed by family members and not by the stereotypical pedophile who hovered over the school yards. And many, many young lives were wasted in the rice paddies of Vietnam and many of those who survived, returned to be haunted by their experiences. As far as porn, we had our Playboys and Hustlers, which were every bit as miscogenous as today’s violence-laden pornography. Things are probably no worse today than when I was growing up. As kids and young adults, we still clung to idealism, we were sure that things would work out and that the people in charge had our best interests in mind. Was it a healthier time, a safer time, a better time? Only if you kept wearing the standard issue, rose colored glasses. The world was not a better, safer place; we only thought it was. Today’s young people are constantly reminded of the Armegeddon of climate change that is already taking huge tolls on the world, us included. The young struggle to seek answers about why elected officials act in ways that are utterly un-American while they threaten to tear down our democracy. The kids go to school and participate in lockdown drills to learn how to minimize the casualties in a mass shooting. The epidemic of opioid addiction is ravaging young and old and a real live pandemic is killing millions of people around the world and the leaders often seem powerless while children are told to wear masks if they want to stay healthy. And pornography is as abundant and varied as the birds and the bees, with virtually any twisted version available with the click of a mouse. Of course, there were many among us Baby Boomers who saw through the illusions and the lies we were taught. In his masterful song, “Master of War,” Bob Dylan said of those in power: “You’ve thrown the worst fear That can ever be hurled Fear to bring children Into the world For threatening my baby Unborn and unnamed You ain’t worth the blood That runs in your veins.” His words are as true today as they were 50 years ago. The difference is that it’s gotten harder to hide the shameful acts and the current generation sees through the hypocrisy and can’t hide behind illusions as we did. The lesson of the Baby Boomer generation is that it didn’t work, all the hiding and make believe, it just didn’t work and our current sorry state of affairs is all the proof that’s needed.
My hope is that Gen X and those who follow will be stronger because of the adversity. And they will benefit from tearing the illusions away so they can see the reality and make real, wise and healthy choices. God knows that the Baby Boomers, myself included, haven’t made the world a better place, with all the lies we were told and all the eyes that we had closed.