Today begins like any other day; a familiar cardigan and worn sneakers soothe the sleep from our eyes as we search for our next spoonful of Cheerios. It will be a good day; a day of importance and personal value, a day that builds the dreams of tomorrow upon the blessings of days gone by. We’re Americans. It’s our right.
Our national character was forged through the acknowledgment of responsibility, refined by strife and, for our efforts, we were entitled to our reward. The United States is special because of who we are and what we have done, and our privileged identity—enshrined in narrative—is secure.
“Remember, you’re special, just the way you are.”
For forty-six years those words joined breakfast tables across the country, reminding American children of their place in life and their standing in the world. They were words penned in sacrifice, blood and toil—a proud inheritance invested in the generations to come. They reminded us to look responsibly toward the future, and for 46 years the message remained the same: we were special just the way we were.
Though the basic message of our nation’s hope has remained the same, generation to generation, its recipients have not.
Founded on the promise of opportunity and preserved past civil war, our republic needed a century to gain a firm footing on it own soil and forty-two years more to establish credible influence beyond our borders. As the smoke of World War I cleared and our political hypothesis solidified, we proved that a society built upon liberty and diverse individualism could not only survive, but could command authority around the globe.
This was Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood.
Born in 1928, Fred Rogers was from the “Greatest Generation.” Coming of age in the Great Depression, Mr. Rogers began his adult life in the influence and prosperity that accompanied the Allied victory over fascism. Faced with looming threats of Communism and the bomb, the purpose of his generation was clear: justice, freedom and peace were to be secured regardless of cost. Because of their commitment and sacrifice, their America was special, a beacon of freedom in a land of justice and opportunity.
Having lived this reality and having seen the righteousness of individual liberty played out on the world stage, Mr. Rogers embraced the truth of his nation and dedicated his life to the education of America’s children. The unique value and importance of each individual American was the basis of our national freedom. Thus, to strengthen each individual was not only moral; it was the key to maintaining national influence and unified peace. Inherent self-value meant the cultivation of self-interest, and self-interest lead to personal responsibility, and responsibility then drove progress and prosperity.
However, as the Baby Boomers came of age, the status quo of American power and influence began to stagnate. The realities of inequality and segregation did not seem to correspond with the America the Boomers had been raised to revere. If America was truly special, each person deserved to actualize the value of his or her inalienable self-worth. After all, Mr. Rogers told us to be good neighbors to everyone.
With the evils facing their parents put to rest, this generation found their expression of our national character in the causes of equality. Civil rights, race, gender and conscription dominated the social palate. This was a country of self-determination and individual liberty, and the Boomers would be damned if race, sex or the preferential wars of old men were going to disband the timeless truths that made this country great. With protests and marches, through imprisonment and Vietnam, the Boomers staked their claim in the equality of all persons, in the realization of the neighborly American Dream.
Yet for all of their progress, as the Boomers eclipsed middle age, a new generation began to emerge—one that didn’t know the horrors of war or the sting of depression. This generation wouldn’t know of an America of gross inequality and blatant social oppression, neither would they be versed in talk of Fascism, Communism or the fall of Saigon. This is our generation, the Millennials, Generation Y. Nurtured by Mr. Rogers, we too are told the same stories and engrained with the same national truths, but within a radically unique social milieu.
We are still told that we are special, just as we are told that our individualism and self-actualization is the key to our national prosperity and, on top of that, that anything we want is to be ours. It is our entitlement, passed down from the shores of Iwo Jima and the buses of Birmingham. Yet the causes and subsequent responsibilities of generations past are no longer on the table. Hitler was defeated, communism fell, conscription was retired, and radical inequality acknowledged. This is not to say that there isn’t still great work to be done, but rather that our generation’s causes have become niched. We don’t have a war for everyone to fight, a draft to dodge, or a pervasive Jim Crow to oppose: our responsibility has become a matter of personal preference and choice.
Without a specific generational cause, Millennials are forced to haphazardly search for obligation and meaning outside of themselves. We know we are special, but we cannot seem to find an enduring way to prove it. No longer does obligation and responsibility connote self-worth, but self-worth gives rise to any myriad of potential obligations. Built on preference, fueled by emotion, and funded with credit, causes are marketed—ostensible populism waiting to be consumed. And as good consumers, we rest assured that others are doing the dirty work for us; our responsibility will rarely extend beyond a rubber bracelet or a Product Red t-shirt from the Gap.
Our inherent value is now founded neither on our responsibility to the world nor on the righting of injustice, but rather on the mere fact of our existence. Daily, we feel the weight of our special nation and of our special hope, but can we really claim privilege without sacrifice, or true ownership without exertion?
We assume that the petty squabbles and ignorant conflicts of the past have no hold on our enlightened, cosmopolitan minds. Our freedom from the past is our freedom to forget. We are tolerant and accepting, expedient and polite—understanding Jefferson, Payne, Mill and Locke as obvious and commonplace. Could it be that we have come to the pinnacle of history and are somehow the generation that finally “gets it” and is free?
Absolutely not—to paraphrase Nietzsche, we must be wary of proudly puffing out our chests, only to later find them to be hollow.
We are the first generation whose essential conflict is internal. With no central theme or cause, we strive for fulfillment in the assertion of self-worth, and we seek any way to extend credibility to how special we are. We tweet and blog until the world is numb, yet we may have ultimately missed the point.
Being special isn’t about proof and affirmation, but rather about standards, commitments and results. Sure, being “special’ is a function of who we are, but we are defined by what we have done. Self-worth is a function of accomplishment, and accomplishment is contingent upon commitment.
With the populism of 2008 and the election of President Obama due in large part to the support of the Millennials, “Change We Can Believe In” is in danger of becoming another fleeting cause that makes us feel good about ourselves. Our desire for national unity and regeneration is a good thing and the rhetoric of the campaign piqued the feelings deep inside of us. President Obama affirmed our individual agency and power, our ability to change the world because of who we are as Americans. But it will ring hollow if our responsibility and commitment do not follow in tow. In the face of irresponsible economic speculation, deteriorating public education, untenable social entitlements, and a climate being strained by our thirst for fossil fuels, the problems we face are too great for us to shamefully waste our resources on leisure and passivity.
Whatever our politics, being on a mailing list does not constitute commitment, nor does an emotional high demark the fulfillment of a responsibility. We must “commit” to seeing our commitments through, for the weight of our audacious hope is now the responsibility of our generation. It need not be wasted on indulgent lip service when it can be invested in creative commitments to social progress and national prosperity.