News flash: our generation has just received a name change. Last week, Newsweek deigned to name us after the worst day of our lives — “Generation 9-11.”
According to the Nov. 12, 2001 Newsweek cover story, the University of Michigan, an apparent microcosm of the nation, has been flipped upside down. The once “insular” students have, since Sept. 11, transformed into politically active, socially aware, concerned, worldly crusaders, bespeaking a general generational metamorphosis of students across the country.
Newsweek and others regard this apparent generational realignment as a positive departure from the self-indulgence, apathy and opulence that stigmatized Generation “Y” of the 1990s. I wonder, however, if being “Generation 9-11” is all that it’s cracked up to be.
Not only is it soothsaying to make sweeping judgments so early in the life span of what may or may not be a social phenomenon, it is also questionable as to whether we want this titular distinction in the first place.
Killing over 4,000 people and catalyzing a war, the Sept. 11 attacks had an immense immediate magnitude. Their long-term effects, however, remain to be seen.
Some people, like Michigan graduate student Greg Epstein, are already citing Sept. 11 as the landmark for our generation.
“We had no crisis, no Vietnam, no Martin Luther King, no JFK. We’ve got it now. When we have kids and grandkids, we’ll tell them that we lived through the roaring ’90s when all we cared about was the No. 1 movie or how many copies an album sold. This is where it changes.”
Comparing Sept. 11 to the Vietnam War and Civil Rights Era is like equating Alisha Keyes to Aretha Franklin. Though Alisha could very well end up becoming a formidable musical force for decades to come, she might just be a one-hit wonder who fades into oblivion.
Similarly, combating terrorism may be America’s greatest challenge of the 21st century, one that shapes us and our descendents in unimaginable ways. Or, for all we know, the war could end tomorrow, with Osama bin Laden’s head on a pigpole and a new 108-story World Trade Center under construction. There’s only one way to gauge the long-term impact of an event like Sept. 11: it’s called retrospect.
The likening of Sept. 11 to JFK’s assassination is an appropriate analogy. Unfolding before the nation’s eyes, President Kennedy’s 1963 dramatic death shocked the world, shattering the notion that modern day presidents were invincible to madmen with guns, just like Sept. 11 debunked our belief that 100-story skyscrapers and the nation’s defense center are immune to madmen with airplanes.
That said, however, few people actually argue that Kennedy’s assassination ignited a major shift in American society. Though it will forever last as a heart-wrenching memory, it’s likely that Sept. 11, like Kennedy’s assassination, may not alter the social framework of the universe.
The allusion, then, to Sept. 11 shutting the doors of time being forever on the prosperous “roaring ’90s”, when pop culture was more of a concern than world annihilation, is a dramatization.
If people aren’t seeing movies or buying CDs or going to amusement parks, it’s not because they’ve suddenly shed their base interest in the simpleton pleasures of popular culture — they just don’t have that much money right now. We are, after all, at the nadir of a recession.
Nevertheless, the remnants of the “roaring ’90s” seem to be hanging on for dear life. “Harry Potter,” to be released today, will wallop the all-time box office gross set by “Titanic” in the peak of the “roaring ’90s.”
And nearly 40 million fans flocked to their televisions to catch the ninth-inning nail-biter of a World Series Game Seven, the most-watched baseball game since 1991.
That Newsweek expects Americans –and college students at that — to morph from TV-morons to policy wonks is ludicrous. We will not supplant “The West Wing” with “Larry King.” We will not jettison “The Tonight Show” for “Nightline.” And we will certainly not tune from TNN to CNN!
Our refusal to allow Sept. 11 to transform our everyday existence is, in my mind, precisely the appropriate response. It’s like saying to bin Laden and his gang of thugs, “You can take our lives, but you’ll never take our lifestyles.”
In many ways, the solidarity, outpouring of kindness, and love-thy-neighbor attitude prevalent in the wake of Sept. 11 is more a product of ’90s culture than a spontaneous creation of the attacks. Though overshadowed by our carefree lifestyle, our generation’s recently emergent virtues were in us all the time — it just took an earth-shattering, mind-blowing tragedy to usher them to the fore.
We rose to the occasion, and not a moment too soon. At some point, however, it will be okay to relax back into the happiness and comfort that characterized the ’90s — not just because it’s more fun to ruminate over the weekend box office than worry about global annihilation, but because we can do both.
Whether we can reconcile our fears of the past with our hopes for the future, our Bushian patriotism with our Clintonian bliss, will be the true test of this generation, whatever we’re called.
Let’s not be the generation whose world was forever altered by the acts of madmen. Let us instead be the generation whose resilience saw us through it.
Zach Jones is a freshman in Davenport College.