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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