A few weeks ago, I found myself sorting through old (now digitized) archives of the Yale Daily News. I was struck by the headlines — fraternities fighting with the administration, the admissions office increasing its staff, alumni setting fundraising records, the Yale Corporation searching for a new president and op-eds discussing how the new residential colleges, Stiles and Morse, would change the fabric of the college experience.
While the stories are nearly sixty years old, they should sound familiar. This provokes us to ask ourselves, in this age of social media and instant connectivity, how unique are we?
The presidential campaigns would certainly have us believe we are. The Obama campaign touts the election as “a choice between two fundamentally different visions for America.” We are told we have a “unique role” to play in the fabric of the nation and its affairs. But is our fragment of the American experience that different from that of our parents or grandparents?
The over-saturation of rhetoric about change, fundamental choices and getting America back on track is, at its core, futile. We were ever off track? Is change not constantly occurring? Will a mistake in a fundamental choice mean we can never reverse it? The language tickles our sentiments of uniqueness — that we, like no one before us, stand at a crossroads.
This is simply not true.
One does not need to look further than the campaign slogans of the last 100 years to uncover the similarities — ‘America Needs a Change’ (Mondale 1984), ‘For the future’ (Nixon 1960), ‘A Return to Normalcy’ (Harding 1920), ‘A Leader, For a Change’ (Carter 1976) or, my personal favorite, ‘A chicken in every pot and a car in every garage’ (Hoover 1928).
Any one of these slogans could be used in the current election. They all appeal to the same theme of dissatisfaction with the status quo and the necessity for a dramatic transformation. They all work because they rely on the assumption of our unique place in history.
A clear manifestation of this sentiment can be seen in the recent Occupy movement. The core of the protests relies on the exclusive nature of our generation. The overall message that ‘we’re pissed off and we’re not going to take it anymore’ necessitates that, while previous generations tolerated some injustice of the past, it is we who will no longer put up with it. Do banks have more influence in Washington than they did 30 years ago? It’s doubtful. Nonetheless, the movement garnered the following it did because it provoked these sentimentalities of exceptionalism.
Why does this attitude appeal to us? Bertrand Russell writes that we study history because we are individuals “facing the terror of cosmic loneliness.” In other words, we’re scared — afraid that we are alone in facing obstacles that might defeat us, alone in our decisions about our country and society and alone in our struggle to reach peace. In turn, we resort to isolating ourselves from the past to reaffirm our superiority over previous generations and to reassure our standing in a select historical epoch.
This attitude is detrimental. Time and time again, history has shown to repeat itself. This is not due to stupidity or bad decisions, but to the consistency of the human experience. Even without social media and multinational corporations, people interacted the same way in pre-colonial America as they do today. Feelings of love, hate, anger, passion, sadness and joy have remained guiding forces for our experience in social and interpersonal relations. The poems and philosophies of Ancient Greece and Rome have remained so influential and relevant because they address these same themes of human nature, despite being written over 2000 years ago. There are very few experiences that have not occurred sometime in the past.
Each generation feels unique in the struggles and experiences they face, but we must recognize that this urge is simply part of human nature. The irony is that the sentiment of exclusivity is not exclusive at all, but something universal and inter-generational.
Our place in history is unique and important in that we have the ability to help define it. It is not, however, exclusive. Presidential candidates and populist movements will continue to appeal to our natural sentiments and develop narratives that embrace us as the protagonists. Ultimately, the next generation will repeat this process, and we will fall back to a supporting role. There is nothing wrong with this.
David Lilienfeld is a sophomore in Ezra Stiles College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .