I am not by nature, I think, a grumpy old man. But, at the age of 60, I feel entitled to comment on some inescapable facts about the younger generation. If my judgments seem harsh, I can only invite the reader to try to refute them, if he can. Or if she can. (Equality requires every he to be accompanied by a she.)
Yes, I know the automatic response: “Every generation thinks the one that comes after it is degenerate,” followed by a quotation from Socrates, Cicero, or Hypotenuse to the effect that the kids of his (or her) day are a bad lot. From this we are to infer that this ancient complaint has always been overwrought. Never mind that the complainers’ societies usually did perish soon after these dire warnings. Often enough, the grumpy old men (or women, as the case may be) turn out to be prophetic.
Look around, reader. In this computer age, how many of today’s youth could, if necessary, change a typewriter ribbon? In this age of the compact disc, how many could change a phonograph needle? How many could open or close a car window by cranking it manually? How many could get up, walk across the room, and change the television channel by turning a knob—or, if the knob fell off, by using pliers?
How many of these pampered epicures know what it is to wash dishes by hand? To get ice cubes out of a metal tray by pulling a lever? To reheat supper without a microwave? To sharpen a pencil with a jackknife? To change a cloth diaper with safety pins? To brush one’s teeth with a manual toothbrush requiring wrist action?
Today, such tasks are done, when they are done at all, by hiring illegal aliens. But in my day, we did them ourselves. They had to be done, and we did them without whining. If this sometimes meant getting ink on one’s hands, or cutting or pricking a finger, or breaking a nail, so be it.
On the other hand, these things built character. They prepared one for the endless and ruthless Malthusian-Darwinian struggle for survival. Life didn’t come with a government warning label. It was “nature, red in tooth and claw.” Knowing how to use a can opener—and I don’t mean an electric one—could mean the difference, quite literally, between feast and famine. There was no room for such frivolities as moral relativism and moral ambiguity. It came down to kill or be killed. When the ribbon wore out, you changed it—or else.
Today’s youth possess only two survival skills, if you can call them that: for the abysmally helpless, demanding immediate government action; and, for the more enterprising, identity theft. Such recent technologies as the pocket calculator have eliminated the need for such complex mental operations as borrowing and carrying in order to subtract and add; cassettes long ago displaced the rigors of the reel-to-reel tape recorder; push-button dialing has made the rotary dial a distant memory, a quaint curiosity seen only in old black-and-white movies and chiefly associated with Barbara Stan-wyck, screaming (speaking of the struggle for survival).
Darwin and Malthus would curl their upper lips derisively at this generation, but the laugh’s on them: Their ideas are obsolete. Or so it would appear, as government has made the competition for survival seem as remote as the caveman (and/or woman). Today, government provides every manner of protection, security, defense, safety, care, aid, assistance, rights, and services. It calls even its most brazenly predatory activities “services”: the Internal Revenue Service and the Selective Service. Not to put too fine a point on it, robbing and killing are now government services.
This being so, it takes a pretty nimble semanticist to keep track of, and to penetrate, all the evils, physical and metaphysical, government is now allegedly protecting us from: foreign enemies; terrorism; poverty; discrimination (including homophobia); stock-market fraud; copyright violation; global warming; tobacco (though tobacco is also subsidized); impurities in air, water, and food; illiteracy; and so on. Meanwhile, on the positive side, government promotes diversity at home and democracy abroad.
I don’t pretend that this list of the functions of government is complete. I merely note that it seems rather, well, miscellaneous. In fact, that seems to be the whole idea, if there is one: that government should deal with whatever comes up, unless it has to do with, say, religion, where the First Amendment kicks in. Then, for once, government shouldn’t do anything, because, after all, this is a pluralistic democracy, the kind we are trying to produce in Iraq. But since education and pluralism go hand in hand, public schools should inculcate Darwinism, which is scientific, but must ban alternatives to Darwinism, which are religiously motivated. The rationale is simple and compelling.
At this point, the reader (of either sex) may well be asking himself (or herself), What is he driving at? Just this: Today’s youth are hopelessly ill equipped to address the complex problems we now face. In my day, the issue was stark: survival. Hobbes, Malthus, and Darwin had laid it on the line: a war of every man against every man (or woman).
On September 11, 2001, however, all the rules suddenly changed. The foregoing is, necessarily, no more than a mere preliminary sketch, no doubt colored by my own youthful flirtations with existentialism, phenomenology, and astrology. Stay tuned.