The only America young adults have ever known is a regime of steadily increasing tyranny and suffocating disappointment. It can be difficult, for those who remember the high-water mark of American power, to understand the cramped cynicism or autocratic wokeness of younger generations. But bridging this chasm between generational “lived experiences” and squarely facing the landscape of reality is an existential necessity for all who wish to save America.
The America that shaped all of us for whom the fall of the Iron Curtain marked the triumph of “Truth, Justice, and the American Way” — to borrow a phrase from Superman — is dead and gone. The culture that created Superman and his motto is no more. And those of us who remember where we were when the Berlin Wall came down experienced a kind of liberty and optimism that has been lost for decades.
President Ronald Reagan in his 1989 Farewell Address rightly said that people “who are over 35 or so years of age grew up in a different America” — one in which they “were taught, very directly, what it means to be an American.” Reagan contrasted this with an America about to enter the 1990s with an increasingly ragged, patchwork quilt of civic understanding and shared history, and patriotically ambivalent young parents and culture. He said bluntly: “I’m warning of an eradication of the American memory that could result, ultimately, in an erosion of the American spirit.”
Even so, the 1990s were a slipstream of seemingly limitless possibility, at least in terms of wealth, comfort, and security. The United States finally stood alone on the world stage, apparently untouchable — the victor, the undisputed champion of the world. Almost overnight, 9/11 changed that. It revealed that Americans’ sense of security was an illusion and gave our leaders the means, motive, and opportunity to build a security state that would trade liberty for our supposed safety — and their increasing control.
You and I might remember a world where we could bid our loved ones goodbye at their airport gate or smoke on a flight. The young have known nothing but TSA lines. Perhaps they recall when shoes could stay on, or when the liquids allowance was larger. Maybe they can summon faint images of triumph in Baghdad and not just disaster in Kabul. But throughout their lives they have seen nothing but a string of foreign policy failures and disasters, even as swathes of life in America itself (air travel being but one good example) waned from First to Second World experiences.
President Bush told the nation to go shopping after 9/11. We were not as safe as we thought, but at least we were rich. Our freedom of movement might be restricted and surveillance increased, but we had the money to buy what we wanted, which if not liberty itself was at least a kind of freedom. That changed, too, as the ’08 crisis and recession showed that much of the American dream had become unachievable amid unaccountable megabanks. What had once been the expected inheritance of every hard-working citizen — a home, a car, a pension, college for your kids — which had been eroding for some time, was now shown to be part of a house of cards built on debt and deceptive financial practices.
Throughout the entire course of their lifetimes, the standard majority practice of middle-class families was the two-income norm. There was a time when a man didn’t even need a college degree to have a job that supported a family, or when a diploma from the local state school could launch a good career with clear opportunities for advancement and further training. Again, many today have never experienced it. People who did have a distorted view of life today, as they can hardly imagine how the American system now actually works.
With metastasizing demand for education and credentialing, the revolutionary left dominates every part of American public life. It conquered the universities decades ago, when wokeness was called “political correctness,” but then it all seemed like a joke. Today, public school teachers, H.R. functionaries, government bureaucrats, and DEI commissars all speak the language of the old campus radicals. The liberty to speak the truth as they see it is a luxury now that many otherwise successful Americans can’t afford.
Silicon Valley epitomized the 90s’ dream. Limitless money and limitless information, in the limitless ever-growing digital world of bits, would make a limitless future. The freedom not everyone fully had in real life would be fully available online, and the best and brightest would transcend and disrupt established hierarchy by moving fast and breaking things. But monopolization and centralization has swallowed up romantic visions of a new digital frontier. Instead of hosting an online republic of letters, search engines and social media platforms have become increasingly perfect engines of narrative control, memetic warfare, and mass psychosis induction. Federal agency “requests” and terms of service dictate speech, and in so doing, begin to dictate thought.
It should be no surprise, then, if we consider the ever-increasing tyranny of the last two decades, that young people embrace the woke power hierarchies in which they have been raised, or rebel in nihilistic ways. The walls have always been closing in on their hopes and dreams. Is it any wonder that many embrace the ruling civic religion of wokeness and its permitted freedoms of queer identification and rebellion against basic biological reality? Either they go along with the ruling ideology and make an idol of “our sacred democracy” — the only inheritance they have — or they become deeply cynical and isolated, given that they mistrust what is held up to them as America itself.
In sum, anyone born too young to remember the 1990s has grown up in a profoundly different America in which even the fumes of a more traditional culture have been snuffed out. They are not only ignorant of American civics and history; they have been systemically taught that America is evil. They have only known a purposeful, managed decline: a corrupt oligarchy surging towards a technologically advanced global feudalism — a dizzying kaleidoscope of commercial-cultural dysfunction, an emerging digital dystopia.
I am reminded, as I consider the task of national renewal ahead of all of us, of a letter John Adams wrote his wife, Abigail. Adams said, considering why he labored as he did, “I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine.”
Some Americans may still enjoy the true blessings of liberty, as not everything that previous generations who knew and did better has yet been destroyed, but an ever-increasing number of Americans do not and will not if we do not change course. Americans who remember a better country must recognize that for the young, that country never existed. If it is to exist again, we must all rigorously discipline ourselves to study reality as it is and do what now needs to be done.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the Daily Caller.