Fifty years of solicitude

This year we (all of my personae up here in the High Doganate) are celebrating fifty years of soi-disant “adult” life. We left home as soon as we could, at age sixteen, even though we’d had a happy childhood, fine parents, an adorable little sister, &c. We were acing the tests in high school, and teacher’s pet in several classes. (Teacher’s nightmare in several others.) “Free, white, and not yet twenty-one.” We had all the opportunity available to the comfortable middle class; we had no detectable propensity to drugs or crime. Everything was running smoothly. Below that age, we might have been apprehended by a truant officer. But now the “option” was before me.

It was time to drop out.

Those who didn’t — genuinely drop out — were fated to “tune in and turn on,” if I may take liberties with Timothy O’Leary’s memorable phrase. Weirdly, I knew what I was doing: rejecting a society that was rejecting its own formative ideals. Somewhere in these two negatives was a positive. I’m still absurdly proud that I quit.

I, my father, his father, all left home at sixteen, to earn a living and see the world. They had world wars to go to. I didn’t, unless I could start one. I did go to Vietnam, but only as an aspiring young journalistic hack, and tried other potentially life-threatening adventures, each of which I survived. There were moments when my aloneness made me think quiet conformity would have made more sense, and how easy life would be in a university. Such moments quickly passed.

Fifty years later, and by some miracle I am still able to recall the flavour of those times. In Asia, I was often “on the road” with European and American hippies. Fortunately they were following predictable paths to Goa and Kathmandu, so it was not hard to shake them off. More broadly, I was aware, among the young in the West, of a strange revolution — bourgeois in nature, borne of moral permissiveness. Our emeritus pope wrote recently of its consequences within the Catholic Church, and the fallout from “sexual liberation” today. I bitterly recall its fallout on me.

This was one cause of the civilizational slide that was then beginning to accelerate. Without doubt, it was the biggest one, concealing itself within many other causes, and touching the lives even of the avowedly celibate. I’m inclined to think another was (for want of a more comprehensive term) technological. But the two were closely related. It was becoming possible to do things — ride in aeroplanes, for instance — that had not been commonplace in the past. It was possible to avoid the consequences of one’s acts with easily available devices such as The Pill.

It was an age of cutting corners: thrilling to the young of the ’sixties, but already a bore to those coming of age in the ’seventies. In particular, I was aware that inflation was rampant, not only in currency but in educational and all other standards. We were now embarked, as a whole society, on a life of ease and triviality.

Now entering my second happy childhood, I look back on the times that were achangin’ with fairly uniform regret. But also with surprise, that the trends so manifest today were also apparent then, and even to a child of sixteen. There was “revolution in the air,” in the pop understanding, which appealed to the vanity of consumers, but on a closer look, it wasn’t a revolution at all. Rather it was an enfolding corruption, in which people did not fight for freedom but cynically laughed at the old restraints.

Fifty years of relative peace and prosperity in the West; and still my apprehension that the reckoning will come. For the starch required to defend a civilization — the clarity of mind and earnestness of purpose — has been washed away.