I spoke with a friend the other day, one of those rare individuals who'd passed his 87th birthday with a clear perspective on life that went beyond even his years, and heard from him a frustration that has been echoed both by others of his generation and by those who are not yet of age to drink or vote.
The question they've been asking is: what happened?
What happened to the values for which the WWII generation fought and died? What happened to our principals about saving money and living within our means? What happened to fighting for freedom of religion and thought and tolerance? What happened to personal responsibility and the willingness to sacrifice to meet a shared goal? What happened to the moral centers of those in charge for the last few decades that made them think they could use the earth as their personal or corporate garbage dump, their offshore bank account, their property to pillage?
My friend bemoaned the generation that had followed his, as trust-fund babies given every opportunity after a hard-won victory, who did not understand or care about the sacrifices made to provide them with the right to become something more than their fathers.
Instead, he complained, they squandered it for short term gain and immediate gratification.
I have heard the same from those younger than me. How could so much have been lost so fast? What about us? What will happen to our lives and our children now that our fathers and mothers have spent their inheritance? Who broke America, who broke the world, who is going to fix it?
The answer most people in America give, according to the polls, is Barack Obama. There is a lot to be said for his accomplishments in so short a time -- increased national debt notwithstanding (given the enormity of the problems he has inherited) -- but that's not, I suspect, the answer he would give. The president would say and has said that we all have to change to get out of this mess.
We have to go forward in a new way.
I would say we also have to look backward to those of the WWII generation who acted with such responsibility toward our country and the world and who thought the victory they were leaving to their children would be safe in our hands.
Sadly, that wasn't to be the case.
I had a strange reaction to President Obama's election (after the cheering stopped). I sat down and asked myself: what now? So much of the last eight years for me and many of my colleagues has had to do with what we were fighting against. The Orwellian tactics of the "Blue Skies Initiative" that supported polluters. The Jungian sense that something horrible was taking place in their preemptive wars (now proven to be prescient) for which we would have to account.
Corporations did not help. There, many of the same generation that was leading us into the abyss came to the table as if at a feeding trough set out of a sense of entitlement. Some were cognizant of their impact and tried to do the right thing, some did not care, and others were like Daisy in the Great Gatsby, unaware of their arrogance as they insisted that a cold winter in their backyard meant climate change wasn't real (ugh) and wondered why people losing their jobs through no fault of their own would think they had a right to refinance.
After all, weren't they now bad risks?
No thought to the fact that the bad risks had been those in the banks who had gambled on credit default swaps or mortgage-back securities set to fail, all of which led them to cut off credit, in some cases, to businesses with customers but with no way to finance their payrolls, who then had to lay off those that the Daisys of the world are now citing as the bad risk.
And don't get me started on the second mortgages pushed by banks with assumption of the ability to refinance down the line (can anyone spell: bait and switch?), which the president is now trying to address before the prime rate rises and tens of millions of homeowners find themselves unable to meet their monthly payments when a simple consolidation that was either promised or alluded to at the time, would keep them in their homes. Add that waiting shoe to drop to upcoming credit card defaults and the anticipated (by some) crash of commercial real estate, and you can see that we're not out of the woods or the forest or the trees that we have trained ourselves over time not to see.
But what do people like my 87 year old friend, who do know the forest for the trees, and my 17 year old friends still in school and myself and my colleagues who fought so long and hard to achieve a new paradigm see now that the party's over?
I've watched the reaction in the blogosphere to some of the more controversial decisions made by our new president. The release of torture memos, the reversal of the same on pictures and military tribunals, the appointment of an environmental lawyer who works for General Electric (which needed a better headline than: Superfund Lawyer Gets Nominated. Anyone care to mention she had served in the DOJ environmental role during the Clinton Administration and we may need to see some vetting before we pass judgment?), the go-ahead for mountain-top removal mining (grrr).
I'm not happy about much of that. In fact, I'd venture to say I'm confused, worried and waiting for an explanation that makes sense. But I do not feel the requirement to become both enraged and outraged, whether through the insistence of the 24-hour news cycle or by those in the blogosphere. This is what I mean by my search for relevancy: Eight years of having someone to point at (Bush/Cheney, et al) and say: See! There's the problem (and it was), was an easier proposition than looking in the mirror and asking the question:
How am I the problem?
That changed for me after I read a remarkable poetry collection by American writer, George Witte, entitled Deniability, which forced me to explore my inner experience of the last eight years. How much had I acknowledged? How much had I denied? How much was in favor of writing the gotcha article that would point out the deficiencies in others' behaviors without any understanding of my own part in the events upon which I was reporting?
These are questions that cannot be answered and then forgotten. They must become part of a paradigm shift that is necessary for everyone if were are to survive as the nation and world our grandparents fought to preserve: What am I doing to combat climate change? How have I saved instead of spent today? What will happen if I don't spend in a consumer economy? Is my business, my office, my home as green as it could be?
How do I fight policy I do not like with a president I like very much?
What is my part in this new paradigm?
It is easier to find someone to complain about than to contemplate one's own part in the mess in which we find ourselves. The truth is we were all at the party. Some of us were in the proverbial smoke-filled rooms where torture was sanctioned and they must not be sanctioned for their choice in that. Others were downstairs at the chips and dip table where they used their credit cards to get extra guacamole they could have done without, while either closing their eyes and ears to the screams coming from halfway across the world or protesting against it as they put down plastic for yet more chips and dip.
We don't know how to fight against bad policy after the last eight years without demonizing those with which whose policies we disagree. Instead, we post our outrage that the fantasy Obama we have constructed in our minds does not meet up to our shaky version of reality.
President Obama, in my opinion, is doing the best he can in what are the most difficult circumstances since President Roosevelt inherited the legacy of Hoover. He is not perfect. He will not always, maybe not even often, come up with policies that please my sense of purity. But I acknowledge that he is the president of us all and that he has been tasked to govern responsibly in a globalized world. I know that means I won't get everything I want right away and I am willing to give him some (not unlimited) time to work it out.
Which brings me my path to relevancy in an Obama world. I will be a responsible investigative journalist who reports on policy and shenanigans and all the things that come with the Daisys and the Toms in the Gatsby of our fractured world. I will question policies even from those I support if those policies deserved to be questioned. But I will not look for a way to turn those for whom I've voted into a demonized figures upon whom I can then comfortably focus my unresolved emotional issues of the past eight years (in lieu of my own culpability) instead of doing my part to see that good policy is passed in our shared effort for a better future.
This is what my 87 year old friend had expected of his children and what his grandchildren must see happen if they are to have anything to work with from our legacy. The party is over. The bill has come. We have a participatory democracy again thanks to the courage of one man who ran for office despite the danger that represented to him and his family.
We must all participate if we want to be relevant in an Obama world.
More on this topic at The Environmentalist