[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #7 in December 2008]
When I ask my mother what she remembers of the MLK assassination, she talks about expecting me to be born any day. The strands that tie the slaying of the leading figure in the struggle for civil rights and Black liberation to the near-concurrent birth of a second child to quiet immigrant parents in an obscure midwestern town are thin, to say the least. But the nation and its contradictions that produced King were the same as that which brought my father in from the other side of the globe to work for an American industry driven by Cold War imperatives and modern faith in technological solutions. This was also the system that produced affordable mortgages for a growing middle class, company health insurance plans covering the costs of hospital births and public school immunization regulations. As momentous occurrences take place—events which change consciousnesses and socioeconomic trajectories on a large scale, and which people spend decades afterward unpacking, trying to figure out what actually happened—life in its rawest sense, including in the very moments of upheavel, goes on: human beings die and are born by and into a biopolitical system.
The King assassination was a very big deal, one of many events that year which drove considerable numbers of people further towards revolutionary positions. But my mother, still new to the country, was distracted by the anticipation of my entry into the world, and all the hopes and anxieties that every new infant brings. Like most parents of ‘68 babies, mine were too involved in raising young families according to the imagined standard American model to be swept up in the fervor of the revolutionary moment, and their own formative periods were dominated by the serious business of survival and recovery in times of war, and then, post-war ruins. No time for play, they were the so-called Silent Generation, though I prefer to think of them as the Last Square Generation. Without parental guides and models, I and others my age navigated the countercultural landscape by ourselves, or with the help of older cousins or a longhaired teacher—anybody who could fill in the details, and regale us with stories about wild times not that long ago but that no longer seemed possible. And yet for me and probably many of us, it was not hard to keep the older cats at arm’s length. That insufferable Boomer* smugness about “having been there” kept my fascination open and operational from a distance, but always made me recoil upon closer contact.
If those just coming into the world in 1968 were bequeathed a lingering feeling of just having missed something, ‘68 babies certainly did not miss the counterrevolution. The political legacy and the puritanical fallout were inherited in full, even if none of the direct experience was. True, whole groups as well as individual insurgents from radical movements had been targeted from the beginning, but the counterrevolution did not arrive in total-mainstream-zeitgeist national bloom until the dawning of the Reagan-Bush-Thatcher era, just in time for a new generation’s coming of age. For me, reaching young adult awareness in the Eighties meant coming to terms with the realization that I had lived my entire life in a counterrevolutionary time. The conditions against which my youthful rebellions and experiments would be played out were already fixed to neutralize generalized revolt.
Even as they remained inspiring and instructive, the blind spots and inadequacies of the Sixties movements were glaringly apparent to those of us with perception unclouded by the personal investments of the Boomers (though of course we have our own baggage). In the mid-Eighties, the days of broad, unified movements were self-evidently over, and on some level hardly seemed necessary. There was plenty of work to be done, apart from building mass movements. Political activism organized around specific struggles made the most sense at the time: in anti-Apartheid campaigns, in justice work focused on Central America, or in anti-nuclear peace activism. Equally important were the internal struggles. Progressive, radical, and Leftist struggles had to make real progress in resolving the undemocratic tendencies that divided the earlier movements from within. I recall thinking at that time that part of our direct political inheritance—one place where we could pick up the torch—was the project of accounting for our contradictory behaviors as individuals, to extend political struggle to the formerly private sphere by analyzing the everyday language that we used, the forms of address, the complexity of our sexual and affectional desires, the processes by which our groups made decisions, our personal habits and place in a consumerist economy, and the ways our interpersonal dynamics reflected power structure inequities. At some point it became clear that mass movements, if ever they were to be re-made, had to include and represent a constellation of particular interests and commitments.
By the middle and late-Nineties, as large scale movements re-emerged to oppose global economic, environmental, and social injustice, but now with an attention to internal movement democracy and inclusion (imperfect, to be sure), the micropolitical work that obsessed (and, some say, distracted) the young Gen X political activist a decade earlier seemed vindicated, and a real contribution to what was now very obviously a multi-generational, long-term struggle.
It can be difficult to align one’s perspective with those of an adjacent generation, as when the youthful activists of an earlier time adopted the term New Left, signalling broad generational agreement on separating their ‘new’ framework from the suddenly old. If as a ‘68 baby I find it impossible to analyze the political conditions of my world without tracing conditions back to the victories, failures and suppressions of the movements that flowered in that year, I cannot project forward without wondering about Millennials, the people who were very young in the fresh shadows of ’89, the last year tagged as widely revolutionary. What is their popular understanding of that time, a period that I lived through and which is just now beginning to be unpacked? My cohort seems by and large conversant with the younger tide culturally—our media appetites, capacities for multi-tasking, peer orientation, comfort with ironic humor and wide ranging tastes are comparable, and similarly (if not equally) distant from Boomer culture. But politically, there exists a kink in the lineage. Unlike ‘68, over time the imprint of ‘89 ceases to resonate as a promise of liberation, but as the opening of the floodgates of uncontested market dominance the world over. At this juncture we can say that the conditions against which the liberation frameworks of ‘68 emerged have not, then, been superseded, but rather sharpened, accelerated, intensified. The system now encircling the globe has been made personal in the reality of Millennials being the most ad-targeted demographic group, ever. Not that they’re buying—having grown up with IM, all-hour web access and a hundred-channel idiot box, Millennials are practically immune to saturation advertising, even as they grab every giveaway promotion in sight, freely sharing their personal info in the process. Head-faking the marketing machine is a point of priority in the everyday resistance practiced by Millennials. The commodification of every imaginable human need and experience might also explain why the compensatory austerity of fundamentalism grows in appeal and now provides the young with a competing framework of oppositionality.
Obviously, I accept the framing of populations in terms of generations. Generational experiences as linked to events and historical developments, and therefore character and outlook, are real, and not entirely artificial, as skeptics would have it. What remains unformed, however, is a strategy for political coordination across generations. Of course cross-generational sharing of political work happens naturally, and on a personal level we recognize the sustaining power we gain from working alongside comrades a generation younger and older than we. But I know of little analytical attention given the topic by radicals. By contrast, the gurus of business-speak are constantly producing superficial advice for Gen X managers on how to handle their Millennial underlings, or for how a 22 year-old Millennial tech contractor should approach the training of a Boomer executive. I am not sure radical cultural workers need more of such pop sociology. That said, a serious inquiry into the transmission of political experience and memory, accounting for the unstoppable emergence of young minds imprinted with touchstone experiences different than those who came before them, so that we may better understand the perceived possibilities of our time—whatever time that may be—remains as a challenge. ◊
*Even selectively using such media market terms as ‘Boomer’ and ‘Gen X’ is, on some level, depressing. But I bow to the gods of convenience—these are the understood terms.