My generation inherited not a world ablaze, but the smoking embers. We knew from as soon as we could walk that we were doomed.
The first clue was the fear and trembling. Adults lived in fear of death and each other. It was obvious that the weak ate the strong, because the smartest and wisest people were always in hiding somewhere, not in positions of authority which seemed to always be filled with round-headed people who were both idiotic and very, very careful to flatter their audience.
Next was the fact that we were living in upside-down world. Nothing meant what it should.
We were the ones who went to church with atheist parents, bought sale items at the price the item should have been, saw peace demonstrations get violent, witnessed kids get awards for having the average time of those running a race instead of winning it, watched unions and minority groups always get their way, and saw the old ways of our communities — small stores, independent businesses, elegant architecture, moral standards, a sense of decency — give way to a new culture of t-shirts and television, big corporations and endless laws that seemed to benefit whoever was in the wrong, not the normal person trying to do right.
We observed the Great Retreat as normal middle class people fled the cities and gave up on public life, allowing it to go to the new group of bearded and long-haired angry people. We were subjected to the first generation of children’s books to always have a political message, just like children’s television, in which Sesame Street characters told us that what was true were the same ideas that came from political speeches on one side of the screen.
We knew we were doomed when a country on the other side of the globe was threatening us with nuclear weapons, and all we saw was internal division among the people speaking in public. Every person had to have a unique opinion that seemed to also serve as their reason for existing, and so there was no agreement, only many different directions pulling the center apart.
Our time coincided with the replacement of home cooking with fast food, the death of the family through divorce, the cheapening of products into disposable junk with expensive advertising, the single mother and the latch-key kid, the rise of casual drug use, the flight from churches which seemed to favor emotional statements over realistic ones, the erasure of the countryside through factory farms and the constant expansion of suburbs, the end of a national culture and the rise of commonplace immigration.
Before we were born, Communism won, but it won a slow victory instead of an immediate one. We could tell because when we went to school, the emphasis was on sharing at all costs, not allowing students to be free from the interruptions of others. If you were playing with something, and another student wanted it, you had to give it up right then, or the teacher would send you to the school psychologist. You had to give other students your paper or pencils when they asked. The kids who got praise were the ones who did a mediocre job but made it look professional, and then involved others in their mediocrity.
As children, we could see what adults could not, which was that the same propaganda that was blatant in the Soviet Union — painted on walls, splashed out in parades, broadcast by their news services — was here as well, just in a subtler and more professional way. Television news had a nasty witch-hunt feel to it, as if they were out to squash anyone who disagreed with the sacred cow of equality. Politicians always talked about equality. We knew we could get out of any trouble by donating our allowances to the poor, just like we could make any room full of adults get misty-eyed by mentioning that we believed in freedom or wealth for all people. You had to emphasis the word “all,” like you were saying the name of God, and then no one could oppose you.
We intuited the role of equality. It had two parts. First, it defended the individual against the world, something we exploited. We had a right to do anything we wanted, and if it was against the rules, then we could prove the rules were unfair if we found some reason that they favored one group over the others. Second, equality reduced humanity to an easily controlled mass, like a strong leader might do if he got sick of the bickering, lack of cooperation and constant attention-getting. A group of equal humans is a fungible, controllable herd. Like plastic explosive, you just squeeze off as much as you need and shape it to whatever the task requires.
On some level, we also realized that we had lost both tribal rights and any sense of working together in a group. It was only a generation past the Second World War, and we still heard constantly how bad Hitler was, yet to every child his sense of tribal unity and desire to push back against the fungible herd was appealing. In history classes, we heard about the Civil War and how it was about slavery and the horrible racism of the South, with no other reason. The meaning behind this was clear to us: in this society, those who want a group larger than the family but less artificial than government would be taboo, and so we kept our mouths shut. We learned that “fighting racism” was like “fighting poverty” or “all,” a magic phrase that made adults do whatever we wanted.
It also became clear that we had no future. Jobs, which were once a way for people to earn a living without losing their souls, had become the primary method of losing souls. Our dads all worked too long and drank too much afterwards. Most of our moms worked too, which meant that we came home to empty houses, TV dinners and later, a frustrated and angry parent or parents. We were accustomed to being scarce after parents got home from their jobs, because after tolerating the bad behavior of other people all day, they were liable to take it out on us. It was better to stay in our rooms and amuse ourselves as we could, a pattern that later manifested in the “drop out” and “slacker” nature of our generation.
No adult thought that government was doing anything good. No person thought their job was really good, although they used pleasant words about the job to praise themselves to others. No one believed that social security would be there for us, that the country would hold together, or that things would improve. The only reason we won the Cold War was because the other side was even more shocking incompetent, and it seemed that once we won, all the Communists came here and got famous. The news was baffling, equal parts distraction and lies.
We knew from shortly after birth that our civilization had crashed and that there would be nothing left for us. Our parents and grandparents were greedily sucking up whatever they could, as if based on a knowledge that there would not be more and if they did not do so, “some other guy” who was probably an idiot who had nothing in common with them would suck it all up. It was a race to a finish line that ended in apocalypse, and yet, the apocalypse never seemed to fully come. Just a long slow descent into a state where nothing would ever change or improve, just re-arrange itself slightly, devoid of energy and hope.