Hopeless Boomers? We Invented Hope

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In a recent article on Sen. Ted Kennedy's powerful endorsement of Barack Obama, New York Times columnist David Brooks suggests that Baby Boomers who developed their political identities in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and who have hardened over decades of political conflict, are intrinsically devoid of hope.


Instead, the Camelot mystique of the Kennedy era, he argues, evokes the "idealism of the generation that had seen World War II, the idealism of the generation that marched in jacket and ties, the idealism of a generation whose activism was relatively unmarked by drug use and self-indulgence."

The hopefulness of that earlier generation holds stronger appeal to young voters today than the hard-bitten, often confrontational, political pragmatism born out of the struggles of the late 1960s.

Brooks defines the contrasts between Kennedy's brand of politics and the Clinton era as a difference between "the high road versus the low road; inspiration versus calculation; future versus the past; and most of all, service versus selfishness." In damning the Clintons, he dismisses a whole generation.

He is wrong. I'm one of those (still young!) Baby Boomers whom he rails against. I'm a veteran of the strident (and effective) black political movements of the late 1960s and 1970s.

I'm from a Chicago political family that dominated Chicago black politics in the middle 20th century. Rep. William L. Dawson, my great-uncle, had a huge sign in his political headquarters that read, "DON'T GET MAD, GET SMART!" Perhaps I was a bad seed, because I remember thinking rebelliously, while still very young, that one could be both mad and smart. As I grew into political maturity I, like many other African Americans, rejected the pragmatic policies of the time that left many blacks severely disadvantaged. I became strongly attracted to the different messages of hope and strength advocated by Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.

It wasn't just the assassinations that drained much of our hope (including the assassination of those whom are less well-known today, such as Black Panther leader Fred Hampton). Other elements of the Kennedy era, too, primed us for political battle. It was liberal Democrats who authorized massive surveillance and black ops aimed at Dr. King and the larger Civil Rights and black liberation movements.


Presidents Kennedy and Johnson tried a variety of tactics to stop the marches of the Civil Rights movement that was beginning to transform the country. Even more critically, it was under that Democratic leadership that the U.S. became fully committed to an unjust, and eventually disastrous, war in Indochina (Americans often forget that as hard as our wars are or are not on us, they are inevitably enormously disastrous for the people in the nations where we fight, whether it's Vietnam or Iraq).

It is ridiculous to claim that my generation no longer cares about hope. We have deep and abiding memories of the hope: The desperate, but glowing hope that brought us by the hundreds of thousands into a variety of political movements for social justice at home and internationally. It was the ideal of a better America that led many of us to bitterly fight, often at the expense of our liberty, and too often our lives, for competing visions of a better nation, a better world.


It is wonderful that hope is being brought back to life in the political realm. But hope was not enough then. And it is not enough now.

To move forward as a country and as a people, we need our hearts, our souls, our hopes. But also our brains. I heard a young brother on the radio recently saying he didn't need to know too much about the details of the policy issues, because hope had been generated in him and his young compatriots. It is our duty, to encourage the hope, but to also remind folks that we need to look behind the curtain. The devil is in the details.


Michael C. Dawson is the John D. MacArthur Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago.