Time to Pass the Torch

The political analysts, along with the rest of us, have been hard at work for over a week now, trying to figure out why things turned out this way. There are, of course, many reasons offered, some of them conflicting, and almost all of them at least partly right. But analyzing this election is rather like the analysis of the elephant done by a group of blind men. We all get hold of a little bit of the truth, but we can’t see the whole animal. And of course we’re only feeling around on the surface.

I’m as confused and conflicted as anyone else. But it appears to me that something profound is going on. So let’s go deeper.

There are some huge discontinuities in our world that this election has made unavoidably obvious. Discontinuities, as in the mathematical point of change at which a curve shows an abrupt shift. As in the boundary between rock types deep in the earth’s crust, where seismic waves shift. There are discontinuities in cultures, too, when perceptions of truth and purpose change abruptly (see the work of Michel Foucault). In such social earthquakes, shifts can move in several directions at once.

Such shifts occur when the weight of power becomes unbearable, or when things are no longer perceived and known and accepted in the same way. The rise of democracy in the eighteenth century was the product of one such shift. The end of colonialization is another example. The rise and fall of the Soviet Union is yet another. These shifts may be common enough, but they’re also profoundly difficult.

My generation – Boomers and pre-Boomers – lived out such a discontinuity when we were young. Our parents were themselves young in a time of great discontinuity. Our parents’ lives were shaped by the Great Depression and the Second World War. They grew up in a time of upheaval, uncertainty, and deprivation. By 1945, with the end of the war, what they wanted most was peace and stability. My generation, in contrast, grew up in a time of relative comfort compared to our parents. And some of us, at least, saw the stability they valued as complaisance and even selfishness.

We thought the world needed to change, and we thought we could do it. We made a lot of noise, we marched, we protested, and we did in fact help bring about some pretty significant changes. The Civil Rights movement was largely fueled by some members of our generation, as was the feminism of the 1970s.

Now we’ve had a black president for eight years, though we’re still a long way from losing racial bias. When I started teaching, women made up less than ten percent of the faculties of public universities; that number has tripled by now – but it’s still below 50%. Notions that were revolutionary in 1970 now seem normal to many younger people: racial bias is wrong, equality matters, women who work are normal, people are just people no matter what their gender, skin color, religion, or sexual preference may be. Our commitment to social justice did make some progress.

What we’re seeing now seems to be another cultural shift, one that has been going on for a long time and is now shaking us like an earthquake. The volcano of hatred that erupted in the Holocaust has sent out seismic waves that still rattle the earth. While some parts of our culture have been steadily shifting away from old assumptions and biases, others have been shifting into a mode of self-protection characterized by anger and fear at what they regard as a threat to their own beliefs and their own safety. This is manifested as ethnic and racial hatred, and contempt for anyone who isn’t a heterosexual while male.

At the same time that many young people function comfortably in a multicultural world, we’re in the midst of a tsunami of bias, bigotry, misogyny, and racism. And it isn’t only the old who fuel the tsunami. There is a reactionary wave among younger people as well as older ones. The current discontinuity is throwing off shifts in many directions.

Part of what enables all this is technology; our culture has been working through another very large discontinuity, with the shift in communications brought about by computers and the Internet. I was in my early forties when I bought my first PC. The Internet was just getting started, email was new, and there was a pretty frequent need for Norton Disc Doctor. Young people in 2016, in contrast, easily master sophisticated electronic options. By now, I’m pretty computer-savvy for a seventy-something, but what I know about computers, tablets, and smart phones is way below the understanding of the average teenager.

Before the rise of the personal computer and the Internet, hard as it may be for young people to imagine, serious information was found through card catalogues, indexes, and periodical publications. Communication took place in person, through letters (remember those?), and through telephones that stayed in one place and did nothing but provide a connection for direct speech. But if it’s hard for a twenty-something to imagine what it was like to gather information and communicate before computers, it’s equally hard for me to imagine and appreciate the connectedness those twenty-somethings experience as normal.

The deeper, more profound shift we’re experiencing is a change in the way human relationships are perceived. There are profound generational differences in how issues of privacy and transparency are viewed. Connectedness is valued in ways many of us who are older can’t understand. Perhaps we are seeing a movement from the old American ideal of the rugged individual to a different vision of global community. In any case, old patterns of relationship are shifting.

If I’m right, and we’re living in a time of particularly strong discontinuity, it’s no wonder this election has caused – and reflected – so much polarization. Things are different now. My generation can no longer offer leadership that represents the best in our culture and at the same time generates enthusiasm and support. It’s time for new leadership. Time for ideas that will inspire a powerful movement in this country and in the world in the way that President John F. Kennedy’s statement in his inaugural address, “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country,” and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech, “I Have a Dream,” inspired us.

It’s time to pass the torch. Time for new leaders. Time for new voices. So to all of you people not yet into middle age, please move on. Take over the political parties, or start new ones. Find new ways of using your experience (and ours), new ways of understanding the world. Don’t let my big and noisy generation tell you how to be. We can still be useful as advisors, but always remember that our perspective is not yours. And the world is yours, for better or for worse. Here’s your torch. Run with it.

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