In the quiet community where I grew up, all of us, all generations, hung out in the neighborhoods, dropped in to each other's homes both invited and uninvited, stayed out into the night when it was summer enjoying the warm air. All of us knew our neighbors, almost all of them, by name, and had daily interactions with them. Our parents were friends; we played at each other's homes and we had private places away from adults where we played in the woods or the fields. The sound of the ice cream truck was a special and electric sound. A family night at the drive-in movie was a fantastic adventure. We may romanticize a lot, but we don't need to embellish these things; they were real. But that's not the world I see today.
My children rarely seem to go out into the world to interact with others. Aside from the daily stimuli of school, extracurricular activities, and bus rides, their social engagements tend to consist of sitting in front of flickering screens. I should talk, right? Where am I right now?
This is the world of 2008, the world we are living in. Many of us–including those of us who bemoan the self-incarceration of society while spending more and more of our time alone with computers, with TV's, with iPods–wonder what the heck is going on. Many of us seem to feel, especially as we watch the internet and video games seduce our younger counterparts and our children, that this presages the end of civilization as we know it. What is civilization, anyway, but people interacting with people? If we stop doing that, haven't we essentially destroyed it?
What happened to the world we grew up in? we ask, but it's like wondering why you don't look good in a bikini anymore or where those spots on your hands came from. It's a stupid question. What happened is that time passed. Time passed and things changed. Humans age and so do societies, whether we want them to or not, and we–the remnants of the Boomer generation (of which I am a part of the tail end)–are now witnessing the reality that our parents saw back in the sixties and seventies, when they first began to understand that the world had altered beyond recognition.
Ah, we protest, but we were going to change it for the better. Why has it become so isolated? When we were younger, we saw the previous generation's world as one of rigidity and overzealous and false piety. We saw the lies that lay at its foundation, the pretense that so much of the "adult" world was hiding from us. The cocktail parties our parents threw, the ones where we sneakily watched from the top of the stairs as adults mingled in cigarette haze, sipping drink after drink oblivious to their inebriation, were mysteries; we saw but could not comprehend. We did not see their need to escape the restrictions that their lives imposed upon them. All we wanted and needed was the freedom of our own world. And our world offered it wherever we looked.
Other than the rigidity imposed on us by school, we were completely free back then. We played freely throughout the neighborhoods and even beyond. If someone wanted to go somewhere, she just popped on a bike and went there. She came back for dinner, or she called and asked if she could eat with her friend. It was relaxed, easy going. There were no schedules to keep, no soccer leagues for moms to have to drive to, no need at all to keep track of us. The world was not yet dangerous. Or if it was, we were blissfully ignorant of its dangers.
We all know that's not the case today. Childhood is not the bastion of relaxed freedom it once was. Even the youngest child's life is likely to be absurdly over-scheduled, and these days parents begin worrying about whether their decisions will impact their child's college chances before the kid is even in kindergarten. Somewhere the world has gone mad. No wonder our kids are reacting against it by retreating from it. No wonder we are too.
We have more reason than they do. They are too young to remember the ugliness that accompanied the first efforts of the older part of our generation to exert itself. They look at the unrest of the 60's–isn't that a nice, oblique word for what often was more like terrorism?–as ancient history, as we looked at World War Two. They are too young to remember the last time the country started to believe that a candidate for President might be able to rekindle the idealism of John Kennedy, too young to remember that day in June when Bobby was gunned down in California, only two months after Martin Luther King was killed in Memphis. They are too young to remember the last years of Vietnam, the pain of Watergate, the oil embargo. They are too young to remember how the ascension of Ronald Reagan–now viewed as an icon of the GOP–divided America in a way it has never since recovered from. They are even too young to remember the stupid blue dress.
Among their memories, though already a fading one, is 9/11. Today's high schoolers have fainter and fainter recollections of that terrifying day when everything that had not yet changed did so. But we do. We do, and we know the demons that the world can unleash. And more and more we retreat from the world. More and more we find that the fight is not worth it, or we feel that we can be just as effective fighting it in our own quieter, smaller ways.
A correspondent who calls himself Nulwee mentioned that Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zisek had referred to the wake of the 60's generation as "a national culture of masturbation." Zisek probably meant it negatively, probably was referring to the fact that this revolutionary generation became the great Wall Street generation of the 80's, sucking up money left and right in the Reagan years while the nation drove itself deeper and deeper into debt. But it might not be wholly a negative thing.
It isn't that the glorious energy of those who wanted to change the world vanished in the wake of the revolution's end, but that they continued their fights more privately, more subtly, taking their pleasure in smaller acts of aggression against those aspects of the status quo they sought to change. This pattern, Nulwee said, is what brought us cause ribbons and wristbands, renewable energy, recycling, and lots of other quiet positives the world has seen in recent years, the byproduct of a revolutionary generation gone underground.
But his argument goes further, and says that a culture that teaches its children "to be responsible, compassionate and socially conscious," but leaves no room for privacy, no acceptance of failure, no room to explore on their own–a culture tamed by satellite TV that has adopted the unofficial mantra of "live and let live"–is one that may seem benign in most ways but is in fact "post-human, or at least post-civilization as far as I can tell."
So we spend more and more of our lives in front of these flickering screens. We interact with friends, real and virtual, through them. We seek information through them. We send out our collective insights through them. We find entertainment through them. We challenge ourselves and each other through them. We donate to charities through them. We pay our bills through them. We shop through them. More and more, we have little real need to leave the security of our homes and venture into the increasingly dangerous world.
I do not know if it is possible for a President to change all of this. It's been going on too long. The world is indeed vastly different from the one in which we grew up. The change is not all bad, though. Barack Obama could never have run for President in that world. But I'd give anything to find some of the innocence we had back then and replant it to see if, in the children of tomorrow, it could take hold and grow.