It’s Tuesday, June 2, 2020. I’ve been alive for 40 years. Let’s call 30 of them historically conscious. I remember watching decade in review news shows in 1989-1990 as my first cognizant memory of understanding the flow of both history and the present – and finding my vantage someplace in it. I vividly remember my social studies teachers lauding the fall of the Berlin wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union as world-changing events. I watched CNN deep into the evening with my family as the first bombs of Operation Desert Storm fell on Iraq. (Though, to be honest, my brother and I thought we were experiencing exciting real life G.I. Joe moments and gladly drew triumphant pictures of planes dropping bombs.) The 1992 presidential election excited me too. I remember voting for Ross Perot in our middle school mock election. I remember my father letting me pull the ballot lever for him too. New seemed exciting, especially to a 12 year old. I got jazzed for the first time, though, for Bill Clinton’s reelection campaign. I bought and read his campaign book, Between Hope and History. I was hooked. He felt real. Right. Then the Monica Lewinsky scandal happened. Globalization took center stage. Politics seemed to fall flat. The End of History was upon us.
By the time I had the chance to vote for a president myself, it was the lead up to 2000 in the dorm rooms of Holy Cross and my time abroad in St. Petersburg, Russia. George W. Bush and Al Gore were the same person. W seemed more likable. I watched and listened on election day 2000 in an internet cafe in Kazan, Russia. It was surreal. Then I went back to living under a rock of history and 19th century literature. The end of history indeed. We became boring. We continue to look inward for what mattered. We were individuals.
9/11 woke me up. I switched professional gears. I joined the federal government. President Obama fired me up. His election made me feel the most proud I had ever been to be an American. I was serving in Iraq. But I went about my business. Business as normal.
“This is really the problem with Gen X and baby boomers. They’ve championed this kind of individualism. They’ve championed thinking less about the community.” So writes Neil Howe. I read about it in the New York Times article hyperlinked here. It struck. It stuck with me. The implication was that the previous generations – and the ones largely in power – helped to bring about the existential crisis we appear to be in by focusing on themselves, on individual development over community and collective ideals.
I do fall in the Gen X age generation chart. Barely. I feel torn a bit personally about whether Gen X characteristics fit me more than Millennial ones. In the end, I reluctantly agree to be Gen X despite positive impressions of the Millennial ethos. Especially with this quote. Why? In this particular instance because I spent most of my weekend reading Buddhist books and thinking about intermittent fasting and meditation habits rather than concern myself actively with the George Floyd movement gaining momentum across the United States. I happily ate at a restaurant overlooking the Potomac River and took a mini-road trip for fun instead of worrying about COVID-19. Yeah, I would say I was championing individualism instead of community. Even now.
So what does that mean? Am I responsible? Has a lifetime of inward focus on my part (I’ll let others speak for themselves and researchers speak for generations.) helped to create the moment we now inhabit? Has a feeling that the civil rights movement happened in the past, and that all that was left was tying up loose ends, caused my cohort to drop the ball? Heck, to put the ball back in the closet.
That’s certainly what it feels like. At this moment. On June 2, 2020. Sitting at home. Safe, sound, and pampered in Old Town Alexandria. While the United States convulses in a sweeping moment that I feel like my middle school social studies teacher would call out as history happening now. Maybe Faulkner would remind us that history is never dead. It’s not even history.