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Along came "Jones": Why my generation isn't saving the world

As long as I live, I'll never forget the night that Elena Kagan and I got drunk together. It was November 4, 1980, to be exact. OK, before I go much further with this, I should make clear: I've never actually met President Obama's Supreme Court nominee, and on the night that we got drunk, I was in Providence, R.I., and she was at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. It was Election Night, and while the booze may have been flowing on elite college campus and in liberal enclaves, the election of Ronald Reagan and fellow conservatives was, oddly, enough, a seeming moment of numb clarity for a big chunk of my generation.

That would be the generation of people born between 1954 and 1965 -- a generation so lost that for most of its existence it didn't even have a name, until some sociologist guy came along to call us "Generation Jones," for reasons that are typically vague.

Anyway, on 11/4/80 I was on a battered sofa in front of my 9-inch black-and-white TV screen, the only one in my dorm. I was a future journalist, a poltical junkie majoring in poly-sci, and with the final weekend polls showing Reagan in a dead heat with Jimmy Carter, we dug in for what was sure to be a long election night. But at 7 p.m. NBC's John Chancellor came on the air and said, "Ronald Reagan will win a very substantial victory tonight, very substantial." We tossed our empty first beers toward the tiny screen. The rest of the night is a little hazy -- at the time, we blamed the boozing on boredom, but there was something else, numbing the fear that America was veering away from a righteous course that appeared to be set in the Watergate years.

A couple of hundred miles to the south, Elena Kagan was at a political wake, drinking vodka tonics and mourning not only Reagan's victory but also the defeat in New York's Senate election of Elizabeth Holtzman, a liberal hero of the Watergate scandal, by a GOP machine hack named Alphonse D'Amato. "I got kind of drunk that night," wrote Kagan, a top editor at the Daily Princetonian, six days later. "A lot of people did." She concluded:

I can say in these moments that one election year does not the death of liberalism make and that 1980 might even help the liberal camp by forcing it to come to grips with the need for organization and unity. But somehow, one week after the election, these comforting thoughts do not last long. Self-pity still sneaks up, and I wonder how all this could possibly have happened and where on earth I'll be able to get a job next year.

It was a weird time to be a college student -- the late 1970s and early 1980s. Our Generation Jones -- people like me and Kagan, the Class of '81 -- arrived on campus half wanting to relive the 1960s and half embarassed by them, which is probably why Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello felt the need by 1979 to ask what was so funny 'bout peace, love and understanding.

Besides -- everything had flipped in less than a decade. The threat of getting drafted and dying for nothing halfway around the world did not loom anymore, and the easy battles over race -- voting or riding in the front of a bus -- were long over as well. And while in the booming 1960s things like long hair or a few drug busts didn't seem like such a bad career move, in the stagflated 1970s and early 1980s we were all asking the same question as Elena Kagan...where on earth we'd be able to get a job next year.

There is a lot going on in Kagan's 1980 article -- it is kind of a Rosetta Stone for what was happening and would happen with our generation, Jones. The Reaganites were rising, and the jobs seemed to be disappearing. This was not the time to make waves. This was a time to keep your head down, to bury any progressive ideas deep in your heart, to make damn sure you got a job and rose the ladder and got to the place where, magically, you would know it was time to take off your mask and finally change the world.

Jump ahead 30 years and right on schedule, Generation Jones is taking over. Kagan (b. 1960) is nominated to the High Court, just like she'd planned, appointed by the first Generation Jones president, Barack Obama (b. 1961), advised by his chief of staff Rahm Emanuel (b. 1959). In Obama's White House, they worry about their deadly Generation Jones adversaries on the other side of the planet, people like Osama bin Laden (b. 1957) and Mahmoud Amhadinejad (b. 1956), or the political opposition of the far-right backlashers, Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck (both b. 1964). Generations Jones runs the business world, too, in person of Bill Gates (b. 1955) and Steve Jobs (also b. 1955). (And let's not forget Michael Jordan and Prince, Madonna, and Michael Jackson -- more on them in a minute.)

The Next Greatest Generation? Hardly. The reality is that Generation Jones is showing up just in time, when the planet really does need saving -- and we are blowing it, big time. The challenges faced not just by the United States but by the entire world -- global warming, a deadly addiction to fossil fuels, governments addled by debt yet unable to stop spending billions on weapons -- require bold, boat-rocking risk-takers, people who have looking into the abyss of humankind and are not afraid to make daring moves.

This is simply not my Generation Jones -- a generation in which (for Americans, anyway) there was no war from the time I was 14, when the last regular troops came home from Vietnam, until Operation Desert Storm, when I was 32, and when economic woes brought "malaise" but not the Great Depression and then disappeared for a key time for young professionals in the 1980s and 1990s. Newsweek's Jonathan Alter described us as "the perennial swing voters, with residual '60s idealism mixed with the pragmatism and materialism of the '80s." He's right -- except that the pragmatism won out years ago.

We are careerists -- clinging to our conviction that we can change the world not by forceful ideas but by the mere force of our own often-coddled personalities, even if the ideas and passions that once animated our humanity have been buried under pages of resumes and cover letters  The roadmap for people who wanted change was no longer the 1960s mantra of "stickin' it to the man" but now "working within the system," and now that the system is collapsing underneath us in 2010 there is no Plan B -- just more calls for compromise, more reason, more digging in to be -- in the words of another 1979 hit, Supertramp's "Logical Song", the product of "a world where I could be so dependable, clinical, intellectual, cynical."

Exhibit A is the man at the top, Barack Obama. No doubt he was a young man filled with a passion for what he would later advertise as "change" -- studying how to rid the world of nuclear weapons as an undergraduate at Columbia, where he graduated in 1983, and heading to Chicago as a community organizer poised to do battle against Reagan's "trickle-down economics," but the reactionism of the 1980s clearly changed him. When he returned to Harvard Law School at the end of the decade, those experiences  made Obama less a promoter of ideas than a seeker of compromise...while promoting himself.

"I come from a lot of worlds and I have had the unique opportunity to move through different circles," Obama told the Los Angeles Times when he was elected the first ever black editor of the Harvard Law Review in 1990. "I have worked and lived in poor black communities and I can translate some of their concerns into words that the larger society can embrace." But even back then, some saw him as too prone to compromise, like second-year law student Christine Lee, who said nearly 20 years ago of Obama: "His election was significant at the time, but now it's meaningless because he's becoming just like all the others (in the Establishment)." 

The same could be said of President Barack Obama today -- from his ridiculously cautious picks to run the Pentagon and the Treasury to his stubborn search for compromise in areas like health care where no middle ground actually existed to his willingness to "look forward" and ignore the blatant and serious law-breaking of the previous administration. He is more than willing to accept the vast presidential powers in areas like state secrets that had been grabbed by the Bush administration, because a long time ago Barack Obama began believing less and less in the power of ideology to do the right thing, and more in the power of Barack Obama.

Which is why Elena Kagan is his ideal Supreme Court nominee. Like the president, she has been sublimating the starkly liberal ideas that were nurtured in her 1960s and early 1970s childhood -- first as an "objective" student journalist at the Daily Princetonian and then as a Supreme Court wannabe who learned quickly that to reach her ultimate goal that she would have to say little of controversy -- or consequence -- for 30 long years. The Canadian academic Gil Troy -- who not coincidentally wrote an excellent cultural history of the Reagan years -- penned an analysis of Kagan's legal career that gets it exactly right:

This woman, who posed in judicial robes for her Hunter College High School yearbook, may have been too calculating in climbing to the top. She has taken remarkably few public stands, entered into surprisingly few public controversies for a woman of her prominence and power. Even her academic writings focused on safe analyses of administrative law while other law professors debated issues passionately.

In this way, Ms. Kagan reveals she is one of Bork's Babies, a product of the searing battle that resulted in the Senate's rejecting Ronald Reagan's Supreme Court nominee Judge Robert H. Bork in 1987. At the time, ambitious law clerks like Ms. Kagan watched how critics vacuumed through Mr. Bork's past, blasting decades-old articles he authored, even snooping into his video rentals seeking something embarrassing – turned out Mr. Bork liked Fred Astaire movies. From then on, many of my Washington-oriented friends openly worried about their "paper trails." Their moral calculus was blunted, replaced by the ubiquitous question, "How will it look in my confirmation hearings?"

In a way -- and it pains me to say this, because it sounds so much like a popular right-wing conspiracy theory, and I don't mean it in the same way -- Obama and Kagan really were a kind of "Manchurian Candidate," a type who thought they could only promote their progressive ideas in the 2010s after mostly hiding them in the 1990s and 2000s. But once you veer off that course it's almost impossible to get back, as you realize what Jackson Browne did between Kagan's freshman and sophomore years at Princeton that "I don't know when that road turned onto the road I'm on."

Generation Jones also dominates the profession that I and thousands of other young people pledged allegiance to in the heady days following Watergate and "All the President's Men," which is journalism. We saw Woodward and Bernstein rid the nation of the scourge of Nixon not through sit-ins but through dogged professionalism -- an idea that was like catnip to unflowery children of the '70s. It didn't work that way. The temple of supposed objective journalism -- just like Kagan's Way to the Supreme Court -- became a kind of warped religion incapable of effecting change, that suffered complete paralysis when a rogue White House decided to invade a foreign country for no valid reason. Writing that true story could have been a bad career move, you see.

Careerism. Not rocking the boat. It is a disease that came to affect different kinds of people from Generation Jones in different fashions. On the conservative side of my generation, the two most popular figures in 2010 -- radio's Glenn Beck and the cultural phenomenon of Sarah Palin (born, amazingly enough, on consecutive days in 1964) -- have both have the power and the right-wing incarnation of charisma to move millions of people. But they prefer to use all that political capital to make only millions of dollars for themselves.

With the arrival of Generation Jones, pop culture went from the drug-addled chaos of Woodstock to the stage-managed perfection of Madonna -- who proudly sang that she was a "Material Girl" -- and Michael Jackson, who not only shunned any political role but moved toward a metaphorically appropriate neutrality even on racial appearance and gender. In the end, perhaps no figure has epitomized Generation Jones than basketball superstar Michael Jordan, who turned down a chance to endorse a black candidate against race-baiting Sen. Jesse Helms with the ultimate careerist come-on: "Republicans buy sneakers too."

Unfortunately, those Air Jordans might be mired today in the muck left by the BP oil spill -- one more sign of a generation's failure to tackle the problems confronting the world. Taking on the corporate powers that dominate this country is a risky business -- more risky, apparently, than anything our current leaders are eager or willing to tackle. I don't believe the so-called "Greatest Generation" of the 1930s and 1940s is really inherently greater than the ones that came before or after it, but rather they were people asked to take great chances at an age when they were too young not to refuse the challenge. Generation Jones never faced anything quite like that, and the world is watching the unintended consequences.

That said, I'm not ready to give up on my generation, not yet. I know from my own experience and the people I've grown up and am now growing older with that the desire and the passion and the know-how to save the world is actually there, just buried under decades of accumulated junk. Who knows -- many Elena Kagan and Barack Obama and some of the rest of us simply need to get drunk together again, the way it was back on Nov. 4, 1980, back when we still had a road map and we weren't running on empty.