On Safire, Obama and naming the Joshua Generation

William Safire takes his unique lexical look at the ongoing generation-naming debate, sparked by the election of our first Generation X President (more here and here, too). (And I love the lede of Safire’s column: “Welcome to the socio-literary parlor game of ‘Name That Generation.'” Of course, I am a fan of most things Safire writes. But I digress.)

Safire begins with the Gertrude Stein-coined, Hemingway-cited “Lost Generation,” which appears as one of the two epigraphs that opens “The Sun Also Rises.” Safire also quotes Neil Howe, of Strauss & Howe fame and co-author of the groundbreaking book Generations, and whose work obviously heavily influences this blog.

Safire reminds us of a couple of once heavily used generational names that look a little hazy in the distance, but at the time, were quite popular in their usage: the Beat Generation and the Me Generation. Best as I can rationalize, those names now appear to be better suited to the period they were used in, or at least appearing to be a subset of the Silent Generation and the Baby Boomers, respectively.

Where Safire really hits home is his use of the term “Joshua Generation” to apply specifically to African-Americans like President-elect Obama — those who came of age after the great Civil Rights battles of the last century, and are now reaping the rewards of the work of those in the time of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and later (actually, Safire cites Obama citing the Rev. Otis Moss Jr. who reminded the president-elect to “look at the story of Joshua because you’re part of the Joshua generation.”

Safire notes the Biblical analogy of Moses, who led his people out of Egypt, but was not allowed to lead them into the Promised Land. Instead, that task fell to Moses’ successor, Joshua.

Will the name stick? Who knows, as even Safire admits:

Though the spirit of an age is best defined in retrospect, and religious allusion is not currently considered cool, the Joshua Generation — unlike all its era-naming predecessors — does have alliteration going for it.

And as as co-pilot and perhaps successor to the Generation X label, it sounds good to me. As I’ve often said (and I agree Safire, but, like the author and lexicographer, I digress), only time and history will tell.

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2 Comments on “On Safire, Obama and naming the Joshua Generation”

  1. girthy says:

    as we have long (and fruitlessly) argued with you and a certain “Prince” over this topic in the past, suffice to say that we’re not going to rehash all that here. but safire stopped being really good when he stopped writing his batshit-crazy political column; and the over-reliance on generational mores as a blueprint with which to diagnose society, much less individuals, is the greatest wet blanket/lump sum/unified theory of mashed-up sociological bullshit we’ve ever heard of. like, since the ’80s.

    people are persons. persons are individuals. we are shaped by our surroundings–but we are the people that our parents, talents and environments raise us up (or down) to be… no matter the effects of the age. we are the effects of our choices; not the cartoons we watched growing up, or the books we read (or didn’t).

    any study of the whole that then discounts the remarkable potential of the one is simply a contrived premise on which doug copeland’s army keeps relying, apparently solely for the purpose of inflating their egos, and killing trees.

    please stop encouraging them.

  2. The Icepick says:

    Nah, I like Safire talking about words much better. His new and revised Political Dictionary has been a constant recent companion. It sounds weird to say that I’m reading a dictionary for fun, but my attention span is such that the entries (figure an average about 250 words per entry, as a total guess) are the perfect blog-post-like length for my lack of reading patience these days. It’s like a walk through political history, with each entry cross-referencing many others. (Wow, it’s like a book version of a blog! You know, with links and stuff, except you have to turn pages instead of clicking on the underlined and different colored words. They had blogs before books, right?).

    We’ll always agree to disagree on the generational stuff, though I will readily admit that much (though not all) of the shit that Neil Howe, Jonathan Pontell and the rest of the generational studies people come up with are clearly selectively, um, selected to fit their own theses and pre-conceived ideas.

    Yes, people are people, but I’ve no doubt that there’s a collective consciousness at play, even if it is the exact opposite of the consciousness that you and I, as outsiders, subscribe to. What gets published, what gets green-lighted, who gets hired, who gets elected, and by whom, are all influenced by this consciousness.

    How your environment and your parents raise you are influenced by the outside world and the mores of the day; ditto for how your talents are encouraged (or not), and what is available to you to develop your own talents. We may be the effects of our choices, but the choices we see, and therefore the choices we make, are largely the product of our environment, which is determined by what is going on in the world. Very few of us make choices in a vacuum.

    Once you mix these perceived available choices with the fact that almost all of us must make a decision on something in roughly the same point in our lives, give or take 20 years (to have children or not, to get married or not, to choose this career or that, to study this or that, to retire now or then), then you have a generation.

    Related to that, how you view shit that happens in the world is largely influenced by how old you are at the time. When I was a journo, I hated it if someone got insulted if I asked how old they were. Their age was shorthand to my readers for what they saw in the world, if not for how they reacted to it. Junior-high schoolers like myself viewed the Challenger exploding through a vastly different set of eyes than did a 45-year-old in 1986. Ditto, I would say, for a middle schooler vs. a 60-year-old living through 9/11.


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