What’s a superhero without super-villains? Barack Obama and the Democrats were first to the finish line with the first member of Generation X elected president.
But as a previously (and possibly once-again) conservative-leaning generation, the politicians who came of age during the Reagan Revolution are starting to emerge as foils to the new President.
We’re talking about Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, born in 1971, who has been tapped to deliver the opposition party response to the President’s address to Congress on Tuesday. We’re talking about the “hyper-ambitious” Representative from Virginia, House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, born in 1963 and said to revere both hyper-partisan Newt Gingrich and über-leader Winston Churchill.
And of course, there’s the 1964-born Governor Sarah Palin, whose cringe-worthy appearances we’ve been (blessedly) able to ignore since the end of the campaign.
(Disclosure: The Obama vs. Bizarro Obama superhero idea wasn’t mine. Slate’s Christopher Beam had it in an article about new GOP National Chairman Michael Steele. That works for me, but Lex Luthor needed his fellow masterminds in the Legion of Doom, even if Luthor was the villains’ acknowledged superior. Of course, this torpedoes my generational argument somewhat — Steele is a late-Boomer born in 1958 — shoo! Generation Jones™ commentariat — but does this work for you? No? Move along. Move along.)
With Obama carrying the mantle for Democrats born after 1960, he’ll need to both work with and occasionally battle these three Gen X rising stars from the GOP, who, like the President, have ascended to their leadership posts with diverse backgrounds — an Indian-American governor, the only Jewish Republican in the House, and the GOP’s first you-betcha’ing female VP nominee.
It’s somewhat worrisome, though, that the Democrats, at least in Congress, have no apparent Gen X sidekicks for the President. And according to my math, there’s only three Democratic Gen X governors, none of whom are household names: Chet Culver (born 1966) of Iowa, Brad Henry (born 1963) of Oklahoma, and Tommy Carcetti, er, Martin O’Malley (born 1963) of Maryland.
Fine. They want to cut funding for HIV testing and smoking cessation, mass transit, road-fixing, and education. We can send grieving families, black-lung causing pollution, and another generation of disadvantaged teenagers with no real opportunities directly to their homes and offices later on. But how can you even think about adding tax cuts when more people aren’t making any money to tax because, you know, they’re out of work and there’s no work available? The trickle-down economy didn’t work for the middle and lower classes, so your tax cuts for your wealthy friends and donors will only benefit your wealthy friends and donors.
“We’re not going to get relief by turning back to the very same policies that, for the last eight years, doubled the national debt and threw our economy into a tailspin,” he said. “We can’t embrace the losing formula that says only tax cuts will work for every problem we face, that ignores critical challenges like our addiction to foreign oil, or the soaring cost of health care, or failing schools and crumbling bridges and roads and levees.
“I don’t care whether you’re driving a hybrid or an SUV — if you’re headed for a cliff, you’ve got to change direction.”
Sen. Gillibrand is part of “a new generation of leadership,” as Governor David Paterson said in appointing her last Friday. He was talking about bridging New York’s upstate-downstate divide and perhaps was speaking extemporaneously.
But his comment highlights the rise of a new generation of leadership in this country, leadership that brings with it a pragmatic approach of considering ideas from both sides of the aisle. Generation X’ers (even with their previously and perhaps once again conservative leanings) and especially Millennials embrace this in a way that Boomers first embraced dogmatically idealistic notions as youth before selling out (whether for survival or greed, depending on your point of view) when they began to assume the leadership of the nation.
Sen. John McCain, Obama’s former rival for the presidency, has said “the American people are tired of the bitter partisanship” (at least, the Silent Generation senator must have felt that way until he backtracked on his earlier indication and opposed the confirmation of the new treasury secretary). This is a mantra and approach the new President has used time and again.
Gillibrand seems to get this, and seems to understand this beyond the old triangulation politics of Boomer President Bill Clinton. Just look at her politics:
Pro-choice. Pro-Environment. Pro-Gay Marriage. High marks from the ACLU and the Children’s Defense Fund. But she supports guns, held a hard-line on immigration, and voted against the bailout last fall.
Beyond these points, most impressively is that she is a New York politician who is pro-farmer. On Tuesday, she nabbed seats on the Senate’s Agriculture and Environment Committees (among others).
Downstate types wringing their hands over her appointment may blow this off as merely cow concerns, but if my fellow progressives from the City are serious about the Local Food Movement and Eating Local (to say nothing about supporting and eating organically, and though they’re not the same thing, we can support both approaches), then Gillibrand is a great pick in my book as the new senator from New York State.
If Eating Local and/or Eating Organically is merely a food fad to you, then you’re a hipster disgrace to meat-eating progressives like myself (and shit, you’re an insult to vegetarian and vegan liberals, too).
In the House, Gillibrand supported country-of-origin labeling for meat sold in supermarkets, and help for farmers converting traditional operations to organic farms.
The farm and food policy of this nation is killing two generations of children through the slow death of obesity, diabetes, and whatever toxins remain unregulated by the FDA but wind up in our food. It is leading to their enslavement to a broken health-insurance system and their ultimate untimely deaths. It’s an issue that Big Business would apparently rather sweep under the rug and debunk. But it is also a small-business issue, with local farms drying up and imported food coming over from less-than-well-regulated overseas nations. This is killing people.
Based on her support of local farmers, I am willing to give Gillibrand a chance to fight and change America’s food policies. I hope the foodies downstate remember this.
At times in President Obama’s inaugural speech, he seemed to be addressing himself directly to Generation X — now, the new leadership of this country — and the Millennial Generation — the rising workers and doers of America.
Less measurable but no less profound is a sapping of confidence across our land — a nagging fear that America’s decline is inevitable, and that the next generation must lower its sights.
This has been a concern of my generations’ since I was in college almost 20 years ago. But in These Times, with trouble abroad and at home, there are greater concerns than our long-held worry about own prosperity and future retirement (though this is no less real or less important).
President Obama’s call to our nation’s generations for a new era of responsibility is the message America needs.
Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America — they will be met.
As members of Generation X, the burden to lead will be on our shoulders, though, if history is any indicator, the bulk of the credit and praise will fall not to the leaders from our generation (with the notable and correct exception of our presidents).
Rather, the rewards and praise will go to those industrious Millennials, who will work and carry out the plans our generation designs. No, our reward will be in a cranky and stable, if not overly prosperous, old age. With the way things are, and the way things have been, that sounds OK with me.
And though this may be our humble lot, a rallying cry can produce hope, even among my fellow cynics. Indeed, a call to action penned by the man who has been called America’s first blogger, Thomas Paine, the author of Common Sense, helped rally troops to action and eventual victory and redoubled the faith of a weary and doubtful new nation. It made sense that Obama paid homage to this author from a like-minded generation.
“Yet, every so often the oath is taken amidst gathering clouds and raging storms. At these moments, America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because We, the People, have remained faithful to the ideals of our forbearers, and true to our founding documents. So it has been. So it must be with this generation of Americans.”
David Gergen on CNN called it a speech for our times, if not necessarily for the ages (though I disagree with the LA Times that Gergen sounded completely disappointed by this). History will judge what it will.
On a first, quick impression, it may not have been a poetic address — one caller to our local Public Radio station was practically hysterical in comparing it to something from Lincoln; in soaring rhetoric, perhaps not, though it should be noted that Lincoln wasn’t writing for soundbite material either.
Rather, as another caller noted, that Obama’s address didn’t rely on soundbites made it that much more impressive. And the President has reflected Lincoln’s call to unity; as Lincoln sought to re-unite North and South, the new President seeks to unite the divided factions and parties of our land.
On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.
On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics.
It shouldn’t be surprising that, as the NY Times noted, the President’s speech “signaled a commitment to pragmatism not just as a governing strategy but as a basic value.”
Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions — who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short. For they have forgotten what this country has already done; what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage.
What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them — that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply.
The President’s call for a “new era of responsibility” should speak to all Americans, even if it is not something that everyone necessarily wants to hear; it’s not just the greedy and corrupt and the incompetent who need to change in this country. It is a call, I suspect, we will be asked again and again to heed. And rightly so.
Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends — honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism — these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility — a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.
This is the price and the promise of citizenship.
Some will be disappointed that the day didn’t contain any soaring, snappy clips that can be played in 5-second bites over and over again on TV and in pop culture, à la JFK’s inauguration — again, judging the world by the old, Boomer-ish standards. — and disappointed in everything from the minor reversing of words in the oath of office administered by the Chief Justice to the lack of memorable “Ask Not” phrasing in the President’s address, as if a speech that contains more than three sentences to comprehend its meaning is too complex for our supposedly simple minds and is somehow a failure (and yet some people who mock poetry, including Elizabeth Alexander’s, yet demand poetry of a speech and not a pragmatic message).
To which I say: so fucking what? Words are important. Ideas are important. Maybe there will be no one-sentence clip from today’s speech that can be used in a Hollywood trailer in 40 years. But words and ideas can be expressed in important sentences and paragraphs that are more complex than that.
In a pragmatic world for a pragmatic leader, that the speech was delivered and customized for our times as a call to action for the challenges we face is more important than delivering a quotable hook.
Contemplate Nicholas D. Kristoff’s column about the need for a change in food policy in America, which will lead to a healthier America that pays less for health-care related costs in the future, while pissing off the Farm Lobby (but not farmers — the remaining small-town variety would stand to benefit from this change; not so-much the industrial farms).
“We’re subsidizing the least healthy calories in the supermarket — high fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated soy oil, and we’re doing very little for farmers trying to grow real food,” notes Michael Pollan, author of such books as “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “In Defense of Food.”
Modern confinement operations are less like farms than like meat assembly lines. They are dazzlingly efficient in some ways, but they use vast amounts of grain, as well as low-level antibiotics to reduce infections — and the result is a public health threat from antibiotic-resistant infections.
Hopefully, the President-elect, who has shown a sensitivity to the policy connections between food and health, will heed this call.
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.”
Read the rest of this entry »