This summer, partly out of family obligation but mostly out of nostalgia for the songs that defined my childhood, I begrudgingly/happily attended a Peter, Paul and Mary concert. The trio played all the old favorites – “Puff the Magic Dragon,” “Don’t Think Twice its Alright” and of course the classic tear-jerker, “Leaving on a Jet Plane.”
Still, the concert wasn’t all fun and campfire songs. Being true political activists of yesteryear, Peter, Paul and Mary just couldn’t resist the soapbox. After about an hour of music, the concert took a sharp political turn as Peter spoke at length about his views on the war in Iraq. After a speech peppered with 1960s peace lingo, the trio sang out the old civil rights era classic, “We Shall Overcome.” Who says Americans don’t know how to recycle?
The crowd wasted no time getting out their lighters and waving them in the air like peace-loving twenty-somethings. If you closed your eyes tight enough, the scene almost felt like Woodstock – on a neatly manicured suburban lawn.
As I looked around, I realized that the children of the ’60s were at it again, bearing down on our generation with their legacy. The lighters felt forced, the singing contrived. The whole picture had the unmistakable handprint of our parents. The real twenty-somethings in the crowd were awkwardly out of place.
It made me feel a certain pity for Generation X. How can we find our own anti-war voice with our parents’ decade of rebellion looking over our shoulder? It’s not an easy act to follow. Frank Sinatra Jr. might be a great singer, but he’ll always be Frank Sinatra Jr.
Well, it’s time for our generation to stop living in the shadows of the ghost of activists past. Yes, the ’60s were original and vastly influential, like a big brother. He had great music and an idealistic vision to change the world. But let’s face it – he grew up. He had his hippie heyday and the country elected Ronald Reagan just a few years later. Now it’s our turn.
But what will our legacy be, now that waving lighters and sticking flowers down gun barrels is redundant at best?
Undeniably, our generation’s anti-war activism got off to a slow start. The aftermath of Sept. 11 put an invisible hand over our collective mouths for quite a while. We wandered through high school and then college, not really knowing what was acceptable to say and what was taboo. As the younger sibling, we weren’t sure if our activism would be perceived as unpatriotic – or worse, a shallow imitation of our parent’s generation.
But now things have changed. The country is ripe for our generation to step up to the plate. New United Nations statistics show 34,000 Iraqi civilians were killed in 2006 alone, in addition to 3,000 American soldiers. With President Bush’s decision to send 21,500 more troops into the line of fire, our audience is waiting on baited breath. So what will our next move be?
To find out a little more about anti-war activism on campus, I called up Mikhail Lomize of Anti-War Action, the only student group of its kind on campus. When I asked him how many University students regularly show up to his weekly meetings, his answer was eight to 10. For this reputably liberal campus in the midst of an escalating war, that’s pretty pathetic. Are we really that afraid of the shadow of the ’60s?
The strangest part about my conversation with Lomize was reconciling it with my memory of the 2004 election. During that fall, the campus was teeming with activists: Kerry/Edwards stickers were plastered everywhere, Voice Your Vote T-shirts became the hot new thing and everyone seemed to own a different Bush-bashing button. So where are they now? I don’t know what our generation’s legacy will be, but I certainly hope it’s not fad-liberalism.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not asking for a ’60s repeat. A resurgence of flower children would be as hokey as the lighters at my Peter, Paul and Mary concert. But we need to find some way of demonstrating our collective objection – something besides another Bush joke or fading bumper sticker.
Whatever path we carve, let it at least be our own. We can’t burn draft cards we don’t have. We can’t hold sit-ins and teach-ins and marches like in the history textbooks. The ’60s replica is obsolete, but it still somehow remains the touchstone for anti-war activism. Despite its benchmark status, we must resist the temptation of imitation. The result is predictably stale: We’ve got to find our own voice.
I don’t have the blueprint. Maybe the answer is the Internet, the blogosphere or some effective use of new media. Maybe it’s finding the right candidate to represent our generation in 2008. Maybe it’s as simple as trying a little harder and sticking around in-between elections. I don’t know the answer, but I know it’s not modeling ourselves after the 1960s and hoping the sequel lives up to the original.
Whitney Dibo is an associate editorial page editor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.