THE WORLD’S PROBLEMS….Tom Friedman is concerned that 20-somethings today are a little too quiet. “If they are not spitting mad, well, then they’re just not paying attention,” he says. Courtney Martin responds:
When Friedman was young and people were taking to the streets, there were a handful of issues to focus on and a few solid sources of news to pay attention to. Now there is a staggering amount of both. If I read the news today with my heart wide open and my mind engaged, I will be crushed. Do I address the injustices in Sudan, Iraq, Burma, Pakistan, the Bronx? Do I call an official, write a letter, respond to a MoveOn.org request? None of it promises to be effective, and it certainly won’t pacify my outrage.
….We can’t be you, because we don’t live in your time. We don’t have the benefit of focus, the cushion of cheap rent, the luxury of not knowing just how complicated the world really is. Instead we have corporate conglomerates, private military contracts, the WTO and the IMF, school debt, and no health insurance. We are savvy and we are saturated and we are scared.
As a 40-something (and only barely that), I can’t say what’s really going on here — but then, neither can Tom Friedman, can he? But I can say that I heard pretty much the exact same complaint about quiet kids in the 80s and then again in the 90s. Michael J. Fox’s Alex Keaton was the supposed icon of the Reagan era, when kids just wanted to head to Wall Street and make money, and we all remember the generic “slacker” who was the icon of the 90s.
But look: it’s not the 80s, 90s, or 00s that are unique here. What’s unique was a single period of about ten years from the early 60s to the early 70s. The kind of activism we saw from young people during that decade hadn’t been seen for a century before that and probably won’t be seen for a century after it. It was sui generis, and pretending otherwise is silly.
Activism almost always carries with it a sense of struggle against long odds. Occasionally, if you’re lucky, you’ll be part of a movement that just happens to catch fire at the exact moment you’re most involved in it, but aside from that it’s like war: long stretches of routine slogging punctuated by occasional bursts of triumph. The 60s generation was in the right place in the right time, and had more than its share of triumph — or a feeling of triumph, in any case — but by any other standard today’s generation of 20-somethings seems to be doing fine to me. Maybe better than most, in fact. The 60s are not the measure of all things, after all.