ALBERT HERTER

‘GENERATIONS IN THE BALANCE,’ by Daniel Judt & Tony Judt in the N. Y. Times Op-ED section .

In Uncategorized on June 21, 2010 at 02:19

OP-ED CONTRIBUTORS

Generations in the Balance

By DANIEL JUDT and TONY JUDT

Published: June 18, 2010

DANIEL Had I been 18 in November 2008, I would have voted for Barack Obama. However, being 14, I settled for voicing my support for him and expressing joy at his election. I believed, innocently, that his administration would put its foot down, stamping out the environmental crisis that his predecessors had allowed to fester unnoticed. I felt Mr. Obama knew how to do the right thing morally, even if it meant going against the “right thing” politically.

Less than two years later, I have become hugely pessimistic about the moral resolve of our government and corporate world. Deepwater Horizon has been the tipping point. I was already skeptical: an increase in offshore drilling, our government’s passive stance at Copenhagen and the absence of any environmental legislation saw to that.

But BP made me realize that the generation in office just doesn’t get it. They see the environmental crisis in the same light as they see political debacles and economic woes. Politics pass and economies rebound, but the environment doesn’t. It’s that sense of “We’ll get that done right after we have dealt with everything else” that makes me so angry. The world is not an expendable resource; fixing the damage you have inflicted will be the issue for my generation. It is that simple.

TONY Well, I am 62 and I did vote for Barack Obama. I held out no great hopes. It was clear from the outset that this was someone who would concede rather than confront — and that’s a shortcoming in a politician, if not in a man. We have seen the consequences: not in the Middle East, nor in economic regulation, nor over detainees, nor in immigration reform has Mr. Obama followed through. The audacity of hope?

As for the corporations, we baby boomers were right to be cynical. Like Goldman Sachs, oil companies are not benign economic agents, serving a need and taking a cut. They are, in Theodore Roosevelt’s words, “malefactors of great wealth.” But our cynicism dulled our response to truly criminal behavior: “They would do that, wouldn’t they?” It is one thing to watch while Goldman Sachs pillages the economy, quite another to be invited to stand aside while BP violates the Gulf Coast. Yes, we should be a lot angrier than we are.

We are staring into our future and it does not work. The gush of filth is a reminder that we have surrendered our independence to a technology we cannot master. Our energies are misdirected to expensive foreign wars whose purposes grow ever more obscure. We rail at one another in “cultural” clashes irrelevant to our real problems.

Meanwhile, the clockwork precision of our classical constitution has ground to a halt — depending as it does on a consensus that no longer exists. Taking the long view, this is how republics die. “Someone” clearly has to do “something.” What do you propose?

DANIEL Just as you are too forgiving of unacceptable corporate behavior, maybe you are too resigned politically. To actually effect change, you need to come in thinking that real change is possible. My generation saw things that way; that is why so many young people supported Mr. Obama. Perhaps more than any other constituency in the United States, we believed that engagement would make things happen. But the more we are told that crises are to be expected and cannot be prevented by those in power — that we must put our faith in God, as the president advised on Tuesday — the more our faith in government slips away.

Politicians depend on the public: given a strong enough consensus, they will act. That’s what I would have had you do — and that’s what we have to do now: build a consensus and act. Your generation talked a lot about engagement. So engage. Use the lever of public opinion to force strong environmental legislation.

In reconciling ourselves after BP to “getting back to normal,” we will have missed a vital opportunity. We need a new “normal.” And we need to ask ourselves new questions: not whether we can afford to invest in a different way of life — solar energy, mass transportation, the phasing out of our dependency on oil — but how long we can afford not to. You owe us this.

TONY I am a little queasy about all this generation talk. After all, I am the same age as Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, but I take no responsibility for them. Actually, while I agree that we need to build a national consensus, I don’t think the challenge is to convince Americans about pollution or even climate change. Nor is it just a matter of getting them to make sacrifices for the future. The challenge is to convince them once again of how much they could do if they came together.

But that requires leadership — and I can’t help noticing that you rather let the president off the hook. After all, if you and your contemporaries have lost faith in the man and “the system,” that’s partly his fault. But you, too, have a responsibility.

~~~~ GO TO NYTIMES.COM FOR BALANCE OF ARTICLE ON THE OP-ED PAGE~~~~~~~

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Daniel Judt is in the ninth grade at the Dalton School. Tony Judt is the author of “Ill Fares the Land” (and his father).

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