Friday, January 21, 2011

Today marks the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's inaugural address, in which he proclaimed that

...the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans -- born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage, and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.

Most remembered is his appeal to the nation to "...ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country."

"My fellow citizens of the world," he continued, "ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man."

Today I read in the SF Chronicle the opinion that "Were it uttered by a modern politician, Kennedy's famous 'ask not' call to service might well be derided as a socialist pitch for more government."

Despite Liz Sidoti's critique, Kennedy was right then, and his words are as inspiring and as worthy today, his message and his entreaty as essential or more so.

Forty-eight years later, President Obama observed in his inaugural address that

On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord. On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics ... the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply.

Sadly, Obama misjudged. A short and eventful two years later, the nation is deeply, but one hopes not irretrievably, divided—more than at any time in recent memory. Petty grievances, recriminations and even hostility choke political discourse.

The political controversy may target the details of health care reform and tax policy, deficits and earmarks. We wave our fingers are wag our tongues over which faction is most out of touch with the "will of the people" and which rhetoric is more poisonous than another.

But these are only stand-ins for the real battle. We are fixated on competing ideologies and engaged in an uncivil cold war over the role of government, the meaning of society, and the obligations of citizens: to one another, to their nation, to the peoples of the world, and to the Earth itself.

One side would return us, gleefully, to an era we thought was well behind us: a time of, at best, indifference to our fellows and at worst, bloody tooth-and-claw conflict; of greedy self-interest; and of ideology over pragmatism, charity, and goodwill.

President Kennedy reminded us that, "If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich." He proclaimed that "civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof... Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us."

Those are words that each of us—and our government—ought to live by. We might begin by acknowledging the truth of the words with which Kennedy began his address half a century ago: that his inauguration marked, "...not a victory of party, but a celebration of freedom."

Political victory is impermanent, and triumph not an end in itself. The winner's reward is not permission to impose its will, but a responsibility to govern in the interest of all.

The GOP's proclaimed foremost goal—to ensure President Obama's defeat—is not worthy of us, nor of that party. Its cynical and purely symbolic show of force to undo the long-overdue improvement of our health care system is merely a provocative affront that only panders to extremists, while accomplishing nothing. And its pitiful defense of its more strident members' hostile and hate-inciting rhetoric is an abomination.

In Ms. Sidoti's article, political advisor Mark McKinnon, referring to Kennedy's famous passage, says, "Unfortunately, in today's environment, speeches are more likely to say, 'Ask not what you can do for your country, ask what you can do for your party.'"

I repeat again from Kennedy's speech: "Civility is not a sign of weakness." But, apparently, some believe it is.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

These Young People These Days

I've been listening to the audio version of Douglas Adams's "The Salmon of Doubt,"* in which he wrote about our reactions to technology:

1) Anything that is in the world when you're born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.

2) Anything that's invented between when you're fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.

3) Anything invented after you're thirty-five is against the natural order of things.

I think that's a pretty good description of a principal difference between the tech generation and us old fogies: a difference that extends well beyond our attitudes about technology.

To them, computer and communication devices are just a part of the sea they swim in; to many of us, they're something we fear might drown us, so we either struggle to stay afloat or stay out of the water altogether.

Likewise, the young are more eager to embrace change. Indeed, change is, for them, a constant and a positive condition of their universe. They're less likely to remain loyal to things and ideas and more comfortable with the ephemeral nature of stuff—including professional relationships. They are, for the most part, more practical, flexible, accommodating, ecumenical, and tolerant than my generation ever was.

And they're far more interesting.

Where technology is concerned, we ancients may be happier with information on paper, for example, while my son—who uses computers every day—doesn't own a printer. Imagine that! They access information on demand and are confident it will be there when they need it, while I like to have it in my pocket or a 3-ring binder, just for safety's sake.

I like my books on a shelf, where I can keep an eye on them, while they're adopting electronic readers at an astounding pace not because they're cool gadgets but because they are, in many ways, more practical. I subscribe to a morning paper, which they describe as a fine way—if an environmentally dubious one—to read yesterday's news.

With regard to relationships, Don Tapscott has pointed out** that the young are experts at ad hoc collaboration and at building and working with temporary teams. They don't seem to relish (or expect) the security of long-term employment quite so much as did their parents. To many of them, the prospect of permanent employment may seem like a life sentence, while independence is not a luxury, but a birthright.

While my generation might have kowtowed to the boss in order to keep our jobs—even as we sought a way out—young employees these days makes no bones about their frustrations, ambitions, and willingness to move on. Perhaps that will change as they face the responsibilities of parenthood and mortgages, but candor, I suspect, has become a natural part of the way the world works and disingenuousness is approaching extinction.

The young do not view all relationships as impermanent or avoid enduring and stable ones, but in their personal and professional lives they enjoy far more connections with other people than we oldsters ever had in our younger days.

They influence, and are influenced by, countless "friends" of both the Facebook and traditional varieties. In my school years, I had a few good friends with whom I regularly consulted. Young people today may communicate with, do things with, share ideas with, and learn from hundreds of their peers in the course of a week—or a day.

It's no doubt true that the Internet enables people to associate more readily with like-minded individuals, and that the result of that may be life in a more homogenous and insular pool of relationships. But I suspect it might as likely breed a little more tolerance on certain levels. When you have a lot of friends, you don't need to demand as much of any one of them, nor do they of you. And you end up having a more interesting time to boot.

I think a kind of compartmentalized set of friendships arises among the hyper-connected young, in which one appreciates another for some of his or her qualities and beliefs, while acknowledging and discounting those opinions and behaviors with which one disagrees. And they're comfortable with the fact that many friendships may be provisional, but not necessarily less enduring.

The comfort goes both ways. Young people seem to be honest with one another about the boundaries of their mutual relationships and about their differences. They don't appear to demand absolute loyalty from one another or to expect agreement in all matters. On the contrary, they often revel in their individualities and quirks and they discuss them openly and with good humor.

I think their candor about relationships is rather refreshing, and a characteristic I much admire—even though, as a recent invention, it does go against the natural order of things.

* Douglas Adams, "The Salmon of Doubt," Del Rey (April 26, 2005), ISBN-10: 0345455290, pg. 95.

** Tapscott, Don, "Growing Up Digital: The Rise of the Net Generation," McGraw-Hill (June 9, 1999). ISBN-10: 0071347984