Saturday, January 17, 2009

What Happened...?

Movies have a pretty incredible power over us sometimes. For two hours or so you get wrapped up in a story that you don't want to end. You want it to be true, you want to live it. At least if its a good one. I had the good fortune to see an excellent film today with a friend that got me thinking a lot. The movie is one I'm sure you've heard of, as it will undoubtedly be up for many awards; Milk. To give a quick summary of this biographical picture, Sean Penn plays Harvey Milk, a gay rights activist in the 1970's. The movie chronicles the growth of the gay rights movement that began in San Francisco but grew to national proportions. Throughout the film, we see the transformation of Milk from a 40 year old insurance agent in NYC, to a hippie business owner in San Francisco, to a suited up political activist that has the power to move a crowd of thousands to their feet to march. Powerful stuff, and Sean Penn is amazing.

For obvious reasons, the movie made me think about changing the world. I saw parallels between Milk and Barack Obama, as both started as community organizers with no name and only their ideals to guide them. I will admit too, that I was taking mental notes; "how did he organize that group," "what did he say to make that change," "where did he start and how did he know what to say?" The answers to a lot of these questions, I figured, had to do with both the times and the cause. The cause, in the sense that, the cause of gay rights was both pretty black and white, and very personal for Milk. Black and white; they were being discriminated openly, so it was easy to tell who was on who's side. And personal, because Milk was gay, so he knew what to say and when because he himself was discriminated against, as was his community. It came from the heart. Easy enough, I suppose... But, the times?

This second idea got me thinking. Milk benefitted from the time period in the sense that the 60's and 70's were already times of such drastic social reform and civil rights awareness. With other minority movements in full swing, as well as anti-war protests, peace movements, and an entire generation that rebelled wholeheartedly against the establishment of their parents', the gay rights movement fit very nicely into this cloth. But if you look at the 60's and 70's in the context of the last century they seem like an anamoly. I mean, when you think about the 40's and 50's, you think leave it to beaver and the family from A Christmas Story. You think innocence, and unfortunately still lots of intolerance. On the flip side, when you think of the 80's and 90's, instead of seeing them as a continuation of the change from the previous two decades, it seems like change hit a wall. There were no more protests, no more social movements. In fact, it was a step back for the environmental movement, with Reagan repealing much of the work of the 70's movement. What happened..?

The answer I can come up with is one that calls for hope for today, and that is that change oscillates and is generational. For whatever reason, the young people (people who were 18-30's in these decades) of the 60's and 70's just could not accept the establishment and fought their hardest to change it. Maybe their parents raised them to be dreamers of a better tomorrow; or maybe it was quite the opposite, that their parents bought so fiercely into the system that they alienated their children enough that they could see the built-in injustices for what they were and could fight them. It's probably that. Regardless, they brought change. Then, the young people of the 80's and 90's stopped this momentum. Why? Well, a lot of change had already happened, so there was less injustice to enrage the youth, and likewise there wasn't a horribly unpopular war to demonize. But I think the answer is more generational. If you look at who raised the youths of the 80's and 90's, who taught them in school, it was people who were young in the 40's and 50's, the time of American innocence. At home they were taught of the good old days when kids listened to their parents and didn't do drugs or march on the streets, where order and discipline were respected. Their teachers in school were of the same persuasion. Growing up in that kind of environment, you'd feel more inclined to buy into the system, to believe in the end it will work for everyone.

Which brings me to my point. Who were we raised by? Our parents were those kids in the 60's and 70's who didn't listen, who didn't buy into the injustices of a broken system, who decided it was time to unite and rise against the discriminators and bigots and polluters. Our parents were dreamers, and if they didn't march in the streets themselves, they knew 10 people their age that did. Our teachers were the same way. All the people sculpting our minds from day one were people who saw real results from fighting, protesting. I always wonder why protesting went out of style. It seemed to get things done.. at least eventually. People are too serious nowadays; they can't justify missing that day of work or school to go walk around in the streets. They don't believe anything will change if they go, or they believe the tired argument of "what's one more voice going to matter anyway.."

At my college graduation last May, and at the high school graduation of my brother a month later, I heard speakers across the board mention the hope they had for our generation. They kept saying things about how like no other time in history we need change, and just from talking to students in the halls or dining halls they knew we were dreaming of change too. And they expect a lot from us. Because even though it is our parents who are at the peak of their careers and have the most influence they have ever had at work and in their communities (a place someone with youthful ideals drools over, a position with influence), ultimately it is the young people who dictate change in this country. It is the idealism reserved for the freshest faces, those of us who have yet to give up hope in the face of the system. Our parents and teachers expect so much of us because, as Alex said in his post about our generation, they have told us from day ONE that we can do anything we want to, that the world is full of endless possibility, and that we CAN change it.

I think the problem that we are running into now, the problem that Alex explained so perfectly, is that we have been instilled with all this hope, this vision, this dream, our whole lives, that we want to do something immediately, and more importantly we think we can do it immediately. We don't know our own limits, which is scary, in a good way. Yet, the institutions for us to express this passion, this dream, are not in place to serve us. The system exists today as it did for our parents. In the 60's and 70's politicians and non-profits and communities did not go to local college campuses to recruit optimism or outrage. When our parents and their peers graduated college, there wasn't an organization called Change, Inc., or Protesters and Co., or Civil Rights Conglomerate that recruited young talent for their causes. And good riddance. No, our parents fought the institutions that existed because they didn't believe that this was all to life, that you had to get a job in an office and raise a quiet, neat family and look away when their neighbor was beaten for being different. They stared that injustice square in the eye and acted. It's time for us to act. We aren't going to get that call that Alex referred to. No one will call tomorrow saying, "look, man, the globe is warming, poverty continues to ravage the third world, we are overpopulated, malnourished, oh, and there is war in the Middle East...think you could help?" That call will not come. We have to make them hear our voice. The time is now. We have to fight. Our survival depends on it.


  1. What changed so that the '80s and beyond were lest activist? The draft ended. The forcing of young people against their will to participate in a groundless war a world away stopped. So everybody grew their eyebrows, wore shoulderpads and pushed up jacket sleeves, and danced to synthesizers.

    Also, inevitably, the '60s kids had kids and had to feed them, so they spent their energy on jobs and creating homes. That's something that will happen to every generation, even yours. So get into while you can, and make that change.

  2. Thank you for focusing on feeding me and building me a home, Dad. I suppose, albeit from a selfish perspective, that was also important, hehe.

  3. I was listening to the lilting tones of Diane Rehm's voice today, and she told me there was an interview coming up with a man who believed every 'great' war has already been fought. I was intrigued.

    I was talking about that notion with Tabitha over lunch when something out the window caught our attention: hundreds and hundreds of middle school children marching for peace on their day off of school (today is MLK day). Sounds kinda awesome, and when we first looked up there was a modicum of shock value, but honestly there was something uninspiring about the scene. Maybe it was because they all seemed to have just come from an arts and crafts session where they were taught how to make cute signs calling for peace, or because I just dont' have much faith in the activism or influence of 9-year-olds, but either way it seemed to serve as a reminder that marching for causes is a thing of the past. Battles are going to be fought differently in the future. Youg people these days may still care about things, but our method of action won't be marches, bed-ins, vandalism, or war( hopefully).

    Perhaps as a society tackles its isses one by one, black and white issues are replaced by dark gray and light gray issues that aren't slapping you in the face every day. As the polarity of issues becomes less extreme, the method of resolving conflicts may become less extreme as well. It will probably happen on the internet, or on iPhones or something new and trendy.

    Maybe blogs.

  4. Good stories, particularly good movies, are an important part of my life. I suppose that’s putting it mildly. They fuel my life, constantly challenging the way I live and the way I see the world. Sometimes they seem like an easy way to learn, providing insight into a situation without me having to make the mistakes myself (take "Requiem for a Dream" for example). At the same time, it’s important to remember that there is an author for every story – someone whose job it is to make you feel certain ways at certain points. Someone whose job it is to make you see the highs and lows immediately (one of Alex’s struggles with Benjamin Button). Someone who has total control of every character, every situation, and every viewpoint, with the goal of creating a very specific final product. The most important thing I learned in Hollywood is that it is a business.

    I am interested to know what you think a better tomorrow looks like? What kind of change do you want to see take place? What is the goal? What are we working towards? I may be naive but I think that change, for change’s sake, is a pretty poor reason to change.

    I, myself, believe that kids should listen to their parents and not do drugs. I don’t think there is anything wrong with parents who raise good, clean families. In fact, I would like to raise a good, clean, pleasant, kind, thoughtful family myself. And I think very few people would agree that looking away from a beaten neighbor is the right thing to do.

    I don’t think it’s so much about over throwing the system but that we, ourselves, need to become better and more responsible individuals. That it has more to do with encouraging the people around us to not only have ideals and hope, but to grow with dignity, courage, and honesty. Who cares what policies Governor Rod Blagoivitch comes up with now?

    So the globe is warming. What actions can we take that will actually make things better? Poverty is rampant. How do we actually start to help people who are suffering in poverty? The Middle East is fighting. What do they really need and are we able to help the healing?

    I want to know more about this ambiguous change you speak of.

  5. What does a better tomorrow look like for me? Well, it includes much of the change we have mentioned; better care of our planet, helping decrease and end poverty, and finding peace in the middle east. I would extend this to a few more fundamental changes, for example changing the diets of Americans to help prevent instead of promote disease, to stop this culture's utter obsession with money and power, and for equality, true equality, worldwide, but starting in our country. With the last one, while in the 60's it was a black and white issue (no pun intended), now it has become very gray, as in, very subtle and under the radar (meaning black people are no longer beaten daily in the streets, but they also still aren't paid what white people are). I believe it is a fundamental right that all people should have access to quality health care in this country (if we have the means of making you healthy, why should one person be denied this while another is not). So it is absolutely not change for change sake, but rather, directed, focused change.

    "How," is a bit tougher question. However, while it is easy to demonize the policies of an embattled governor, I think politics in general is a pretty good answer, at least for some of these problems. Universal health care would come from government. Helping take better care of the planet certainly could start with government policies that regulate our emissions (the US being leaps and bounds ahead of any other country in terms of emissions). Being a global leader on the environmental front would make a big impact. Promoting peace in the Middle East again requires our government to be a leader in the region, and instead of starting wars there, we could engage countries in peace talks. Obama saying in his inaugural address that the US is friends of all people is a good start.

    Some changes come more from an individual perspective. Changing the average American diet, while some policies could certainly aid this process, ultimately is an individual choice. The best way to get people to change their individual choices is increased education about what they are choosing. Ending poverty also, while the government can do a lot, undoubtedly comes from individual donations as well, and not just to hand-outs, but to effective strategies such as micro-credit charities. Making an environmental impact certainly fits in this category as well - from buying green power where available, to eating locally and organic, to simply shutting off unnecessary lights and running the water less. Finally, shifting the American culture from an obsession with money to things that actually provide happiness (friends, family, etc) may be a pipe dream, but would also come from the action of individuals. I can't think of a government policy for that change, and would cringe at the sight of one. That is not their turf.

    But when it comes to listening to your parents and raising a decent, clean family, I think I need to clarify and elaborate (for starters, I certainly wasn't advocating the use of drugs or saying that it was necessary to make change in the 60's). I think it is indeed a good thing to listen to your parents. After all, I listened to my parents more than most of my friends did (Dad, feel free to back me up....). However, that is because I was raised by reasonable people. And because I was raised by reasonable people, I will raise a reasonable family. It is a cycle (and meeting your parents I am confident you and I are in the same cycle). There is nothing wrong with wanting to raise a clean family or listening to your parents. However, many people do not have reasonable parents, and will not raise reasonable families. Many kids get abused, and more often than not they go on to abuse their own children. Many kids grow up in a home is too poor to provide the child with a good learning environment or good influences, leading that kid down an inevitable path to bad choices. So I think it is not enough to raise your own, clean family, but to raise that family to be aware of the families on the other side of town that are a part of the less fortunate cycle. And being aware that you are in a place of privilege (known only through perspective, seeing that others are not as well off and understanding why they are less well off) knowing that you have a responsibility to your fellow man to care for his problems as well as your own. Empathizing, then, becomes as important as focusing on your own actions and family. The system works for those of us fortunate enough to be born into a reasonable family. But that child who grows up too poor to eat quality food and has to attend an underfunded school did not choose the family he was born into (just like we didn't). The system is not working for everyone.

  6. Devin and Alex, so good to see you back sharing your thoughts and inspiring your generation. Ours (the '60's-'70's) was a significant skirmish in the War on Injustice, but the much larger war goes on and needs your generation to enlist. While women in the U.S. have mostly achieved respect and equality, young women in Afghanistan are having acid thrown in their faces for going to school. While race relations are better, and while gay rights are improving, there is obviously much still to be done. And then there is the injustice being committed against our very planet, the oceans and forests and animals who are in a fight for survival--and of course, humans' survival depends on this most important battle as well. We of the Boomer Generation are absolutely counting on you of the One World Generation to carry on the good fight!