It feels like 1968 all over again: a divisive president calling for law and order, mayhem in the streets, a divided society and distrust of the police, who we referred to as “pigs” back in the ’60s and ’70s—and for good reason.
In 1968, I remember watching with my father the Democratic convention. on TV. It was held in Chicago, where the police force viciously attacked mostly peaceful demonstrators in the streets outside the downtown convention hall, about 25 miles south of where we lived. While I watched with increasing horror as the police clubbed protesters, my dad was on the opposite political side, shouting “Get ‘em,” and “knock ’em down.”
There was a generational divide then that I don’t think exists now: between parents baffled and disgusted by their teen and young adult children who were letting their hair grow long, smoking pot, engaging in sex before marriage, burning the flag and rebelling against a country that our fathers fought for in World War II.
For both generations, it felt like the world was coming apart at the seams. It was the year that two national figures were assassinated: Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy, brother of the first president I remembered.
When John F. Kennedy was murdered, I was 13. One of my first reactions, after the shock of seeing our president gunned down in broad daylight, was some sense that the world was not safe, that the unspoken promise from parents that they would take care of their children, was not being kept. Something was clearly wrong with the world if the president of the United States could be assassinated.
I think the world cracked open then for my generation—baby boomers—and prompted us to take matters into our own hands—first against the Vietnam War, the horrors of which we could watch every night on our TV screens, and then to advocating for women’s and minorities’ rights and protections for the fragile earth.
At the time, our parents’ generation was part of the enemy: cleaving to worn-out ways of doing things and to old attitudes about morality, patriotism, and women’s and minorities’ capabilities. “Get out of the way” was one of our slogans against the older generation.
Or, as Bob Dylan put it then:
Your old road is rapidly agin’
Please get out of the new one
If you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’
And now we’re the older generation— the ones who are more conservative in our politics than the rest of the nation, according to polls. It shouldn’t be surprising. Research has shown that people become more conservative as they age. Perhaps it’s some longing for the past, when life seemed brighter and full of promise, so we want to keep the world from changing too fast, from getting too far from culture in which we grew up.
So, in some ways, it feels strangely familiar to back in an age of social upheaval. It feels right that we older ones, who have been through this before, should be joining the Black Lives Matter protests, that we should be the ones carrying the signs that say, “I can’t believe I’m still having to march for justice.”
Unfortunately, the threat of COVID-19 keeps many of us home. And though I long to be out in the streets again, I have to wonder if it’s a new generation’s time to be out there— younger people who are still idealistic, with righteous anger and lots of energy. Maybe we older ones need to do something different: provide financial support to minority organizations; write letters to legislators and other officials; engage in dialogue with people of all stripes.
The times always have been changing; it’s just that now we’re on the opposite end of that roller-coaster with a different view—perhaps more realistic or even world-weary—of how the world works. Hopefully, even as our energy lags, we can hang on to our once youthful idealism.