The Saeculum Decoded
A Blog by Neil Howe
Apr 302010

This interesting—and implicitly generational—piece by Henry Allen discusses the changing assumptions about America’s role in the world.  This view that Allen describes, of America as history’s existential good guy, is very linked to the psyche of his Silent (born 1925-1942).  It is simply so hard for this generation ever to believe that there are vast numbers of people in the world who really don’t like us or would even enjoy seeing us suffer, and not for anything particular we have done but (to use the phrase that became popular after 911) simply for who we are.  It’s fascinating, in retrospect, that the Silent interpreted the warmth with which a war-devastated world regarded Goliath America just after WWII as genuine affection, as opposed to transient gratitude triggered by necessity.  Gratitude is a very difficult emotion for any society, or even for any individual, to sustain over time.  Especially, when the gift we have received cannot be paid back.  Often, we end up resenting the emotional burden.  Case and point: France’s fraught attitude toward America since our nation-saving intervention in two world wars.

In any event, Generation X (born 1961-1981) seems entirely unmoved by the emotional tensions and turmoil that Allen describes.  I would suggest he is describing something that pretty much affects his generation alone.

Back in the 1990s, Allen interviewed me at length about a feature story he was doing (it was later published in the WP) on how people of different ages react to that old Warner Brothers cartoon about Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote.  In a talk he was giving at a local college, he discovered by accident that all of the (Xer) students sympathized with the coyote, not the roadrunner.  He was flabbergasted, because for as long as he could remember, he and his peers had always rooted for the roadrunner.  He wrote a moving account—Allen is a wonderful writer—about why these differences arose.  And he gave a fairly good rendition of some of the basic generational drivers that may be behind the shift.

Could these two differences be related?  When you look at America’s role in the world, what view do you take—that of the Roadrunner (beautiful, swift, above the fray, never has to think about eating—and never worried about losing), or that of the coyote (ugly but clever, determined, just another dog who’s got to get a meal—and always too-aware of the probability of failure).

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  • docbadwrench

    I read the article you linked to; it's interesting, by a perspective that is somewhat alien to me. I find the general shape of the generational view to be quite valid, but have a hard time reconciling it when I drill down further.

    Incidentally, I think the Roadrunner vs. Coyote bit *is* telling. My father is Silent, I am Gen X, and we watched those cartoons together. I'm not sure who my dad rooted for, but I *always* felt bad for the Coyote. I hadn't realized that he wasn't the primarily-sympathetic character and am as shocked as Allen was that the kids *didn't* identify with ol' Wiley.

    It's funny what kind of biases I've carried that I had never even considered before. 🙂 Lots of time, this stuff that you write about seems fuzzy around the edges and hard to really nail down. I remain very interested in the books (I've read 4th Turning twice now), though I have a healthy skepticism that I hope will increase my understanding.

    An example like this, though, is alarmingly stark – and very stimulating. Thanks for sharing it.

  • kalima

    I'm a first wave Xer (or a Joneser if you care to get picky, '62) … never considered rooting for the roadrunner. Go figure.

  • JPT

    I was born in 1975, so I'm right in the middle/late part of X. I think we've over-extended ourselves. I think the Boomers were left with a huge inheritance and they've squandered it, leaving the younger generations to clean up the mess and pay the bill. I don't particularly care what the rest of the world thinks of us. I think we had a big opportunity after the fall of the Berlin Wall to influence the world for the better, and instead we had a big, ignorant self-indulgent party, led by the kegmaster in chief, Bill Clinton. There were international polls done throughout the 90s that found enormous animosity rising toward the U.S., which culminated in 9/11. Then George W. Bush tried to act on the assumption that we retained all the good will and national unity left over from WWII, and found out that nobody much cared anymore. We've become an object of ridicule and loathing, and Millenials have internalized that mentality toward the country and themselves, with a lot of help from the Boomer Left, left over from the 60s.

    From foreign obligations to domestic government programs, I think we need to clean house, scale back, and start fresh. There are those who monotonously argue that “we have to be engaged with the world, or bad things will happen”. I think bad things happening is inevitable, and being “engaged” has done just as much to provoke them as being detached would. Going around lecturing the world as Clinton and Bush both did, presuming that the U.S. can just give orders to other countries and they'll snap to attention, is a recipe for disaster. Furthermore, “globalization” has proved to be a double-edged sword. When things are going up, everybody thinks it's fine. But when things go down, everybody goes down even harder. We need to tend to our own interests. We need to mind our own business and deal with our own problems for a while, first and foremost the impending total insolvency of the country, which cannot be fixed through tax increases, and has to come through spending cuts.

    I guess that puts me leaning toward the Ron Paul camp, although I'm not a libertarian purist. Generationally speaking, I see the Boomers as a spoiled, self-centered, arrogant, unrealistic, corrupt bunch of hedonistic, narcissistic lunatics. They all think they're out to “save the world” in one way or another, and they don't realize that they're the ones the world needs to be saved from. They've brought us to the brink of ruin, and the only question is whether they can be pushed aside soon enough for the rest of us to have something other than a smoking crater left when they're gone. Due to their size and power as a group, I'm doubtful that it's possible.

    As I think I've posted here before, I disagree pretty strongly with your timeline for the Boom/X division, and think it is several years early. If Obama is an Xer, he's completely unrepresentative of the generation as a whole. It would mean the aging Boomer Left dug down into the X barrel and picked out the one rotten apple that suited their purposes, and he's now dutifully carrying out a script they wrote for him. A better explanation is that he's a Boomer – a younger one, but still a Boomer. The way I see it, we (X) have always been an obstacle to the Boomers. In order to get from where we were when we were growing up to where the Boomers wanted to go, they had to crush us and grind us up in the wheels of “change”. They did it mercilessly, without remorse, and they will continue to do it unless they're somehow stopped, which they probably won't be. The Millenials are their first “pure” group, raised thoroughly on Boomer values, without any of the “contamination” from GIs and Silents that Xers had. They'll take what they're fed and like it, because they've never known anything else. Xers just have to be kept aside, and disposed of at the first opportunity. The only thing we have going for us is that we're younger than the Boomers, and are starting to enter the phase where they will leave positions of leadership and we will take over by default. Maybe there will be a shift coming soon. Maybe not. I doubt our ability to overcome the Boomer juggernaut in ways substantial enough to actually fix what they've broken.

    As for the Roadrunner, I can't say I ever really rooted for either one. A lot of cartoons from that era feature a smaller, weaker animal being pursued by a clueless predator. Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd, Sylvester and Tweety, Tom & Jerry. It was kind of a cliche. The predator was always given some sympathy. Mostly it was just amusing to see cartoons getting hit over the head with mallets, set on fire, and flattened by falling pianos and anvils…the kind of stuff Boomers did away with in favor of “Captain Planet” and other non-violent, Orwellian, “politically correct” forms of brainwashing…which seems to have worked on Millenials to a large extent, turning them into just the kind of robots the Boomers always wanted, to carry out their “fundamental transformation of Amercia”. Maybe the Tea Party movement is the beginning of some kind of counter-balance. I think it remains to be seen.

  • Chas'88

    As a Millie, I've always been sympathetic to Wile E. Coyote. Roadrunner was an annoying character in my perspective, while the Coyote always sparked my sympathies. As for how America is perceived, or should be perceived: we're one nation among many. We're not any better than anyone else. Since WWII we've had the advantage of being the top dog, and we've been using that status and assuming its permanence for far too long as an excuse to misbehave in international affairs or throw our weight around. As my signature over in the forums intimates: “It is excellent to have a giant’s strength; but it is tyrannous to use it like a giant.” We have since Reagan used our strength as a giant, and as such we reap what we have sewed; international discontent with our actions thus shouldn't be unexpected.


    • JPT

      Your post is a perfect example of what I said above. Because you're not old enough to remember a time before Boomers were in charge, your understanding of many things is jumbled. It was in the early 90s, when the generational shift took place and the Boomers assumed leadership, that everything went off the rails. It had surely been brewing ever since the 60s, but the Boomers taking charge is what brought it to fruition. They took for granted many, many things, and their lack of perspective and responsibility is what led to the dot com bubble, 9/11, the housing bubble, and the overall hatred for the U.S. that you see. The decline of America's image in the world coincided directly with the rise of Boomers in leadership. It did not begin with Reagan, and it did not begin with George W. Bush. It began with Clinton, for what should be many obvious reasons, and reached a boil during Bush's presidency. However, you cannot put sole blame on one president – it was the whole generation, throughout all levels of society, that brought about this decline.

      Your statement about America likewise illustrates my point: “…we're one nation among many. We're not any better than anyone else.” The fact that you genuinely believe that, presumably meaning not merely the current class of societal leaders, but the principles the country was founded upon as embodied in the Constitution, shows that you have accepted the premises of the radical Boomer left. The American system, for example, is no better than Iran's or North Korea's? If your view is widespread, which I believe it is, then there is little reason for optimism. All anyone can do is mourn a dead country while it slowly disintegrates. You can laugh that off in typical ignorant Millenial fashion, but remember that I told you when it happens.

      The goal of those who promoted this view may have been to tear down what existed in order to replace it with a fantastical socialist paradise…but that won't happen. If the U.S., severed from its original principles and traditions, changes into something else, it will look a lot more like the third world dictatorships of South America than the stagnant welfare states of Europe or Canada. To believe otherwise requires complete ignorance of the social realities at work in the country. We are heading for Hugo Chavez, not Tony Blair.

  • kathleen

    I am a late boomer 56 and I have always felt sympathy for the coyote. I always felt that the roadrunner was way too smug.

  • selfevident1

    I am an Xer (born 1969) and have always rooted for the Coyote. To this day, if I see an episode, I silently hope he will finally catch that roadrunner. But I don't care much for it beyond that. And their relationship seemed to be different than those of Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd or Yosemite Sam. I think the Wile E. Coyote was the sympathetic character in that pairing but Bugs was definitely the sympathetic one in those (though I love Yosemite to death).

    Interesting blog post and comments thereafter. I am new to this discussion. Just picked up The Fourth Turning last month and loved every page of it. As I look back over the past few decades I definitely see that the animosity against the US began long before the 1990s. I think JPT is looking at it through political eyes and not historical eyes. There was definitely that animosity in the '80s, perhaps even in the '70s (I don't have much of a recollection historically). Just think about the American hostages in Iran for confirmation on that. And on the lighter side, visions of the '80s movie “Spies Like Us” gives a perfect case in point. “It's OK. We're Americans.” And the next camera view has Chevy Chase and Dan Akroyd hanging from the ceiling by their ankles. Yep, sums it up quite nicely for me.

    However, I also side with JPT about what our country is. We are not “just like every other country.” Ours has always been something special by nature of the way it was created. We had the opportunity of being the first nation intentionally created and set up under a foundation of certain principles that guaranteed freedom and liberty to everyone who lived here and entered in. We have strayed far, far from those ideals that made this the greatest nation on earth. I believe this Fourth Turning will challenge the metal of that foundation and those in charge of its endurance. As I look at the country's leadership, I am deftly fearful. But when I look at the people individually, I have very high thoughts and feelings of hope. But it all depends upon the mindset we will have as the crisis reaches a boiling point. If we clamor for protection and security, we are doomed. If we stand up for liberty, there is a ray of hope that cooler heads may prevail.

    Thank you, Mr. Howe, for these posts, your books and for the paradigm shift I have had because of them. I look forward to learning more and to participating more as well.


    The Self Evident One