Don’t Ask Me, I Only Live Here

The following is an article by noted humorist Russell Baker originally
published in the July 25, 1969 issue of LIFE Magazine

We over-30s are the ones who really made the revolution. What we did was create a whole new stage of man. It used to be that you had adolescence and then you finished school and went to work and became an adult. We inserted another stage – youth – by ordering everybody off to college at the end of adolescence. This gave us a whole new class – highly educated people who could afford the luxury of applying adult critical faculties to our society because they weren’t going to lose jobs or neighborhood status by being unorthodox. With adolescent idealism and adult sensibilities, they were uniquely equipped not only to criticize our flaws but also to act. They’ve made us ask questions that we should have asked ourselves years ago, and that’s good. They’re not usually very tolerant of those who dress different from them, and that could be bad.

A hundred years ago Walt Whitman heard America singing. Lucky man. Nowadays he’d see America spectating. There’s so much spectating going on that a lot of us never get around to living. Life is always walking up to us and saying, “Come on in, the living’s fine,” and what do we do? Back off and take its picture. Freeze it dead in a little box. Or have somebody else box it for us so we can stare at it in the dark. With sunglasses we wear our dark in the sunlight. They make us faceless,  a good thing to be if you want to discourage life from winking at you and saying, “There’s a hell of a good time out here; Let’s go!” A few go. They’re the ones who still hear America singing.

The nudity crowd tells you, “The human body is beautiful.” Don’t they know that tigers and horses and weasels have been laughing at it for eons? Except for a few oddities, like Tarzan and Raquel Welch, the human body is one of the ugliest around. This is because it isn’t covered with hair, scales, hide or feathers. Did you ever see a snake with a potbelly? An antelope with varicose veins? A bluebird with freckles? You probably would if they took off their covering and pranced around naked.

How should one American introduce himself to another nowadays? Do you say, “Hi, there! I’m your friendly guilty white oppressor, and I don’t want you to feel bad about hating me because I deserve to be hated, and if you only knew how guilty I feel…”? Too many of us come on like this. Guilt is the emotional fashion. It’s chic, like sideburns and miniskirts, and it’s dangerous, and it doesn’t get us anywhere, and for all these reasons it’s contemptible at this moment in history. But how do you begin if you bog down right at the start quarreling about what words you’re supposed to think in? Do you say, “Negroes,” “Blacks,” “Afros,”? Should I resent being called white (actually I’m pink in the summer and gray in winter)? I don’t know any “Blacks” or “Grays” or “Afros” or “Pinks.” I know a few people. There are all kinds of people. I’d like to start there.

“My fellow Americans, I am sure that you will agree with me when I assert – here tonight – my firm belief that there is no place in America today for those who have lost faith in the power and the dignity and the glory of the individual.”

Where are we going? That’s easy. We’re sailing right into the history books, which is about the dullest place you can end up. The important question is, do you make the trip as gracefully as you can with what you’ve got?

When is grown-up?
Why is honor?
Who is America?
Where is God?
Which I is me?
What is – ?

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