RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Privileges of a New Generation

One of the privileges—maybe the only privilege — of a new generation is that they can wipe away all those moments that came before, and create reality anew. In fact, this is more than a privilege. It is a necessity, a given expectation. It can even be a handicap.

The new ones, being born into new realities, find themselves unable to return to the past, even if they wanted to. They are barricaded from the days of their ancestors, the good and the bad aspects of it. If there was good in the past, it is up to them to retrieve the goods and leave behind the past not-goods. It takes study and planning to retrieve the goods of the past, while the distractions of the present are for sale immediately if you have the credit card.

As Barack Obama took the oath of office, I found myself watching a group of college students watch him on TV. The professors in the group, mostly old fellows, were somber and even shed a tear or two. They had been around through the 1960s and even before. They remembered the Civil Rights struggles and they were aware of the racism even today in our own community.

The students tried to figure out why the occasion was so momentous, and that is a privilege of their generation.

Every year, Beloit College releases a “Mindset” list that tells what the students accept as part of their reality. This year’s freshmen, those first-time voters, were born in 1990. As Beloit College observed, “They don’t remember when “cut and paste” involved scissors. Heart-lung transplants have always been possible. Philip Morris has always owned Kraft Foods. Voice mail has always been available. The federal budget has always been more than a trillion dollars. Greed has always been good.”

There’s a lot more, of course. The polar ice caps have always been melting. It’s always been dangerous to walk in grass that wasn’t mowed. Nature is unpredictable, fragile and dangerous, but Ritalin has always been plentiful, and the same for meth, cocaine and Viagra. Women have always been able to buy houses and cars on their own, and to carry credit cards. Digital cameras and cell phones have always been available. African Americans have always been on TV.

President Obama has tapped into this generation pretty well. Most importantly, he’s figured out that they don’t see the difference between news and entertainment, so he appears on Entertainment Tonight and YouTube. And he wants to turn those platforms into forces for good and thoughtfulness rather than forces for blather and stupidity. Maybe the media will get a clue and put their immeasurable power into helping people solve problems rather than glorifying the worst.

When I got to class, I asked the students to think about the history they’ve already lived through in their young lives. Most of the historic events had come as nasty surprises. Sept. 11. The discovery of Saddam Hussein in a cellar. Hurricane Katrina. Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. All scary, bad stuff. Then we talked about history that had evolved in a predictable, orderly way. That part of the discussion was brief. They haven’t had much experience with leaders that make plans and then follow them. I gave them fifteen minutes to write a letter to themselves to mark the day.

A couple of students wrote that the day had been significant and moving. They predicted great changes ahead—the war in Iraq ended, the economy back on track. They hoped that the country would regain its respected place in the world order. “I believe Obama can do it, especially with the people he is putting around him.”

A couple of students admitted to being scared. One felt that a black should not be president. Another said, “I’m scared about what’s going to happen. My mom might lose her job. This will affect my schooling.”

One observed that she had been overwhelmed with emotion after the election, and that the inauguration seemed more like a follow-up than another event. One said, “I’m just not that into all of it.”

The best writing came from the international students. An eastern European wrote: “One of the strongest nations on the planet, with a short but intense history, decided that some changes are very possible though they weren’t considered not so long ago. This nation, with a history tainted by wars, racism and slavery, turned a new page and elected its first black president. It’s not only that he’s different from previous US presidents only by skin color. He’s motivated, educated and strong enough to take action …”

One of the privileges of a new generation is that they can wipe away all those moments that came before, and create reality anew. In fact, this is more than a privilege. It is a necessity, a given expectation. It can even be a blessing.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

From The Progressive Populist, Feb. 15, 2009

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