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The question for the arriving generation is not whether our society is imperfect (we can take that for granted), but how to deal with that imperfection. So far as I have been able to discover, there are four choices:

i. drop out

One might think that this solution can be practiced successfully only in Haight-Ashbury or Greenwich Village, with the aid of LSD or some other reality-blunting drug. In fact, dropping out is among the oldest expedients. It can be practiced anywhere, with or without the aid of hallucinogens, and it has long been the tactic for those who find the world too brutal to be endured. The hermit of Mount Athos and the millionaire recluse in his Caribbean hideaway are both dropouts. So were Diogenes and Lao Tzu. So too is the suburban matron whose life centers on her bridge games and her martinis.

Yet some of us (the squares) find this distasteful—an undignified kind of life.

ii. flee

This also has ancient antecedents. Since civilization began, certain individuals have sought to escape it, in the hope of finding a more pastoral and a more peaceful life. These are those who do not like the environment of civilization: that is, the city, with all its ugliness and tension.

The simple life has been eloquently celebrated, by adherents from Virgil to Rousseau. Their precepts have been followed by people as diverse as Daniel Boone and Gauguin. But the trouble with their solution is that it no longer is practical on the large scale. Our planet is running out of unsullied landscapes; save for the polar regions, the frontiers are gone.

iii. plot a revolution

This tack is popular among those with no patience for the tedium of democracy, who believe that institutions can be changed only by force. To them revolution has a romantic appeal, symbolized by some dashing and charismatic figure—a Byron, a Garibaldi, a Trotsky, a Che Guevara.

But unfortunate are those whose revolutions succeed, who live to see the establishment they overthrew replaced by another, just as hard-faced. At best their victory never dawns on the world they had dreamed of, cleansed of all meanness. More likely it dawns on a familiar, workaday setting, still in need of groceries and of sewage disposal. Indeed, a revolutionary state of whatever political stripe must be run not by violent romantics but by experts in marketing, in sanitary engineering, in the management of bureaucracies. For those Byrons among us, this is a fate worse than death.

iv. change the world gradually

Something like this already happened. The generation which came of age in the Thirties revived the national economy not by revolution but by slow tinkering. The same generation demonstrated that fascism was not the wave of the future. They created diplomatic machinery for the peaceful settlement of international disputes. It is true that this machinery has operated only moderately well; but it has forestalled the outbreak of major wars for many years.

Reforming the world, however, is like fighting a military campaign in the Apennines: no sooner do you capture one mountain range than another looms ahead. So as the problems of the Thirties were brought under some control, still others supplanted them—the problems of an unprecedentedly affluent society, of racial justice, of keeping our cities inhabitable, of coping with war in its strange new guises.

Our triumphs over these will be unspectacular: perhaps tomorrow the discovery of an improved form of birth control, next year the development of a high-yield strain of rice. Our heroes will not be revolutionary demagogues, but the obscure: the teachers who work out better ways to train underprivileged children, the politicians who devise new institutions, the journalists who persuade us that change is necessary and inescapable.

If a number of the arriving generation chooses this fourth strategy, they can be sure that they will get no help from the dropouts and precious little from the escapees and the revolutionists. And that they will be upbraided by their own children, for they will have failed to foresee the impending problems of the next century.

From “Four Choices for Young People,” which appeared in the August 1967 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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November 1978

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