With the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Acts in 1965, 100 years of post-Civil War tumult had been consummated in the law of the land to complete the integration of the American South and the American North, providing equal rights to all Americans, almost.
The year 1965 also marks the dawn of a new generation of Americans: those born between 1946 and 1964, the boomers. The boomers, who had burst onto the landscape of American demographics when the World War II GIs returned home to their pining better-halves. Beginning in 1946, the boomers had made America alive again after the gloom and doom of the Great Depression in 1929 followed by World War II which had begun in 1941 for the United States.
The boomers are the lucky generation. They were born into an era of post-war prosperity and were raised during the Cold War. They have been the beneficiaries of their inheritance and reluctant and rebellious participants in the politics of their fathers who had ended the Cold War before they had handed the country to their sons. When in power, they had once again inherited a period of relative quiet and stability, just as they had inherited the same when they were born.
The boomers have turned out to be the prodigal generation, for they never had to work for the America to which they had belonged. Keenly aware of their generational luck, they envisaged a world where war was no longer necessary, including the war with communism, and worked to protect what they have been given, afraid that it could be lost if their fathers pushed the world order too hard. So, they rebelled against the culture and protested against Vietnam.
They had always failed to understand that peace takes more work to keep than to attain. It is an ongoing dynamic of the human condition, not a static end result of the evolution of civilization. Into this generation were born Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama in the period from 1946 to 1961. The boomer identity is an identity in crisis. That of their ancestors’ was an identity of America that was forged by both principle and pragmatics, with the principle always leading and shaping the pragmatics. Bill Clinton thinks that American identity is European, George W. Bush thinks that it is English and Obama thinks that it is black, white and brown.
In many ways the election of 2008 was a contest between the values of the Greatest Generation of McCain and that of the boomer generation of Obama. Between the values of hard work and pride in country and the values of an illusory peace. Between the values of what America is and ought to be and an America that no longer needs to change because its work was done by 1965, completed not by them but by their parents and grandparents. Obama has embraced the former in rhetoric to protect the latter in practice.
His politically astute cooption of the values of the Greatest Generation in electoral rhetoric had motivated the two generations, the X’s and Y’s born between 1965 and 1989 in the period from the end of civil rights to the end of the Cold War ― the internet and the Facebook generations ― to come out in droves to vote for a candidate who they thought is preparing the country to pass the torch to them. JFK had taken that obligation very seriously to prepare the country for the next 40 years when the torch had been passed to his ― the World War II generation. That obligation, had changed hands, from president to president, all the way to George H.W. Bush, across party lines, to end the Cold War which had begun in earnest with JFK in 1961 to end in 1989 under Bush 41.
The boomers will have mostly left the government and work life in 2031, 21 years from now. Yet, having been raised in an America with the values that were pre-Civil Rights, they are leaving behind an America that is frozen in their worldview. They do not understand the world that 1965 had brought. Two full generations and a third, the Millennials, have and are being raised in a legally equal country. It is these generations that will be stepping into the shoes of the boomer parents and grandparents after 2031.
Their America is not the trivialities of black, white and brown or male and female or gay and straight. Their America is not godlessness and god. Theirs is an America that embraces the world, 24 hours a day. It is at once a small world and a large world. It is not a peace corps that is distinct from the public discourse. It is the reality, agony, ecstasy and the aspiration of peace. It is the palpable possibility of its oneness in all its aspects: economic, political and social co-existing with the richness of its great diversity.
It is an America, as a whole, waiting to reorient itself to the rest of the world, not merely the worldly sliver that is Wall Street and its counterparts in other countries (The Davos crowd) benefiting at the expense of the rest of the unworldly America and its equally unworldly counterparts in other countries.
The politics of this presidency thus far, given how close Obama is to the end of the boomer generation, could deprive this possibility to a world-in-waiting if it succumbs to its generation’s selfishness of leaving the world as they had envisioned it: black and white (and brown), male and female, gay and straight, godlessness and god and this could mean a tragic end to America’s promise.