Increasingly, I hear something I never thought I would. People are lamenting–yes, lamenting–that this generation of Americans doesn’t engage in enough disorderly and disruptive protests. Something has leached into the cultural zeitgeist that has convinced some of the more liberal powers-that-be that people of my generation are too reserved and too quiet.
I first heard about this idea on The Colbert Report, on which Stephen Colbert (the character) chastised those present at the tasing of a Florida student for not acting during the event, instead going home and blogging outrage. It was rather laughable because the tased buffoon didn’t look like someone who in anyway deserved help.
On Tuesday, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, perhaps channeling Mr. Colbert, decided to do his duty and say something at least a little controversial–despite what anyone tells you, that is the purpose of a newspaper’s Opinion page.
Essentially, Mr. Friedman said this:
I just spent the past week visiting several colleges — Auburn, the University of Mississippi, Lake Forest and Williams — and I can report that the more I am around this generation of college students, the more I am both baffled and impressed.
I am impressed because they are so much more optimistic and idealistic than they should be. I am baffled because they are so much less radical and politically engaged than they need to be. …
It’s for all these reasons that I’ve been calling them “Generation Q” — the Quiet Americans, in the best sense of that term, quietly pursuing their idealism, at home and abroad.
But Generation Q may be too quiet, too online, for its own good, and for the country’s own good. When I think of the huge budget deficit, Social Security deficit and ecological deficit that our generation is leaving this generation, if they are not spitting mad, well, then they’re just not paying attention. And we’ll just keep piling it on them. …
America needs a jolt of the idealism, activism and outrage (it must be in there) of Generation Q. That’s what twentysomethings are for — to light a fire under the country. But they can’t e-mail it in, and an online petition or a mouse click for carbon neutrality won’t cut it. They have to get organized in a way that will force politicians to pay attention rather than just patronize them.
He goes on to make a selective and mildly confounding comparison between the civil rights movement and the current state of activism. Ignoring the essential differences–different aims, different power structures to fight–I find Friedman’s idea at best hard to swallow.
I don’t disagree that people could do more to bring attention to and action on this countries problems. But I also don’t think the problems that Mr. Friedman sees are so easy to grasp or widely known that people can get as worked up as they could about civil rights or Vietnam.
Further, Friedman’s logic is completely opposed to what I said last week about the demanding idealism of most protesters of the 1960s and 1970s. Disruptive protest–the kind Mr. Friedman seems to want–is apt, if not guaranteed, to create a strong backlash. Nixon’s presidential victories in 1968 and 1972 were due, in no small part, to his cynical efforts to take advantage of the backlash in this country.
By creating a type of protest so disruptive as to be off-putting, the protesters of 1960s were essentially complicit in all the backwards steps taken by the Nixon administration. Certainly, the forward progress wouldn’t have occurred without them, but neither would the backward slide.
Whether Mr. Friedman forgot that confrontational protest often has a backlash that undoes much of its good is possible. But I’m not sure there’s something so wrong with this generation’s passive and optimistic idealism.
The other point I would make is more peripheral, but still clamoring for attention. Mr. Friedman seems to have missed the lower trust in government that has developed since Mr. Nixon’s years in the 1970s. Nixon’s incursions into Cambodia in 1970–though he ran on ending the war in 1968, the resulting deaths of four at Kent State, and the trauma of Watergate made Americans, including the young, more cynical.
No politician since has been able to decrease this cynicism. And Mr. Bush II has done a great deal to further foster it. The result is a generation that doubts the absolute power of government to undo the evils in this country and this world. They’re volunteering in record numbers to make change outside of government. They’re making personal sacrifices of time and energy because they think that’s more effective than protesting in the hope that those in power will listen and change.
Perhaps the new way forward looks different than the old way. But these are different times we live in, and ignoring that fact makes Friedman as disappointing as anyone he aims to critique.