The holidays in my family are times of giving and receiving insults about our political views. Ferocious barbs are slung between dinner-table courtesies: “If you think the surge is working, then you’re even dumber than I thought. More stuffing?” Otherwise-delightful meals dissolve into the bellowing, fist-pounding brawls normally reserved for gorilla exhibits. At most dinners, one question comes up that I’m sure many students my age have to face every year: “Why doesn’t your generation care what’s going on in the world?”
It’s a loaded question. After all, I personally care a great deal, but I can’t care vicariously for 20 million people. And why should I be my generation’s keeper? I don’t ask my dad why his generation insists on screwing up the U.S. government, the mortgage market, the energy industry and the environment. I don’t ask my grandmother why AARP members clutch to a calcified Social Security policy that shifts the burden of Social Security taxes onto their grandkids. Maybe I should respond, “Dearest family, my generation will start caring about this country when your generations are ready to pass down a country worth caring about.”
But that’s a pretty obnoxious answer for the dinner table, and I don’t want any cranberry sauce hurled at me. What the folks are really asking isn’t “why don’t you care” but rather “why don’t we see you caring?” Our generation doesn’t take to the streets as readily as the 1960s protesters. We don’t march under wide banners down Main Street as our professors did (and still do).
One month ago, The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman called us Generation Q, the quiet generation. Friedman isn’t angry, just disappointed that college kids today don’t flock to the streets like the little songbirds of liberalism we should be. After all, he says, that’s what twentysomethings are for—to represent the radical, politically enraged id of our national identity. “Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy didn’t change the world by asking people to join their Facebook crusades or to download their platforms,” Friedman wrote. “Activism can only be uploaded the old-fashioned way — by young voters speaking truth to power.”
But Friedman got it backward. King and Kennedy advanced civil rights and social welfare precisely because they weren’t young voters. They were established political figures who changed the world by recognizing that radicalism isn’t just a wild oat to sow in youth. They understood that the nation cannot pass on the responsibility to be radical to young people. It was political power that gave King and Kennedy a bullhorn to speak truth to the people, and it was leverage that turned their radicalism into a reality.
Protests, on the other hand, are all bullhorn and no leverage. To be sure, some sit-ins and street demonstrations in the early ’60s nudged the country toward racial equality, but the vast majority either failed to effect change or proved counterproductive. In 1968, the violent protests outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago made the Democratic Party’s membership look like a hoard of savages. Richard Nixon channeled the nation’s fear that a streak of wild radicalism was sweeping the country, and he crushed the Democrats in 1968 on a theme aimed at the DNC riots: “Law and Order.”
Many protests aren’t convincing because they embellish their message. Take a look at the placards from the anti-war protests this January in Washington: “Impeach Bush!” and “Drive out the Bush Regime!” As if asking for the White House to evacuate in the middle of January 2007 wasn’t dumb enough (or at least one year early) the organizers had Jane Fonda–infamously pictured in Vietnam on the enemy’s anti-aircraft gun—speak to the marchers. Marching against war in D.C. with Jane Fonda is like marching against gay rights in San Francisco with Sen. Larry Craig. You might as well hold up a banner saying, “We do not expect the other side to take us seriously, whatsoever!”
Well, I do want to be taken seriously. That’s why I write letters to the editor of local newspapers and political columns for campus publications. If I marched in Chicago against the war, my placard would probably say something like, “1-2-3-4: I would love to end this war; 5-6-7-8: But we can’t just evacuate.” I know it sucks, and it’s not radical, and it lacks rhythm, but it’s what I believe.
Growing up in the 1990s and coming of age in the post-Sept. 11 world, I’ve grown up in a time of both irrational exuberance and rational inexuberance. An upbringing like that gives you thick skin. I’ve seen one president lie outright about his private life and another flub the facts with farmoreimportantissues. I don’t trust our leaders or what I’m told is “intelligence,” and I watch The Daily Show because it’s a fake news show with mostly real information, and not the other way around. I am a part of a generation of cautious optimism, and cautiously optimistic people don’t always feel compelled to shout rhyming saws in downtown Chicago.
I don’t think I’m alone in my quiet protest. Our generation’s volume is indeed softer, because we don’t stomp around public spaces. But it’s louder, too, because in cyberspace we have found a global public square. I’m not convinced that the Internet is the most effective means of producing change, but it is the most efficient and universal means of communication. It’s been central to online campaigns like Greenpeace and Darfur relief efforts. And it’s better than stopping traffic in New York City for two hours and pissing off a million commuters you supposedly hope to persuade.
My generation is not the Protest Generation. Unfortunately for my parents and Thomas Friedman, neither is theirs. Forty years ago, a group of sincere, idealistic young Americans took to the streets to advocate for, among other things, better health care and an end to senseless war. Today, that generation is ruling the country from corner offices and Washington buildings. But the rest of the nation still clamors for better health care and an end to senseless war. If you ask me, the country’s problem isn’t that the twentysomethings aren’t asking the hard questions. The problem is that the men and women in the corner offices don’t remember they ever did.