Every generation, in its modesty, used to think the prior one was far better. Tom Brokaw coined “The Greatest Generation” to remind Americans of what our fathers endured during the Depression and World War II—with the implicit message that we might not have been able to do what they did.
For the Roman poet Horace to be a laudator temporis acti (“a praiser of a past age”) was a natural if sometimes tiring inclination. His famous lines at the end of his Ode 3.6 on moral degeneracy run, “Worse than our grandparents’ generation, our parents’ then produced us, even worse, and soon to bear still more sinful children”—and managed in just a few words to fault four generations for continual moral decline.
Yet what is strange about the present age is that our current generation uniquely believes just the opposite. Apparently, we believe that most cadres before us were not up to our standards. Indeed, we are having to clean up their messes of racism, sexism, homophobia, nativism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia, as well as environmental desecration and global warming.
Even their statues must fall as bothersome reminders of their moral depravity. And the way they come down would do either Hitler (who carted off to Germany the French dining car in Compiègne that had been commemorated as the site of the 1918 armistice) or Stalin (who primitively photo-shopped out each year’s new enemies of the people) proud. Usually our generation kills the dead by the mob or a frightened mayor in the dead of night—rarely by a majority vote of elected representatives, referenda, or the recommendations of local, state, and federal commissions and carried out in daytime.
Apparently, proof our generation’s genius is that no one in the past had a clue how to build an iPhone or do a Google search—or even make a good Starbucks Teavana shaken pineapple black tea infusion. Yet given our own present lack of humility and meager accomplishments, we have combined arrogance with ignorance to become the smuggest generation in memory. What good is the high-tech acceleration in delivering information if there is now precious little learning to be accelerated? Google is an impressive pump, but if there is no real water, what is the point of delivering nothing faster?
Ours is an age that passes easy judgment on prior generations by sandblasting away the mention of those deemed unsuitable in the past, often by our present and sometimes laudable standards of morality—but without much concession to the cruel physical landscapes and poverty of the past or our own shortcomings that will be all too clear to subsequent ages. Which prompts more activist outrage by Antifa—a century-old sullen statue of a beaten secessionist Robert E. Lee or the indifference shown to unchecked bloodletting and murder in the streets of Chicago?
When the street protests target Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, or Planned Parenthood, their progressive outrage at the public honoring of yesterday’s racists might gain more credibility. It is an easy moral judgement to condemn unhinged racists in vile Nazi and creepy Confederate garb, but quite another for progressives to demand that America finally stop honoring the now iconic former progressive attorney general of California who sent tens of thousands of Japanese Americans into camps or to march on Princeton to demand an end of deifying a progressive President Wilson whose animated hatred of blacks set back race relations for years.
But then again, we are an opportunistic generation who looks often at the past but rarely as a mirror of ourselves—and if we did, in a variety of areas, we might find ourselves wanting.
Compare how long it took just to rebuild one segment of the San Francisco Bay Bridge, with the work of those 80 years ago who in Depression-era poverty built the entire bridge near simultaneously with its twin, the massive Golden Gate, in far less time (four years compared to seven)?
Despite our much-ballyhooed high-tech achievements, California’s s high-speed rail project will likely take five times as long to build (if it’s ever finished) as did the transcontinental railroad—each foot the work of pickaxes and shovels—across the country a century and a half ago. Driving in California in 1980 was often far safer (and quicker) than in 2017.
How did our generation manage to achieve a near 60 percent remediation rate for incoming students at California’s massive state university system—only then to solve the problem by discarding the word “remediation”? When the silliest generation hits reality it often resorts to the fantasies of wordplay or the tantrums of erasure, as illegal aliens become “migrants” and Al Sharpton’s activism that only acerbates the plight of the inner city is empowered by his calling for an end to the public Jefferson Memorial.
We are in our 17th year of a stalemated war in Afghanistan, as the tragic flotsam and jetsam of the battlefield has become a courtroom of legalese. Our much poorer fathers and grandfathers with their allies defeated Imperial Japan and the Third Reich in less than four years after entering the war. Are F-16s inferior to Mustangs and Thunderbolts?
But has not the 21st-century made the greatest strides in eliminating racism, sexism, homophobia, and bias in general?
More than a half-century ago Martin Luther King did not dream of present-day college dorms and safe spaces resegregated on the basis of race when he asked of America to look at the content of our characters and not the color of our skins. We laugh at “bowdlerizing” racy sections of 19th-century novels and plays. But are not our trigger warnings and blacklists of politically incorrect books and plays similar Victorian censorship?
Puritan prudes of the 17th century shamed those who engaged in premarital sex with a scarlet letter; we sometimes exceed that ostracism by the denial on campuses of due process to the accused offender, with the progressive assumption that merely charged is synonymous with proven guilty.
Are we a renaissance people who have revolutionized art, music, and culture—in part due to our parting from the constraints of traditional religion, the nuclear family, and silly taboos about free sex, drug use, and obscenity? Yet could our top sculptors rival the work of Praxiteles or Michelangelo centuries earlier? Is the Kennedy Center more pleasing to the eye than the Parthenon? Is “Piss Christ” Rembrandt?
Does the creative writing program at Harvard turn out an Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Steinbeck, or Thomas Wolfe of a supposedly backward America of the 1920s and 1930s? Did a Yale graduate of 1930 write better essays than his average counterpart of 2017?
Does a student who demands pulverizing a Confederate statue know for sure whether a General James Longstreet was an abject racist or whether his brave service for an ignoble cause either nullified his later noble postbellum career—or made him a worse figure than an unrepentant racist Woodrow Wilson, who used the power of the federal government to stymie integration of the civil service and military for decades? Or do individuals from our past now just blur into cardboard cutouts to fit the purposes of present ideological activism? How can our generation so hate the past when it is so often ignorant of it?
I once gave a lecture on a local college campus three weeks after 9/11. Dozens of shouting students, egged on by their professor, screamed that the KKK had toppled the twin towers and demanded that I deny it. I said I would discuss it, if just one of 300 students in the hall either could name the founding racist of the KKK or what the triple-K acronym meant. None could; but all yelled louder.
Two years later I gave a lecture on illegal immigration to congressional staffers on Capitol Hill; an activist who was a liberal California House member’s aide, disrupted it, screaming that because I was a “classicist” I must believe in “classist” privilege and “classist” prejudice—and therefore should not be allowed to continue. Again, arrogance and ignorance are our era’s trademark.
Our universities pride themselves in their loud commitment to diversity. Yet there was more diverse intellectual give-and-take at Berkeley in 1930 than in 2017. What would Sixties-icon Mario Savio think of our trigger warnings—60 years after the establishment of free speech areas?
We rightly deplore the dark days of McCarthyism and loyalty oaths. But would an untenured professor now fare much better than his Communist counterpart 70 years ago if he professed doubts about the origins or the severity of climate change—or the government’s ability to do much about it?
The corporation of the past might have fired an engineer for obscenity. Google just dismissed an engineer for suggesting that bias might not fully explain why women were underrepresented in computer engineering.
Who is the moral superior to whom, and how much progress—or retrogression—has our generation achieved?
Did we not redefine uncool corporate America into a hip, caring culture at the cutting edge of social justice? Superficially yes, fundamentally no. Future historians might compare the outsourcing, offshoring, monopolizing, cash accumulation, tax avoidance, company paranoia, and crassness of a Google or Facebook with the ethos of Standard Oil or U.S. Steel of the 19th century—and find the former far more adroit at amassing fortunes, destroying competition, and evading taxes and regulations.
The point of such comparisons is to not deny our own progress. It is instead to assume a little humility when judging the past according to our modern standards of morality—without much acknowledgement that each succeeding generation should have some advantages of accumulated wisdom, both ethical and scientific.
We arrived at our unprecedented levels of affluence and leisure in part due to heroic sacrifices of prior Americans, who by trial and error, challenge and response, bequeathed us a richer and freer nation, with a vibrant tradition of self-criticism and a zeal to both improve upon but also respect the flawed past.
Before we blast our past irredeemables as environmental desecrators, we should ask ourselves why we still find their Hoover Dam, the California State Water Project, or Fort Bragg useful to our own purposes—and whether we could or would create something comparable to leave to future generations other than new names and pedestals without statues? For now, we can scarcely patch up Oroville Dam that almost collapsed during this year’s rain; in contrast our grandfathers built dozens of such massive dams ex nihilo.
We may be the richest and freest generation in history, but we are increasingly the most neurotic and mercurial as well. We overthink and triple guess things to the point of paralysis—or, in contrast, rush from one moral crusade to the next. Donald Trump ran in 2016 in support of gay marriage; Barack Obama opposed it in 2008. Does that disconnect make Obama then a homophobe and Trump now a liberal? If in 2015 hesitating to tear down a statue of Robert E. Lee in the dead of night was conventional wisdom, would such caution in 2017 be proof of inveterate racism?
Doing a good job becomes impossible because we demand a perfect job. To alleviate guilt about our crass material desires for tasteful homes, status cars, and electronic goodies, we virtue signal by attacking the “privilege” of others, or smear the dead for their illiberality. Tearing down a statue or renaming a street is a lot easier than tutoring kids in the inner city or moving to the barrio and putting your children in schools with the ‘other.’ What if 40,000 people rallied in Chicago to demand an end to epidemic murdering in the streets; would such activism’s theoretical success have more positive influence than assembling to eliminate bothersome mute memorials of a distant age? Or is focusing on the misdemeanor a de facto admission that the felony remains unsolvable?
For the silliest generation, human nature should somehow be seen as perfectible as a smartphone app. So no wonder we allow no glitches in the way people talk or think, if we sense they dare to deviate from our programmed correctness.
Rhetoric trumps muscle. The majority of Americans no longer work with their hands, grow food, make or build things, and they are paid quite handsomely to avoid such drudgery. But the result on society at large is that abstraction rules over practicality, and nature remains theoretical and deified rather than concrete and thus sometimes feared.
Those who sit at desks all day believe nature is mastered as easily as the temperature control in their offices—without much acknowledgement that different sorts of people are pumping natural gas to heat turbines to make electricity to send it into high-rises—and it isn’t always easy or clean. Techies love four-wheel drive cars, hiking boots, and parkas, as if by being prepared to go anywhere they can feel good about going nowhere.
The more technologically sophisticated we become, the more like a Mycenaean top-heavy palace we grow vulnerable. If the grid goes down, will those in Menlo Park learn that food is not grown at Whole Foods or that there is no such thing as a raisin plant?
The strange thing about the present generation’s silliness is that one can dream of the next theoretical Orwellian target—the Jefferson Memorial or a statue of Abraham Lincoln—only to learn that statue-toppling and name-revising progressives have already beat you to them. This present generation’s impulse to play judge, jury, and executioner of the culpable of our past takes for granted that it does so as the moral superior of our forefathers. But that premise is an unfounded assumption.