My life is lived at the intersection of philanthropy and social change. I hear a lot about ‘movements’ but society doesn’t seem to be moving in the right direction.
50 years ago at Woodstock, the rallying cry of a generation fresh off a seemingly successful campaign of civil rights for Black Americans was ‘no more war.’ War was seen for what it continues to be - a tool and a driver of US hegemony.
But there was also a passionate surge of individualism inside a culture of conformity. The hula hoop got the hips moving along with the beat. Stifled urges could not be contained. We had to turn on, tune in and drop out.
With the war machine being challenged and individualism on the rise, consumerism was the song that would calm the dis-ease. Economic powers could lull the cry of individualism into believing in a hero’s journey. We’re not all one. We’re each one, on a quest bound up in freedom and liberty. Don’t buy what your neighbor has, get the one that’s right for you. You deserve it.
That same ego-driven impulse assured us that everyone wants what we have. God-like, we should take whatever steps are necessary to create the world in America’s image.
50 years ago we got a couple of TV channels, three or four versions of the outside world coming into our homes every night. We all sat glued to what was aptly named ‘programming’ - mass hypnosis instilled by the swinging pendulum of convenience. From water on tap, electric lights and machines like refrigeration, heating and air conditioning to grocery stores and automobiles, we had comfort on a scale the human species had never known.
Like an entitled child, growth was cheered on with our economy standing tall against the wall as we marveled at the Dow Jones pencil marks of progress climbing ever higher.
Now the economy is all grown up with weapons of its own. With its tendrils in nearly every aspect of life throughout the world, from micro-lending to farmers in Bangladesh to bailouts of banks in crisis, the economy is the colonizer now.
150 years ago wage labor was un-American and there was no federal currency. War was always an agent of commerce and technical innovation. But nothing was quite so seductive to the consolidation of power as the Civil War as it merged with the Industrial Revolution. Fueled by steam and machines, but more importantly by an ideology that became the equivalent of pop culture (just as rock and roll would be 100 years later), white protestant land-owning destiny was made manifest.
Once the states were consolidated during the 1870s for the sake of commerce and the railroads that smoothed its way, the slow transformation from civilian to consumer began. Cultures were assimilated and destroyed to realize the ‘American Dream,’ legitimizing the original colonies by colonizing with a moral purpose.
An ambitious attempt at creating a union of disparate states took decades after the Declaration of Independence in 1776, and it was tried again after the end of the Civil War in 1865. Lincoln (by way of Jesus) said “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” What he failed to recognize were the fractures in America's very foundation, and just how divided that house could get.
Now here we are, hyper-individualists. Just 60 years after the last colonized territories joined the ‘union’ every one of us is a pronoun, a color, a class, a religion, a political party, a YouTube channel or an Instagram account - a level of division Lincoln could never dream of, and a level of faux freedom that takes America’s founding narrative into realms that entitle billionaires to exist while enslavement for most is seen as a simple character flaw.
Every movement I hear about today is really just a pushing against something, an attempt to impress on power how much ‘I’, ‘we’, and ‘it’ matters, like a child struggling against a love-starved parent.
Identity is critical. Belonging is a necessity. For billions today and the billions before them, a voice, agency, a life free from the boot of white male patriarchy on their neck - that is our only way forward as a species, but as Gloria Steinem once said, “the truth will set you free but first it will piss you off.”
We are in the pissed-off stage and it will last as long as it needs to. Years? Decades? Like a child screaming to be heard, will we destroy everything before we realize that our mother was there all along? Like that same child, must we come to realize that – as a male-dominated global market-driven culture – we are not the center of the world?
History will tell us how many treaties the U.S. Government has broken - every single one. Why should anyone trust that a right given won’t be a right taken away?
Like Charlie Brown attempting to kick the football Lucy is holding one more time, when witnessing activists and organizers fighting ‘for’ or ‘against’ I can’t help but question how anyone could put their faith in appealing to a system that has done so much in the name of consolidating and preserving power for the entitled few.
So what of Woodstock? In 1969 Joni Mitchell wrote her iconic song after watching the news unfold on television in a hotel room. She wasn’t there, but captured what she imagined it would be like, not just for those in attendance but for a whole generation, bomber jet planes turning into butterflies.
Today that consciousness is rising again. It knows that war is not the answer. Violence in all forms is not the answer, whether it’s embedded in the economy or in xenophobic attitudes of nationhood, not only through the use of bombs and artillery for ‘spreading democracy’ but also by using opioids and alcohol for comfort, killing not only the flesh and blood of soldiers and children but souls in warehouses, slaughter houses, fields, factories and supply chains everywhere.
Already, in communities throughout America, people have begun the work of renewal and regeneration. A new consciousness is emerging, a consciousness that is relational again. Another revolution is underway.
In one swipe a piece of plastic as credit has replaced the complex understandings of who we relate to in our economic and social exchanges - the pay days and the kid’s needs; the tough break and the flat tire; people in community feeling that expressing care and understanding mean as much as economic development and job creation; joy in numbers as well as jobs. Worker ownership, participatory budgeting, a community bill of rights, alternative currencies are all ways of flattening the effects of economic control over relationships.
Yes, we must organize. Yes, we must actively hold a line while a front is moving. But if you were alive 50 years ago it might be time to move aside. The coming generations must become adults in the room. A new consciousness will not arise from some old political form whether left or right, or from a social structure named socialist, communist or capitalist. It won’t come from a particular race or class making itself heard after being oppressed for centuries.
It will come when we own our history, grieve for its imperfections and those it crushed, and evolve. Yes, people are angry. It’s because they’re hurting. Let’s turn to each other and apologize, grieve and be set free.
Peter Buffett is a musician, composer and philanthropist who serves as co-president and co-chair of the NoVo Foundation. Along with other donors, the NoVo Foundation provides financial support for Transformation, which is editorially independent of its funders.