I’m angry. It’s not a good kind of anger, either, it’s not something that I can productively channel; it’s more a slowly simmering rage that’s never quite going to come to a boil.
And that’s too bad. I think all of my peers and fellow citizens at various Occupy events are genuinely, righteously angry–as they should be–and I wish I had it in me to go join them. Instead I find myself applauding from a distance, frustrated that I don’t really have anything new or insightful or important to say, and that even if I did it probably wouldn’t make any difference.
But I do have that anger. It’s not about the power of corporations, although I’m certainly angry about that. It’s not about the excessive and expansive powers of our government (particularly the executive branch) either, although those also really piss me off. No, my anger is more petty and misdirected, and, ultimately, self interested.
I’m tired of people not taking me seriously. And I’m tired of people not taking my entire generation seriously. And I’m tired of people not taking college students and graduates seriously, and I’m tired of people dismissing college professors and academics as elitist intellectuals divorced from the concerns of “real” people. I don’t think it makes any sense.
Do you know what we do in college? Sure, some of us binge drink. Some of us play silly sports like Ultimate Frisbee, and some of us play stupid sports like faux Quidditch (not me though). All of us–if we graduate at least–show(ed) up for class once in awhile. Sometimes more than once and awhile. A lot of us were (are) actually dedicated to our studies, and to understanding the world we live in–and made that a focus of our college experience. And many of us do all the things I mentioned above (except the Quidditch–only a few people do that).
Which is to say, many of us devote four years of our lives to immersing ourselves in learning more about the world we live in. And we (or our parents, or the state or the school if we’re really smart) pay a lot of money for the privilege to do that. And it is a privilege, and it is one that I am enormously thankful for.
But see, here’s the thing: despite the fact that many of us have devoted this (pretty large) chunk of time to just knowing more about the world, and that many of us find ourselves so outraged by the stark and blatant injustices of our social world that we feel the need to turn out in the thousands to protest it, people still like to caricature us as immature, naive, and delusional. This is an opinion of “young” people that cuts across the political divide. Here’s the New York Times’ Ginia Bellafante on OWS when it started:
The group’s lack of cohesion and its apparent wish to pantomime progressivism rather than practice it knowledgably is unsettling in the face of the challenges so many of its generation face — finding work, repaying student loans, figuring out ways to finish college when money has run out. But what were the chances that its members were going to receive the attention they so richly deserve carrying signs like “Even if the World Were to End Tomorrow I’d Still Plant a Tree Today”?
One day, a trader on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, Adam Sarzen, a decade or so older than many of the protesters, came to Zuccotti Park seemingly just to shake his head. “Look at these kids, sitting here with their Apple computers,” he said. “Apple, one of the biggest monopolies in the world. It trades at $400 a share. Do they even know that?”
It’s hard to imagine putting together a more insulting two paragraphs than that (although I’ll pull out some articles later that do, in fact, top it). There’s a lot going on in there, but I’ll let most of it speak for itself.
One exception though: Ginia, if I’m getting this right, you think that people either should have a) stayed home (you’re right; that’s probably really going to catalyze change) or b) come up with pithy slogans for street signs that more adequately summarized the massive and complex problems facing this nation. That’s a tall order friend.
Of course, at least Bellafante is merely contemptuous. Right wing commentators like American Spectator have felt free to charge the Occupiers at Wall Street with defecating and fornicating all over public property. This comes in a context where the concerns of graduate students thinking seriously about the protests can be dismissively referred to as “graduate school angst” (Tough break guy–apparently the [minimum] six years you’re devoting to becoming a better, more serious intellectual was all for naught) and “journalists” who are, totally, sincerely interested in this OWS thing, they swear, can refer to “class war” in the first sentence and caricature the protesters as disappointed Radiohead fans. It would be funny if it weren’t so cynically malicious.
So there’s this sort of general distrust of “youth” pervasive within the general media that I find inexplicable. Apparently being “young” goes hand in hand with naivete, at best, and wild eyed Leninist idealism at worst. Notice that no criticism is directed at the mass majority of this country that is unengaged, the “real Americans” too overwhelmed by debt and work and kids to be able to be a viable target for the scathing journalism of the news media. Rather, in short sound bites and truncated interviews the news organizations are happy to present the protesters on Wall Street as elite kids to be resented by the rest of the U.S. population.
I’ve decided to put “young” and “youth” in quotation marks for a reason; mainly, the people the media has decided count as “youth” would be adults at any other point in the past. Even extraordinarily positive opinions of the OWS event have referred to its participants as “kids”. (Never mind the fact that our federal government apparently feels 16 is old enough to start assassinating American citizens)
I’m 22**. My Grandma and Grandpa were married and had kids while they were in high school. Maybe a few people didn’t consider them adults then, but they did by the time they were my age.
My great Grandfather went through life with no more than an eighth grade education. He “rode the rails” during the Great Depression early in his life, and no one would have questioned his adulthood by the time he turned 22.
So when people derisively refer to me, or people my age, as “kids” when talking about the Occupy protests I wonder about their motivations. Obviously norms change with time, and on a personal level I don’t believe I will ever be able to live up to the lofty standard set by my older relatives.
However, there is no physical reason, no factor in brain development or maturity, that suggests I, and the rest of my outraged age group, deserve to be summarily dismissed because we’re younger than the people who are made uncomfortable by this movement.
Rather, such dismissals lie in ephemeral arguments about a lack of “experience”. I wonder–often–about the value of experience. Experience is an anecdotal, subjective, intensely personal sort of evidence to bring to the table when thinking about macro-economic or socio-political theory. In other words, inadmissible as evidence in any peer reviewed academic journal in the country (or a court of law if all you do is watch CSI).
In my mind, being the manager of your local Petco or the owner of a small stationary company shouldn’t empower you to exposit on the overreach of Leviathan. Yeah, it sucks when you look at your paycheck and you see the government takes some of it. (You know what’s really shitty? While you’re paying the normal tax rate, G.E. and other Fortune 500 companies are paying no corporate taxes in the United States. )
But you know what? You do learn when the government takes “your” money away in taxes. And maybe you know someone who’s committing welfare fraud, or a government employee who doesn’t work half as hard at their job as you do at yours. It’s not hard to piece together how you “figure out” that the government’s the problem with this country.***
But see, here’s the thing: if you rely on your personal experiences to make judgements about the policies of a nation with 300 million people and a $14 trillion economy, you’re going to be fucking wrong.
That’s ok. I don’t blame you. You probably work 40 hours a week, and maybe you have a family. If politics is really important to you, maybe you turn on Fox News or MSNBC in the morning while you’re getting your kids ready for school (I know it’s not CNN; no one watches that crap), and maybe you turn it on again for awhile in the evening. If you’re really devoted, perhaps you read a newspaper (or two) and/or listen to the radio (NPR anyone? Bueller? Bueller?). The point is, even if you are interested, there’s only so much you can do.
But that’s probably not you! Most of the people I interact with on a regular basis don’t fit that barely engaged model; they’re even less engaged. I have people very close to me who express such frustration with politics that they don’t follow it at all–they just show up every two years to vote for their party. I have people in positions of authority over me who hear me discussing anything remotely political with peers, and they ask me to stop because it stresses them out too much. “Young” people are often accused of being apathetic because we don’t reliably turn out to vote; I’d argue (and have) that the more insidious and tangible apathy is voting blindly without consideration for the policies that the candidate stands for.
So don’t fucking talk down to me. When the most you do is listen to NPR a couple of hours or read Newsweek, don’t pretend like you have the intellectual authority to dismiss me and the thousands and thousands of people like me who have done nothing but think about the social problems this country and our world face in the coming years.
When I’m not studying for the GRE, working 30-40 hours a week, working on my graduate school applications, or writing for this blog, I’m reading Anathem by Neal Stephenson (an 1100 page speculative fiction book deeply concerned with philosophy and mathematics among other things), an introductory logic book, Derek Parfit’s On What Matters, and Slate, Salon, the Economist, The New Yorker (weekly) the National Review, The Weekly Standard, American Spectator, Gizmodo, and various sports websites. That’s daily; regularly I follow a ton of people on twitter, read Ars Technica and Engadget, Joystiq, Tom’s Dispatch, the New York Times, Reuters, the Atlantic, and assorted other news outlets. What the fuck do you do, guy with a family and two kids?
It would be unfair to expect you to do what I do, but it’s equally unfair to denigrate what I do and say you know best. You don’t. You’re woefully uninformed-you know how I know? Because I am woefully uninformed, and I both studied for four years and work my ass off not to be. This shit’s really fucking complicated.
I don’t have any answers. I don’t even have a grasp of the full nature of the problems we face. That’s because they are vast in quantity and irreducible in their complexity. And that, to me, is the root of the paradox and challenge in front of us. We face difficulties of nigh unimaginable scope, but which can be neatly summarized thusly: shit’s fucked up. What we’re doing isn’t working. Reasonable people can disagree about why, but to contrive a position of moral authority because of an age difference is lazy, dishonest, and unrealistic about the level of thought that me and mine are bringing to the table. So step the fuck up, or get out of our way while we try and figure this out.
*There are some deeply, deeply silly majors out there in the world of liberal arts. But Afro-Eurasian Cross-cultural linguistics is not the norm (and not without value [if that is a real thing]), and judging by the composition of think tanks like the Heritage Institute or the Center for American Progress humanities majors like political science still have a place in this world.
**Something I didn’t end up having time to mention, but when people look to put down the OWS protesters they invariably reference hippies. Apparently, it’s a tremendous insult to be labeled “hippyish” while protesting. On some level, I understand this–I really like showers and button up, collared shirts. But on another, it blows my mind that it can be a winning strategy to criticize a movement that was for civil rights, the equality of women, peace abroad instead of foreign wars, and a more compassionate government. Those are really the guys we should be making fun of?
***That is not to say that government is not an integral part of the problem. Here is an excellent post and pie chart on the interlaced nature of the issue: the problem isn’t too powerful corporations or too powerful government–it’s both. They both create, reinforce, and sustain each other. Think C. Wright Mills and the power elite.
Source: How Conservatives Drove Me Away
And I’ve been saying this (though not half so simply) for a long time.
People Belittling OWS: