The Kids Are Alright, Tom

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If there is anything I hate, it’s self-satisfaction of baby boomers who wistfully wonder why young people aren’t as noble and politically involved as they remember themselves being. The spectacle of a smug middle-aged influence peddler condemning young people for being insufficiently engaged in the very political process he and his generation have rendered largely irrelevant smacks of unparalleled arrogance. Thomas Friedman, today, criticizing America’s youth for a lack of courage:

Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy didn’t change the world by asking people to join their Facebook crusades or to download their platforms. Activism can only be uploaded, the old-fashioned way — by young voters speaking truth to power, face to face, in big numbers, on campuses or the Washington Mall. Virtual politics is just that — virtual…
Above the archway, carved into the stone, is the word "Courage." That is what real activism looks like. There is no substitute.

How about some courage from the people who shape policy in this country, the talking heads and journalists who drummed up support for war and blithely advocate an agenda that will enrich multinational corporations while doing profound damage to the economic prospects of future generations of American kids? What about courage from the media that has allowed itself to become co-opted by corporate interests? For someone like Friedman, who shapes the agenda of this nation’s discourse and squanders his opportunity with fickle war-mongering, to condemn young people is both misguided and deeply cynical.

Working with high school kids, I see incredible idealism every day. Idealism and outrage. They are angry about politicians disinterested in the environment, pundits who proclaim the need for wars, and parties that serve partisan rather than public interest. Is it any wonder that they, as Friedman notes and then dismisses, choose to act rather than speak, in a system that doesn’t hear their voices?

Young people don’t grow out of idealism because they mature or because they lack the courage to fight for change: they grow out of it because of the example set by an older generation that long ago gave up any semblance of sacrifice and the common good for a cynical, self-absorbed narcissism that allows them to believe that they do much more good than they ever have. From whom are the younger generation suppose to learn this activism? From their parents, who have willfully mortgaged their children’s future for their economic benefit? From political "leadership" that silences them, spending exorbitant sums on corporations and the voting elderly, while denying all children access to health care?

No. Our youth aren’t failing us. Sure, maybe posting a message about the Jena Six is just virtual activism, but it’s a damn sight less dangerous than the virtual leadership of Friedman and his generation.

About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba is a eighteen-year teacher of English, former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.

His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.

In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it’s a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.

5 Comments

  • Friedman also conveniently forgets to mention that we self-absorbed Gen X and Y’ers are saddled with more debt than any generation before. And it’s not just because we’re all buying iPods. I would be a helluva lot more able to go foment a revolution if I didn’t have to make student loan payments and pay thousands and thousands of dollars into the health insurance hole every year, not to mention juggling the rising cost of…oh…everything with wages that have stagnated or gone down since the late 1990s.

  • Too self-absorbed to actually risk anything? What ‘risk’ would possibly fix the problems of todays society? Society may worship youth, but they don’t respect it. Tell me you take a teenager as seriously as you take Tom Friedman. Society is good at constraining youth. So good, in fact, that the sacrifice youth have to make to be taken seriously and be able to change the world is what Dostoyevsky called the hardest sacrifice of all: “Six years of seething youth.” Youthful idealism isn’t taken seriously; only by jumping through inane hoops for four to eight years can a young person get to a point where their voice may be heard.

  • There definitely aren’t enough Russian literature references on this blog. 🙂

    And, Jeff, if you’re not seeing idealistic kids, I suggest it’s because you’re not looking.

  • Now that I have a career and a family, I find myself getting sucked into that evil black hole of working for the man, the paycheck and the retirement. AAAGH!!!
    There was a time when I would have flushed it all down the toilet to join a revolution for a just cause ANYWHERE and ANYTIME. So what is my pathetic excuse now? Must be old age or the bank account.
    Back to Friedman. I honestly can’t figure the guy out. Up until about 2004, I thought he was a clear-eyed observer of the world scene. Now he seems to be a chamelion, changing his color to fit in with the newest fads. He professes to be as much a big corporate cheerleader as he does an advocate for a sensible peace in the Middle East. Take him with the same approach as the rest of the talking heads: learn from him and disagree with him, depending on whether he spews forth pearls or garbade.
    Today’s young people (under 45) have been let down by our parents and grandparents. But we have also been given the tools for success and achievement. It’s all what we make of it.
    Compare us to the WWII generation. They got screwed by the previous generation. After WWI, the U.S. pulled out of world affairs, thus setting up the conditions for WWII. The Roaring 20’s turned into the Depression, and then European and American leaders put their heads in the sand and pretended Hitler wasn’t out to conquer the world. The achievements of the WWII generation in building an army and navy and winning the war were also matched by the great industrial expansion of the 50’s and 60’s. Then bad things started to happen, a result of poor decisions and leadership.
    We are in the same boat as many other generations from many different nations throughout history. No one is infallible. Our parents and grandparents got some things right, and made some mistakes, as well. So will we. There is no point in wailing in anguish; each of us must find his or her own road toward improving the world.
    But let’s do it for the right reasons. Money is not the right reason. Power to control is not the right reason. And inventing boogey-men in order to create a pretext for aggression is never the right means to even the most noble end. Hopefully we have learned at least that much from previous generations. Well, judging by this country’s (mine included) foolish rush to war in Jan.-April 2003, maybe we haven’t learned that lesson well enough. It breaks my heart.

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