They say that these are not the best of times, but they’re the only times I’ve ever known. — Billy Joel, “Summer, Highland Falls,” 1976
I still remember an insult leveled at me in 1981. A writer in Newsweek magazine, doubtless a Baby Boomer, described the new generation of young people as “silent, selfish, and tractable.” I had to look up “tractable,” and when I did, I got mad.
When I read that Newsweek article, I was 19 years old and beginning to take an interest in politics. Ronald Reagan had just taken office and the CIA had begun engaging in undeclared wars in Central America, propping up the dictator José Napoleón Duarte in El Salvador and trying to overthrow a democratically elected communist leader in Nicaragua. The CIA was training El Salvadoran death squads and teaching them modern methods of torture. Thousands of people were dragged out of their homes in the middle of the night never to be seen again. They were called desaparecidos.
On my college’s radio station, I played a song protesting the disappearances of women in Chile. I joined Amnesty and occasionally wore pins with political messages. But those south-of-our-border conflicts didn’t involve hundreds of thousands of American troops and tens of thousands of body bags. Vietnam was on TV every night. Everyone in the 1960s knew young men who’d gone off to fight in places like Khe Sanh. But in the 1980s, the Reagan Administration denied the US intervention in Central America was even happening. On December 11, 1981, the El Salvadoran military massacred 800 civilians at El Mozote, but very few people, including Boomers, knew anything about it. The average American had never heard of the Sandinistas or FMLN. It wouldn’t be until the Iran-Contra Hearings in 1987 that most people had the slightest inkling. So, it’s totally unfair to compare the activism of young people in the 1980s with that of the Boomers. Screw you, Newsweek columnist whose name I don’t care to remember.
Baby Boomers always put us down. They patronized our politics and scoffed at our music. They suffered under the Vietnam War. They organized and marched and sang protest songs. Good for them. I learned about the Vietnam War as history. There was one Vietnamese refugee girl in my class in 8th grade, but I didn’t really know what that was all about. That was around 1975. So, my first real political memory was the Iran hostage crisis in 1979, when I was a senior in high school. So, my formative political experience wasn’t youth culture rising up against the corrupt establishment. It was the lumbering, nuke-studded establishment being humiliated and exposed as impotent in the face of a small group of terrorists for 444 days.
It’s true, my generation didn’t have a lot of protest marches, unless you count the 1982 million-person march for nuclear disarmament in New York City; that’s twice as many people as the 1969 Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam. We probably had even more protest songs than the Boomers did: Apartheid was a big one (“Biko” by Peter Gabriel, “Free Nelson Mandela,” and “Sun City,” to mention only three). There were protest songs about Reaganomics, Thatcherism, human rights abuses in Central and South America, nuclear proliferation, homelessness, and sectarian violence. Back then, they’d take away your songwriter’s card if you weren’t bemoaning some social ill or another. I made a list, but it was so long that I was afraid people would stop reading.
Most of those songs weren’t the kinds of things you sang with an upraised fist. They were the kinds of things you said to a friend with a sad and pessimistic shrug. We saw what happened to the self-righteous idealism of the 60s. The Boomers had protested the war and arguably ended the U.S.’s participation in it, and yes, that was fucking amazing. But from our perspective, it didn’t look like they’d succeeded in making the world any less venal, violent, or indifferent to human suffering. And now those same people were starting to assume positions of authority in the establishments they’d picketed fifteen years earlier.