This past Shabbat, as we honored a retiring congregant long active in shul and religious school functioning, my son, a former bar mitzvah student of the honoree, sat beside me in our virtual service. As we said the Shema together I thought “yes, we’ve taught our children those words diligently. We’ve made certain to put their lifelong learning on a solid base.”
After the service, though, my son and I discussed how he and others of his college-age generation feel that my generation has failed them.
He may be correct. We had high ideals in the ’60s and ’70s, and sometime in the ’80s folks snuck up on us and took them away. They shoveled penny stocks, cheap goods, huge chain discount stores, cheap vacations, deregulated “banks,” HMOs, planned obsolescence, deregulation, and other supposedly good temptations over top of our pleas for clean air, fair pay, antitrust laws, equal rights, anti-discrimination, strong public education, supporting local farmers, egalitarianism, global peace, and such. They buried us and our ideals alive. They held up our free-to-be-you-and-me attitude and mocked us for it, and they won.
This is not to say, O Children of Ours, that we made no progress. We did see the end of the Vietnam war. We made a giant move for Peace, complete with a sign ☮. Women no longer have to look for jobs in the “Female Help Wanted” ads. Disability rights have taken a firm hold in most places at least in law if not yet fully in practice; LGBT rights are moving along (thanks in some measure to one of my illustrious classmates); we’ve passed equal rights legislation in many jurisdictions giving individuals more direct protection from discrimination; and in some places pollution controls are still important.
Pirkei Avot 2:1 tells us “It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”
So, mein kind, let’s look at what my friends and colleagues and I have worked on in more detail, where it all stands, and what happened.
In terms of equal rights, at least at this point a critical number of people agree in theory that women should have an equal shot at living a productive life. We have laws that protect people from discrimination based on race, gender, nationality, religion, disability, etc., in some jurisdictions (including some whole states). Sometimes those laws work. We also had the Voting Rights Act, and we could have it again, protecting people from what effectively acts to limit the ability for “certain” people to cast ballots.
My generation started GASP and other efforts to mitigate air pollution. In the 1980s we were initially able to convince some polluting factories to put mitigating equipment in their smokestacks, but ended up doing battle with others against their pleas that all the work was going to Japan and China and they could no longer support cleaning the air in addition to dealing with strong labor unions for their workers doing back-breaking work. That one got away from us, and we have not been greatly successful since then.
Of course, President Teddy Roosevelt’s generation began the environmentalist movement, over 100 years ago. Rachel Carson (The Sea Around Us and Silent Spring) was born in our hometown Pittsburgh. Since the 1980s we seem to have lost much ground in that effort, though there are now more professionals working toward the health of our surroundings. The documentary film Gasland shows clearly how some people find new ways to rape the earth with no regard to who and what lives here now and what the future damage will be. If we do not protect the balance of nature and the integrity of our planet, we risk the very climate change we are seeing now – invasive plants killing the good ones, bees we need to help create our food dying off in record numbers, pollution-caused cancers, and ugly pandemics.
We are battling people who think the world is their wastebasket, the better to enrich them because, they say, it’s better to live fast and die young and rich. I know many of your young generation are thinking that way, too, possibly out of desperation. And it does sometimes seem dire.
We Boomers have, however, done some concrete things. We removed lead from gasoline, and we are working on removing it from our water pipes and paint, for instance. (Lead is extremely hazardous to brain and body function.) We learned the dangers of inhaling asbestos and being near radioactive elements, and have stopped putting both into items we place in our bedrooms. (Both also hazardous.) We learned to stop polio and other diseases, though now we are struggling with those afraid of vaccines (thus diseases are beginning to spread again) and with the damage that antibiotics can cause (stronger and stronger bacteria are growing). We pushed for acceptance that smoking causes cancer; maybe within my lifetime folks will finally stop, despite those who are happy to make a lot of money by shoving cigarettes into the hands of strangers not caring whether they live or die.
We have learned the benefits of organically grown, more nutritious fruits and vegetables, yet we’ve also seen an increase in chemicals on our huge corporate farms which may be changing the environment in yet-unseen horrible ways. We know the power of wind and sun, and we are learning to harness them better, even though we remain slaves to the fossil fuel hawkers. We have come to understand that the climate of the world is changing for the worse, and how this is happening; we are still working on gaining global consensus to stop the myriad actions that are increasing it.
You, my son, have seen me (and sometimes joined me) being personally involved with advocating for various civil rights, for equality and equal treatment, to help those being oppressed in other countries, for safe, secure, recountable voting systems (you’ve been hearing that one for nearly your entire life), reducing domestic violence and protecting victims, for fair zoning and land use laws, for fair tax laws, for a clean and healthy environment, for integrity in government, for women’s right to choose and take other actions, against billboards and other visual trash that brings down the value of our viewsheds and neighborhoods, for bird-friendly windows, and against any religion imposing itself in our government and public lives (the latter goal being ultimate exclusion of “others”). I’m sure friends will remind me what else we have worked on.
I guess the various backlashes have been swift and strong. Where it seems like a good thing to protect everyone’s rights, some folks seem to feel personally hurt when we do so. They feel we’re restricting their own rights. For instance, when we say that a woman can make their own decisions with their doctors about whether to abort a pregnancy, there are those who feel we have infringed on their own personal rights, whether or not they know that woman and her circumstances. When we say we want recountable voting systems with paper ballots, they say they prefer unsecure unauditable voting because it is easy and fast. Sometimes when we want to welcome immigrants to participate in our freedoms, there are those who say that we don’t have enough liberty to go around, let them stay in the home they have fled, let them suffer.
We have let the political system get out of hand, though that may have been more my parents’ generation’s doing. They used to think that doctors, lawyers, and governmental officials were irrefutable in their knowledge, decisions, and actions. We younger ones have refuted, though we are still bucking a massive tide in doing so as politicians and medical systems have gained so much power.
Most notably, though, my generation failed to pay much attention to the financial system of the United States and the world. That was our biggest failing, as we thought the system would always remain the same. We – and by extension you – benefited from conditions in the early to mid-1980s when salaries were relatively generous – most jobs coming with full health insurance and other benefits – and living expenses were low. Some of us could bank our money at 10% interest or more, and save enough to buy a house with a 7% interest mortgage. As we have not been so successful with equal rights, though, others of us have yet to have that opportunity, and now it has become impossible to save money with interest at 0.25% compounded annually.
Those who had money and power back then wanted to have more and more. They wanted to take it from the rest of us. And they seem to have won. That was the big one that got away from us: the finances.
Back to teaching the words diligently to our children, we see that within those Words are mandates to tend and respect the earth and all living in it; to take care of those who are impecunious, having a tough time, suffering oppression, or are otherwise needy; and to remember that there are things far larger than mere humans in this universe. So whether or not we Boomers have in the current weighing failed, I’m asking you to carry on, please, and also to teach it all diligently to your children.
And give us a chance in our remaining decades to try to finish what we’ve started.