Looking to the Future But Knowing and Building from the Past

The activism of the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School teens in the wake of our nation’s most recent major school shooting compelled best-selling author Tim Kreider to pen this op-ed in the Times earlier this month: “Go Ahead, Millennials, Destroy Us.”  Here is the impassioned last

My message, as an aging Gen X-er to millennials and those coming after them, is: Go get us. Take us down — all those cringing provincials who still think climate change is a hoax, that being transgender is a fad or that “socialism” means purges and re-education camps. Rid the world of all our outmoded opinions, vestigial prejudices and rotten institutions. Gender roles as disfiguring as foot-binding, the moribund and vampiric two-party system, the savage theology of capitalism — rip it all to the ground. I for one can’t wait till we’re gone. I just wish I could live to see the world without us.

Whoa. At the risk of sounding like a crusty old man yelling at the young’uns to “get off my lawn,” I think some moderation is in order here. 

Yes, no matter where you are on our contemporary gun-control debate, you have to admire and appreciate the passion of the MSD students to agitate against the status quo and demand real answers and real action.  And, pulling the lens back, we absolutely need our young generation to feel that they have a voice, and to use that voice to advocate for the things that matter to them.  For, by definition, their time horizon is longer than ours, and their perspective often more informed than ours, so they are able to push for the greater good more easily and more forcefully than we can.

However, the best dissent and the best advocacy is an informed one.  And part of  being informed comes from the perspective of time.  A lot of who we are as a society has to go, and the long narrative has borne out and will bear out that much progress has been made and still needs to be made.  But that doesn’t need to mean that every generation needs to burn everything to a crisp and start from zero.  That does a disservice to the collective wisdom that has built up over the years, some of which needs to be updated but much of which needs to be retained and cherished and built on top of.

I realize I am treading on thin ice here.  I am not saying “wait your turn, kid” – oh how I hate that posture.   Absolutely young folks ought to take action and not wait for their time, for their time is now.  But, when up to bat, it’s not good to just start swinging at everything, with no regard to knowing and learning from the lessons of the past and the insights of those who have gone before.  I am humbled by young folks I know who are deeply steeped in history and who have demonstrated commendable wisdom in drawing from history the lessons that inform their view of the world today and tomorrow.

I am also not saying that it is never appropriate to dismantle and start anew.  There are times when entire systems need to be protested and replaced, and at times that even requires civil disobedience and violence and destruction.  But this is more often than not the exception and not the rule, and it certainly is not the case that every single thing needs to be brought down and built back up.  Again, I am appreciative of young folks I know who know the difference, and are brave enough to use extreme measures when it is called for and restraint when it is not.

Again, perhaps I am hopelessly “unwoke,” my words belying my privileged and clueless status.  I’m just nervous about a thought process that takes something noble – young people standing up for what they believe is right – and assigning to that sentiment absolute leeway to consider all things old worth burning to the ground and all things new unassailable.  I hope to be respectful of and open to the things our youth care deeply about.  But I also hope that their desire to effect progress includes room to learn from the past and to accept and steward the good parts of that past into the future.

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