Gallagher: A debate worthy of our generation

If I say that we are a bored and boring generation, that we are unexcited and have little to be excited about, you can be forgiven for assuming that I’m out of touch, or at least unusually jaded.

Our generation, you might say, is perfectly capable of getting excited, and has more than enough to get excited about. And I’ll have to concede it: I remember how last November this campus erupted in singing and dancing and the blowing of trumpets. That’s hardly the way the Last Man behaves.

And youth like us, you might also say, should be especially excited. Just last month, President Obama addressed college students, declaring his faith in our ability to change the world and exhorting us to prove ourselves worthy of the “defining struggle of this generation.”

That’s not the language of an era overcome by ennui. It’s heroic language, of the sort that even the President’s opponents can’t help but delight in. It’s language in the tradition of Thomas Paine, whose words formed a nation dedicated to liberty, and of Martin Luther King Jr., whose words made it worthy of that dedication. There are overtones of Roosevelt, who led a depressed nation triumphant through Europe, and of Kennedy, who led us triumphant to the moon.

It’s easy to understand why such language was met with cheers and with a rally of resolve to see healthcare reform through. I can see, too, that some people would be opposed: it would hardly be a defining struggle if everybody was on board. But my own reaction — which seems to have been shared by almost no one — was a deep disappointment that the defining struggle of this generation should turn out to be a dispute over who pays how much of the doctor’s bills.

Not that healthcare reform is unimportant; even in the persona of a raving reactionary, one can see that our present system leaves a lot to be desired. But can that really be the most pressing concern of our time?

When Wordsworth wrote of the enthusiasms of his youth that “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,” he recalled the spirit of an age concerned with far weightier issues than uninsurance rates. And even if we recoil from the bloody facts of the French Revolution, we can hardly avoid admiring a time filled with passionate debate and intellectual ferment, a time when the leading figures of a generation, chanting the slogan “Sapere aude,” went forward confident that they were inaugurating a new age of the mind.

The course of history is full of such ages of excitement. The rediscovery of logic in the Middle Ages, the Renaissance’s cultural efflorescence, and the artistic triumphs of 20th century Modernism — not to mention the intellectual ferment brought on by the scientific revolution — each filled their time with a sense that something new was on the way. And in manifestoes and works of art, in poetry and in politics, the excitement of those past times has been preserved to inspire us. There has been much greatness in history.

But when we turn to think of ourselves, and our own times, I don’t see how we can avoid concluding with a more mature and deradicalized Wordsworth that “there hath past away a glory from the earth.” They debated the nature of man and the purpose of society; we debate the relative merits of the public option versus insurance exchanges. Genius has been replaced by wonkery; there are countless plans, but nothing radical, nothing new. It’s as if the great debates have all been concluded, the eternal questions resolved or set aside, and it remains to us uninspired epigones only to work out the details.

Surely we can do better than that. Surely there’s some movement or some new theory worthy of our excitement. But what could win us over? Will there be another Marx, to transform our view of society, another Napoleon, to awe us with military might, or another St. Francis, to call us to spiritual renewal? Will we have another Reformation, another Renaissance, another Enlightenment?

It’s not a matter of nostalgia — though there’s plenty to be nostalgic about. But reverence for the past is paralyzing, unless we can see ourselves as worthy of the past’s legacy. Our generation needs to do more than rearrange the forms of the past, or muddle around predicting the future by graphs and tables. We need an ideal; we need some artistic vision, some cause worthier of our enthusiasm than “bending the curve” of healthcare spending. I don’t pretend to know what that might be. But we shouldn’t settle for less.

Because if no inspiring possibilities remain, if the human spirit can only rest on its laurels — if there is nothing new under the sun — then all is vanity, and a striving after wind. And that’s no way to live.

Kevin Gallagher is a junior in Pierson College.


  • Yale 08

    Given full information about consequences of certain public policy, most young people would surely prefer “dispute over who pays how much of the doctor’s bills” as their generation’s “defining struggle” over placing the last nail in the coffin of American prosperity as their generation’s defining epitaph.

  • wordsworth


    And of course St. Francis is the one we need.

  • 2010

    What a cool article. One of the most interesting pieces I’ve ever read in the YDN.

  • Nothing ever changes

    I don’t know which is more depressing

    a) That Mr. Gallagher thinks that we aren’t still discussing these fundamental questions today


    b) That he ever thinks they were discussed in the past.

    Regarding (a), what in single payer vs. private insurance other than a debate over the “purpose of society.” And what is a debate over how to structure the criminal justice system and drug policy than a debate over the fundamental “nature of man.”

    Regarding (b), Marx, Napolean, and St. Francis are hardly relevant to a discussion of what are politics are like today (i.e., a debate over healthcare). Marx wrote books, and academics criticized him. Napolean fought wars, and soldiers followed him. St. Francis sought God, and the pious heard and praised him. If Mr. Gallagher wants to see their images today, he should be looking to the academy, to the battlefields of Irag and Afghanistan, and to the evangelical movement today, which can hardly be seen, by its proponents and its detractors alike, as anything less than another Awakening.

    And maybe, though, we are missing the larger picture altogether. Maybe Mr. Gallagher is correct; maybe genius is being replaced by wonkery, and with greatness replaced decency. Maybe that’s our revolutionary idea.

  • S.K.

    Just as one might say about Revolutionary Ages that they run out of control, one can say about the Present Age that it doesn’t run at all. The individual and the generation come between and stop each other; and therefore the prosecuting attorney would find it impossible to admit any fact at all, because nothing happens in this generation. From a flood of indications one might think that either something extraordinary happened or something extraordinary was just about to happen. But one will have thought wrong, for indications are the only thing the present age achieves, and its skill and virtuosity entirely consist in building magical illusions; its momentary enthusiasms which use some projected change in the forms of things as an escape for actually changing the forms of things, are the highest in the scale of cleverness… Read More and the negative use of that strength which is the passionate and creating energy during Revolutionary Ages. Eventually, this present age tires of its chimerical attempts until it declines back into indolence. Its condition is like one who has just fallen asleep in the morning: first, great dreams, then laziness, and then a witty or clever reason for staying in bed.

  • y’11

    I disagree. Gus Speth is the one we need.

  • Pete Townshend

    I’ll tip my hat to the new constitution, take a vow for the new revolution, smile and grin at the change all around me, pick up my guitar and play, just like yesterday.

    Then I’ll get on my knees and pray we don’t get fooled again.