For these times
Catastrophic as they have been, the tribulations of the peoples of the earth these last few years have apparently failed to oppress the world's emancipated youth. To a man or woman, they delight in their prospects, even if they are disappointed with Britney's numbed but nearly naked comeback this week. Indisputably, young Americans mostly have a grand time, especially because they are so practiced at disdaining the failed efforts that their elders have made to improve things on a global as well as national scale. For the young, expectations are generally that the good times will go on rolling, and when their soft fingers curl around the levers of power, they will correct our many mistakes. Apart from the aura of self-satisfaction, these kids are worth emulating.
I think they are very brave. And there is a lesson in their optimism and high spirits. We who are inclined to fret about terrorism, Iraq, Middle East tensions generally, unemployment, hemorrhaging retirement accounts, sub-prime lending, trophy houses (or at least houses that are bigger than our own), dispirited Republicanism, rampant Democrats, that bloody United Nations, the nasty focus on rolling back tax cuts, President Bush's syntax, and, well, you name it, we have forgotten whatever it is that inspires the young.
Russell Baker, one of the best things ever to happen to Nantucket, can remind us. Mr. Baker, who was born in 1925, is an author, humorist, and host of Masterpiece Theater. In 1979, he won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary, writing the humor column on The New York Times OpEd Page, when there was humor at that location. He won the Pulitzer again in 1983 for his autobiography. He has spoken often to young people about to launch themselves upon the world. He entitled one such talk, "10 Ways to Avoid Mucking Up the World Any Worse Than It Already Is."
He begins the 1995 talk by telling the listeners that he'll be brief. He's worried that if he talks too long, he'll miss the free lunch he's been promised. He is loath to miss lunch. In the end, of course, he runs over a minute or so and concludes that he will go hungry, but as everyone knows, there's no free lunch.
He advises his young audience to "bend down once in a while and smell a flower"; to avoid "clothes that talk"; to "listen once and a while"; to "sleep in the nude" because nobody dresses up anymore; to "turn off the TV once or twice a month and pick up a book." He advises, "don't take your gun to town...don't even leave it home ..."; "learn to fear the automobile," which he says is more dangerous to our way of life than the deficit; "have some children," they are valuable in the end; "get married," you'll be happier; and avoid pre-nuptial agreements and lawyers generally.
"And finally," Mr. Baker said, in tune with the bright-eyed enthusiasm for life common to young people, "point 10: smile. You're one of the luckiest people in the world. You're living in America. Enjoy it. I feel obliged to give you this banal advice because, although I've lived through the Great Depression, World War II, terrible wars in Korea and Vietnam, and half a century of cold war, I have never seen a time when there were so many Americans so angry or so mean-spirited or so sour about the country as there are today.
"Anger has become the national habit. You see it on the sullen faces of fashion models scowling out of magazines. It pours out of the radio. Washington television hams snarl and shout at each other on television. Ordinary people abuse politicians and their wives with shockingly coarse insults. Rudeness has become an acceptable way of announcing you are sick and tired of it all and are not going to take it anymore. Vile speech is justified on the same ground and is inescapable.
" ... The question is: why? Why has anger become the common response to the inevitable ups and down of national life? The question is baffling not just because the American habit even in the worst of times has traditionally been mindless optimism, but also because there is so little for Americans to be angry about nowadays ...
"So when you get out there in the world, ladies and gentlemen, you're going to find yourself surrounded by shouting, red-in-the-face, stomping-mad politicians, radio yakmeisters, and, yes, sad to say, newspaper columnists, telling you 'you never had it so bad' and otherwise trying to spoil your day.
"When they come at you with that, ladies and gentlemen, give them a wink and a smile and a good view of your departing back."