A couple of years ago, out of a job and looking for work, one of my nephews was bouncing from one family member to the next, accepting whatever free room and meals might be given to him. He was young, travelling light, resilient, with a good attitude, and content enough to sleep on sofas and eat whatever anyone gave him. He wasn’t one to panic quickly. One day, at a family dinner, one of my sisters told him: “If you ever get really desperate, you can move into my house for awhile.” His reply: “How would I know if I’m desperate?”
When Bill Clinton apologized on world television last summer for abusing the trust of his family and country, many doubted his sincerity. A lot of people said: “He isn’t sincere. He isn’t really sorry, he just got caught!” Was he sincere? I raise the question because his struggles here are so much in fact the struggles of our generation. Bill Clinton is the first “baby- boomer” president of the United States. What is interesting is that both the virtues and the faults he brings to that office are quite typical, archetypal even, of that generation, my generation.
Hence, listening to him apologize and explain himself last August 17th, and other times before and after, I believe that he spoke with sincerity, that is, with as much sincerity as he, and our generation, can muster. But the problem is that our generation, analogous to my cash-strapped nephew not knowing what it means to be truly desperate, doesn’t know what it means to be really sincere. If he were asked: “Are you sincere?” Clinton (like the rest of us) should probably answer: “How would I know if I’m really sincere?” This isn’t a facetious comment. Sincerity, for us, has a certain shallowness, a certain blindness, and a certain rationalization to it, even as it has a certain genuineness too. Thus, Clinton’s struggle to be sincere is very much our generation’s struggle in that area. In a way, he is our generation incarnate, both its good and its bad.
First, the good: He was sincere. Even though he was cornered, he meant it when he said he was sorry. Underneath it all, reluctant to confess or not, there was sincerity, contrition, he felt badly about betraying trust, as does our generation. However, even though he was sincere, a number of things colour that sincerity and these things are also typical of our generation – so typical in fact that Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky and his reaction to it constitute a certain parable of the baby-boomer generation. What is typical and archetypically here?
*For our generation, it is more important to look good than to be good. Image and public persona are everything. Style is more important than substance, good looks than character, popularity than integrity. Despite a base sincerity, image and persona are always guarded over truth and substance.
*Our generation has the “talent” to morally compartmentalize our lives. To have an area within our private lives (a major one) that is not in line with what we profess publicly is no big deal. It is also understood to be nobody’s business. If we do good work and are socially progressive, then we should be allowed our private compensations. Besides these private compensations are not nearly as bad as being privately trustworthy but conservative in terms of social change.
*Our generation does not like to look at or accept that there are real consequences to behaviour. Clinton, no doubt, loved his family and did not want to betray them. Neither did he want to lie or betray anyone’s trust. Our generation never does. But we want certain pleasures and experiences and, by refusing to accept that actions have real consequences, it seems we can have them without betraying anyone. There is a certain innocence and naivete in this, a dangerous one. Afterwards, confronted with the consequences, like Clinton, we don’t quite know what to say. We’re sorry, but we’re not; we’re sincere, but we’re not; we really don’t want to betray our deepest commitments for a passing affair, but we don’t want to pass up the affair either, and so, like Bill Clinton, we end up sincerely sorry, but angry that somebody exposed us.
*Finally, Bill Clinton represents our generation’s schizophrenia about sex. On the one hand, we claim we are liberated and that the old rules (sex only within a monogamous marriage) are the product of frightened minds. Yet, we still feel the need to lie about affairs, to hide a truth we defend.
Bill Clinton has much to apologize for and repent of, but then so does our whole generation. Few things so nakedly expose the moral achilles heel of a whole generation as does the Clinton-Lewinsky affair. Is there something to be learned here?