Essay: At Odds With Ourselves
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JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, essayist Richard Rodriguez takes note of America’s changing generations.
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: At this year’s commencement ceremony at Rockford College, Chris Hedges, a New York Times reporter, was booed by undergraduates for his anti-war speech. A generation ago, it was the pro-war cabinet member or the general who got booed. What does one say about a country that swings so violently, one generation against another? Are we now in a season of payback against the excesses in the ’60s, or does some deeper uncertainty roil within the American soul, inevitably turning one generation against the another.
SPOKESPERSON: Baby, don’t you cry…
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: The notorious ’60s on the American campus began here, on Sproul Plaza at the University of California at Berkeley, with the free-speech movement. The students won, but four decades later, Berkeley is governed by politically-correct codes that limit free speech. A generation ago, Lenny Bruce was arrested for mocking middle-class proprieties and sensibilities. Now, it’s the right-wing radio shock-jock who loses his job for mocking minorities or feminists or gays, but also offending middle-class sensibilities. Indeed, it is the shock-jock who is today’s liberal, liberal not in a political sense, but liberal in a social sense. Liberal, conservative, our language has been so completely appropriated by the political classes, that America is blankly described on the evening news as either Democrat or Republican; liberal or conservative.
In truth, our American soul is entangled by contrary impulses I call “liberal and conservative,” but not in a conventional political sense. By liberal I mean the impulse in us that is kind of caustic, suspicious of authority, versus the conservative, the impulse in us to establish order, the impulse to belong. On the one hand there is the liberal need in us as old as the Boston Tea Party, or Huck Finn, or Bart Simpson to protest against established order. But insofar as the outsider romances his fellow Americans with his rebellion, the outsider becomes an insider. “Huck Finn” becomes the required text.
At the moment, the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal are more liberal than the editorial pages of the New York Times, in the sense that the Journal sees itself as engaged in a cultural war against what it portrays as the establishment embodied by the Times. ( James Brown playing ) A generation ago, black voices demanded an end to racism in America. And middle-class daughters of the suburbs demanded alternatives to their mothers’ domestic lives. And homosexuals demanded the simple light of day.
SONG: Get your motor running head out on the highway — looking for adventure in whatever comes our way…
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: The power of the era we call the ’60s that has worked its way into the culture became the culture, not simply the politics of its times. The demands of outsiders changed the cadence of American music, and the clothing we wore. It transformed movies and our images or interracial eroticism. The ’60s even changed our sense of humor. The problem with institutionalizing irreverence is that it becomes a business and thus a contradiction. The originators of “The Simpsons” become millionaire insiders in Hollywood. Today the Mosh pit is as conformist a ritual as shopping at Wal-Mart.
SPOKESMAN: Mrs. Clinton sees the world much differently than traditional Americans do.
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Now, there is white noise of a distinctively middle- aged tenor, like some angry, paternal voice from the other side of the American house. The voice we hear 24 hours a day opining on Fox Television or MSNBC or talk radio belongs to Papa Bear.
Leftist friends of mine in San Francisco have complained that there are so few voices now in the American media and the Congress that echo their contrary positions. It’s a matter of time, I say. Americans are in the habit of warring against what came before. Everything in America flows between in and out. A generation ago on the American campus, students branded policemen “pigs,” and the ROTC building was shuttered or firebombed. Today, surveys indicate youthful admiration of the military. We Americans end up a tangle of impulses that alienate us from each other, even from ourselves.
SPOKESPERSON: Greetings my friends, and welcome back.
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: This right-wing radio host, he preaches family values, but was several times married and has no children. Or she…
SPOKESPERSON: If blood could have come out of my eyeballs, it would have.
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: She is famously alienated from members of her own family. Their voices gather now over the American freeway. But today’s hosts of right-wing talk radio must know that the ascendancy of their ideas is tenuous in America. A new generation always awaits to undo the assumptions of a generation that came before.
I’m Richard Rodriguez.