Every generation has its own style. Each era has a unique vocabulary, its own taboos and its own definition of what is considered cool or hip. Each era has its style of fashion, music and entertainment. Some fads and vocabulary are temporary and some make it past the generational stage and become permanent fixtures of society. Some go away but still leave their influence in other ways. The expressions; “That’s groovy man” and “Far Out!” have long been replaced by “At the end of the day” and “That’s how I roll!” Thankfully the expression “Don’t go there” seems to have seen its last days. Some styles or expressions are driven by technology such as “LOL” or “ROTFL”. At times, we use new expressions without thinking. They all of a sudden find themselves inside our vocabulary repertoire and we don’t know how they got in there or how we can get rid of them.
In a recent controversy, Tom Hanks spoke about United States racism during World War II. Most of the time, when actors get involved in political issues, they show how uninformed they are of the real world outside of a Hollywood film set. However, in this case Tom Hanks has a point. The U.S. was attacked by Japan at Pearl Harbor and then took appropriate action in everything it did to defend itself. But in marketing war to its citizenry, there were words used and characterizations made of the Japanese people that were over the line. We could have “sold” the war in the Pacific based on the horrible reality of the sneak attack without demonizing everyone of a particular race and culture. The same thing is true of the wars in Vietnam and Korea where other offensive terms and characterizations were used.
Today, we’ve gone in the exact opposite direction. The United States and, in fact most of the world, is at war with a fundamentalist form of Islam yet we are afraid to mention the true nature of the enemy. This does not mean that we have to use terms for Muslims that are comparable to words used in the past for the Japanese, Vietnamese or Koreans. At the same time, however, we can’t pretend that reality is something other than what it is. The threat of terrorism is real and won’t go away by pretending it doesn’t exist or by calling it by a different name.
It’s amazing how some things in society are considered taboo while others are acceptable. It’s even more amazing how what is taboo and acceptable changes over time. An old episode of the television show I Love Lucy had to show a husband and wife in different beds; it couldn’t even use the word “pregnant” on the air. Yet just about everyone, men and women alike were always smoking cigarettes! Today, you’ll see women kissing women on prime time TV, sexual innuendo all over the place but they won’t dare show someone smoking a cigarette! These are two distinctly different societies -- one society smokes like chimneys calling people of different races bad names while no one anywhere in the world has ever had sex. The other society has so many rules regarding how to speak about different cultures that they are afraid to say anything but they are all having sex with each other.
Language is a reflection of the society. Watch an old movie from the 30’s and you are likely to hear the coolest character in the film say something such as “That’s swell!” As the language gets updated and revised, so do the customs. Usually started by the younger generation in revolt of some perceived wrong, they feel the need to be different. They may grow their hair long and wear psychedelic colored clothes or they may wear 20 gold chains and polyester suits. They may wear baggy jeans (see dungarees) that reveal the boxer shorts within or they may have tattoos and piercings all over their body. Perhaps it’s a midriff shirt worn at just the right length to reveal the tattoo on the back. And when, exactly, did butt cracks become a statement of style? I guess it depends on whose butt crack it is, to answer my own question.
Every generation thinks it knows better than the previous one. Eventually, the customs of every generation fade away and give in to newer ones. Each generation laughs at previous generations thinking that they, the current generation, are the coolest, the smartest, and the most aware. They are always laughed at by the generation coming up behind them. The cycle never ends. The generation that has been replaced is permanently memorialized in the books, in the movies and in the music that it has produced.
When history is looked at objectively, some generations face more problems than others. Some react differently, causing either good or harm. As time passes, it is important to understand that each generation has a responsibility, at the end of the day (Argghhh!), to understand that it is not as unique as it thinks it is. For this reason, it is important that no generation of people leave such a legacy that future generations lose the ability to laugh at the previous one. No single generation should have so much importance as to limit what the following generation can or can’t accomplish. Each generation should have an equal chance to be just as stupid and annoying as the previous one.
While there are things to be laughed at in each generation, there are also things that each generation adds to our society. It is important to take the good out of every generation. It is in this way that we gain accumulated knowledge and wisdom. By taking the best out of every generation and understanding that the current generation will always be limited by issues of a particular time, we can continue to grow as a country or as a society. We need to learn from history, rather than abandon it or label it as “old fashioned”. In a sense, this idea of understanding that the present is always clouded by the moirés, fashions, styles, and biases of any particular time and that the past is something to be respected is the definition of conservatism.
The founding fathers, whom recent generations would label as dead white males, understood that everything had to be balanced. They brilliantly balanced the power of states to the federal government, the power of the legislative branch vs. the power of the executive and the judicial branches. What is lesser known is how they knew to balance the whims of one generation against the proven successes and failures of previous generations. This is why the constitution makes it difficult to change or amend a law or a bill. The framers of the constitution recognized that the perceived needs of any present time may not always be in the best interests of future generations.
In Barack Obama’s State of the Union address on January 28, 2010, he said the following:
"if the Republican leadership is going to insist that 60 votes in the Senate are required to do any business at all in this town, a supermajority, then the responsibility to govern is now yours, as well. Just saying no to everything may be good short-term politics, but it's not leadership. We were sent here to serve our citizens, not our ambitions."
In saying this, President Obama showed that he either doesn’t understand the constitution or that he doesn’t respect the constitution. He has his logic completely backwards. The framers wanted to make the process difficult so that if a law was changed or created, it would have to be something that transcended the ambitions of any individuals. It is precisely that reason why the framers made it so that 60 votes are required. Barack Obama was trying to criticize the Republicans but he was actually criticizing the constitution, itself. In effect, it is his own ambitions that he is putting ahead of the constitution. It was precisely for this type of person that the framers made it so that 60 votes would be necessary!
Ralph Waldo Emerson once said “All times are good times if we but knew how to use them.” We obviously haven’t always used our times in the best ways. There have been times of fear and insanity where people have rationalized absolute evils such as slavery and mass extermination. Other times have shown incredible innovation, ingenuity and kindness. Because at any given time, the way people perceive reality can change, it is important to keep the present in perspective to the known successes and failures of the past. Unfortunately, that is not the case with the current United States administration. Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid all think they are bigger than anything that came before them and that is a recipe for disaster.