Sunday, September 06, 2015

Defining our Times

Satirical news, new technologies, gay rights, convenience products, women's rights, violence in global governments and local communities . . . it all sounds very, depressingly, 2015, doesn't it?

Or maybe it sounds very 1975.

I have mentioned that I turned 40 this year. To this end, I have been especially attuned to things celebrating their own 40th anniversaries this year. Two have stood out to me more dramatically, but my research has uncovered a few others as well. I think that many of these things helped to define my generation.

If you are 40 this year, your lifetime has been punctuated by dramatic changes in technology. You probably remember owning a cabinet-sized radio, 8-tracks, and even a black and white television. What you many not realize is that the first VCR was made, as well as the seeds for a little company known as Apple were sown. By the time we entered elementary school, the VCR was dramatically changing the way we consumed and watch movies. As for Apple? Well, you know how different your life is because of that company.

If you are 40 this year, you probably feel slightly cynical toward the government, and to other things. We were born the year the US pulled out of Vietnam, suddenly showing the world that we were not, in fact, invincible, and that we were capable of grave and costly mistakes. the highest ranking officials connected to the Watergate Scandal were sentenced that year.  Not coincidentally, 1975 is the year that Saturday Night Live went on the air. A weekly reminder about just how absurd life could be. And that the only way to deal with the absurdity was to laugh, even when you felt like crying. We are not so much the children of American exceptionalism, the way our parents are . . . we are the children of skepticism. This skepticism hasn't just affected us in terms of politics. My generation is far less likely to be religious (and to teach our children to be so) than our parents. I think the children of my generation must fight to find the good in things, people and situations when our default mode might be toward hopelessness and cynicism.

The 1970's, of which us 40 year olds are smack in the middle, is punctuated by people pushing back against government interference into personal lives. The result is that we are raising the most liberal group of young people ever born in America. Some will say this is good, others aren't sure, and still others find this shocking. Again, a sign of the times. The beginnings of an outspoken gay rights movement were in the 1970's. Several states began overturning sodomy laws in the name of privacy.

Ironically, some of the change came in the from of more government intervention. The civil service overturned a decade's old rule that insisted on mandatory firing for homosexuals. The military was sued for the first time for dismissing an openly gay officer. In other pushback, there were the Watergate sentences, free and fair education for handicapped people was mandated, and the House Comittee on Un-American Activities was disbanded. Free speech and privacy were valued over towing the line. It can be argued, fairly convincingly, that for a broad swath of Americans these two values are still paramount.

Women made gains in 1975. Margaret Thatcher became the head of her party in England, the first woman to do so. This election would eventually lead her to become Prime Minister. A glass ceiling that a young Hilary Rodham would have watched with interest. A Japanese climber was the first woman to scale Mt. Everest. Women's could be named as Rhodes' Scholars for the first time in 1975. These gains, naturally, weren't enough for some. An organization started that year whose stated mission was to see women ordained to the Catholic Priesthood.

In 1975, bioethics became a powerfully important conversation. Karen Ann Quinlan was comatose after a pill cocktail and kept on life support for many years as we argued the ethics of "pulling the plug." Peter Singer wrote a great manifesto for animal rights, asserting that they may have as much right to life as we do, and suggesting that the consciousness of all living things is a very large spectrum where one species is not necessarily "higher" than another.

Fear of violence both domestic and abroad is not unique to our time. At least five of Ted Bundy's victims went missing in 1975, along with countless other mysterious and disgusting kidnappings. There were skirmishes across the Middle East and great unrest in Southeast Asia--besides the horrible ending of the Vietnam War, Cambodia also fell that year to a Khmer Rouge, plunging the country into decades of poverty and ignorance. Parts of Africa succumbed to dictatorship in 1975 and widespread corruption was present in India and China.

Like today in Europe, the world was suddenly flooded with refugees from Vietnam and Cambodia as their countries collapsed and fell. Many Americans felt as helpless then as we do today. My generation is sadly realizing as we grow older that human nature doesn't change. The same problems will continue to plague and shock the world. We must dig deep and find ways to help that don't just involve us laughing at the problems, or checking out when finding out information makes us uncomfortable.

Not all was bad news: smallpox was eradicated in India in 1975. The first patents for Stove Top Stuffing and Pringles were filed. (Okay, maybe that isn't great news. Through the 60's, 70's and 80's our worship of convenience products creates an obesity epidemic!) Iconic movies were made--the Rocky Horror Picture Show, Godfather II, Jaws and the inception of Rocky. On television Gunsmoke ended, but the old guard gave way to WKRP in Cincinnati,Welcome Back Kotter, Wonderwoman and the Jeffersons. Don't forget that Wheel of Fortune is also 40 this year. Our great songs included O Mandy, the Best of My Love, I Honestly Love You, Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain, and, of course, Bohemian Rhapsody. 

Being 40 seems weird. I feel like I should feel older. More mature. And yet, at the drop of a hat I can remember embarrassing moments from when I was 12. The anxiety and excitement I felt entering high school. Going to college. Putting in my mission papers. Having my first baby . . . it is getting to be a long time now that these milestones have been a part of my life. But I feel like I live them simultaneously to the life I live now. The things that shape us never really leave us.

In an age of cynicism, satire and too much information, I want to live deliberately. I want to live kindly. I want to know myself. I want to leave a world for my children where problems finally seems solved. Yet, I can't help but think that my own mother once wanted the same, perhaps as she looked out at the troubles of 1975 while she waited for me to make an appearance. But here we are, 40 years on, and acting as though we haven't learned a thing.

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