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October 23, 2007

Generation Overwhelmed

I actually like this column too much to really know what to say about it, so I'll just say that it's the truest analysis of activism and apathy amongst my generation that I've seen -- and I've seen a lot of navel-gazing on the topic. But even that sort of understates the piece's power, as my sense is that what's true for my peers is actually true for this moment, and Courtney's piece is really about the crushing frustrations of being a politically involved individual at a moment when the country's problems are of a scale you really can't conceive, or believe yourself able to affect.

October 23, 2007 | Permalink


Oh my that was a distasteful little chunk of narcissism.

Anyone who uses sentences of the form "My generation blah blah blah etc." should not be being PAID to write.

Just because you don't like the answer doesn't mean it's not the answer. If you want to change things for the better, do what people have always done. Organize. Inform. Protest (but skip the stupid puppets and other "street theater"). Threaten. Demand.

It's tedious. Progress can be glacial or nonexistent. You do it anyway, even though you know you may never see the fruits of your efforts, because - and this is the crucial point, Ms. Martin - it's not about you.

Posted by: Jason C. | Oct 23, 2007 2:01:55 AM

meh. what a whiny load of garbage.

I think georgia10's rant over at the grand kos-bah really nailed my feelings on this subject. I'd link, but the site seems to be down for maintenance right now.

Posted by: br | Oct 23, 2007 2:15:54 AM

I have to imagine that in the past, things weren't very different. The world has always been a big place, and more has always been wrong with it than any ordinary person can tackle on their own.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Oct 23, 2007 3:26:16 AM

This comment really brings it home to me:

"Organize. Inform. Protest (but skip the stupid puppets and other 'street theater')."

In other words - be politically engaged and do your best to bring attention to a cause, but remember - the slightest deviation from my expectations will justify my decision to totally discount your views.

Why is our generation less politically active than the kids in the 60s and 70s? Because we know that our political activism has almost no effect and can even be counterproductive. Because there is no winning.

We're supposed to engage, protest, do everything possible to be politically involved. But if our protests or efforts in anyway are nonprofessional, they will be derided as out of touch. If they are professional, they don't get covered. If we have a single factual mistake, they will be derided as hideously inaccurate (compare media treatment of neoconservative assertions and Michael Moore films). If we try our best to bring focus and attention to an issue, it will be completely ignored.

We can get 100,000s of people to protest, and it will get less time on the air than some ignorant blow-hard who is pro-War. Further, as long as we're pushing for anything out of the mainstream, we can expect to be referred to as idiots by the very people bemoaning our apathy.

Over 40% of America believes Saddam Hussein aided or was associated those who organized the 9/11 attacks. It is astounding. On one hand, that fact alone condemns our political and media institutions. The public does not know the most basic facts about (1) the biggest attack on American soil in our nation's lifetime and (2) the biggest decision this nation has made in international matters in 2 decades. However, we can't let the American people off the hook. They should know better. The information is out there, and it's easy to find.

I've done political activism, and I obviously still care about these things. But, if someone is going to assert that a 20 year-old individual's political activism can make a real difference, the burden is really on them to establish why we should find that plausible.

Posted by: MDtoMN | Oct 23, 2007 5:54:45 AM

Wow, this piece really struck a chord with me, too. The syndrome Courtney describes, of reading all the news sites, being horrified, sending links on and then retreating to Facebook, is exactly right.

And Neil, I guess what's different now is not so much that the world is bigger as that it's easier than ever to know exactly how much is wrong with it, and how diverse the problems are, and what everyone else is saying on the subject.

Posted by: Lucy | Oct 23, 2007 6:01:16 AM

Some quick points:

1) It's "the kids" who really made the environmental movement what it is today. Al Gore, the IPCC, etc. are able to make an impact because of the protesting and hard work done by kids over the last 20 years.

2) You can argue that maybe they should have chosen some other issue, but I suspect that's shortsighted. What Courtney is definitely right about is that expecting progress on multiple other fronts as well as the environment from the time and effort kids have to give isn't deeply realistic.

3) I'm 32 soon and I've had some interesting talks with real role-models and mentors. And they all say "well, you won't be able to do it the way I did it, the system has changed." And they are right. Not just on the personal level (see Courtney's remarks about the cost of living) but also on the collective. Protests were shocking and had huge media impact in the past. No longer. It's easy to say that we should just jack up the intensity, but the reality is whilst can hark back to the violence required to establish (for example) the union movement, it's not at all clear that it is a winning tactic. It's easy to forget that previous youth movements were born out of societal changes that gave youth more independence than every before. What we're seeing (and that book "The Trap" touches on this, but does so very incompetently) is that those changes are being reversed. Young people now have less independence from the system than they did in the 70s, and that equates to less influence and less power. That's just a reality.

4) Finally, to all those "oldies" who like to complain about "youth." Your legacy to us, was Reagan and Cheney. There's probably a lot of blame to spread around here, so why not try and explore the issues with a slightly less antagonistic attitude?

Posted by: Meh | Oct 23, 2007 6:41:27 AM

Will this generation give up its lattes, its cheeses, its spending habits generally (on music, on trendy black clothes, on electronics, travel, personal items)? I've worked on college campuses for the last ten years and wonder where the demographic of REAL social activists have gone -- by which I mean activists who were more concerned with their activism than their wardrobe and hair products? Is it possible to be an activist AND a consumer?

Posted by: Hollis Robbins | Oct 23, 2007 6:46:16 AM

Hollis: Or to put it another way, is it possible to be a college activist and still expect to get a job afterwards?

Incidentally, a lot of the "old time" attitudes about activism are rooted in a world of local politics. Bush, Gingrich, Delay et al. blew that world apart (not to mention cable news, newspaper conglomeration and other technological factors). You don't live in the old USA anymore, you live in country that politically looks a lot more like the UK or France. The national agenda is at the heart of all the big money political plays and that's where the real influence lies.

Posted by: Meh | Oct 23, 2007 7:24:22 AM

A lot of the lack of interest in change is rooted in the cynacism illustrated by several of the posters above me. Globalism means today you are most certainly dealing with problems on a global, not local or even national scale. So the idea the scale has not changed is simply false.

Posted by: akaison | Oct 23, 2007 7:45:22 AM

One last point- one perfect example of that is global warming or affects of multi national corporations on economies. One must think when reading some of the above poser that maybe there is some disconnect about the scale of what we face.

Posted by: akaison | Oct 23, 2007 7:47:26 AM

Alternatively, Hollis, we could always give up consumption altogether, in which case we would in all probability be too wrapped up in our subsistence farming to care particularly about what was happening in Darfur. Oh wait, we wouldn't know, because we wouldn't have our broadband connections or our magazine subscriptions.

Activism versus consumption is an archaic tradeoff. The real tension is between activism and paralysis, as Courtney's piece nicely puts it.

Posted by: Lucy | Oct 23, 2007 7:52:30 AM

Consumption isn't the problem; overconsumption is.

Posted by: Hollis | Oct 23, 2007 8:25:07 AM

Talk about generations is about as meaningful as talk of Meyers-Brigg types. Which is to say the combination of vague descriptions that could apply to nearly anybody, and people's tendencies to modify their own self-image to better fit their assigned group, make it easy to include whatever you want in describing a generation (see, e.g., Courtney Martin's generation, which apparently consists of her and her friends). Which is to say that this is all bullshit.

Oh, and Tommy F.: "What is your plan for reforming Social Security?" Do us all a favor and retire already, jackass.

Posted by: George Tenet Fangirl | Oct 23, 2007 8:55:58 AM

That's pretty much right. It's NOT just her group, and yes, it is a "generational" thing as much as it can be said. Part of it is being in information overload, but I think there's more than this.

We're not stupid.

You don't see more youth protesting because we KNOW that it's counter-productive. We know that the spoiled people in society don't want to see anything that make them feel uncomfortable. And that if they ARE made to be uncomfortable...which by the way is the entire point of protesting...then they have a knee-jerk reaction AGAINST your cause.

And yes. There is a lot of analysis paralysis going on. There's too many problems, too many concerns going on to really focus. Myself, I get by through combining everything into one huge issue. Which is too simplistic I admit (but at the same time it sees some things in greater depth). Part of it is purity trollism among the older generation of activists. At least that's what I've seen. You're not completely committed to our cause? Then you're not committed at all.

There's a huge cultural disconnect between the new generation of activists and the older generation, the latter who see things in terms of single-issue progress and the former who see things in terms of the whole.

There's no wonder why there's a lot of tension in the ranks sometimes. At least not to me.

Posted by: Karmakin | Oct 23, 2007 10:16:53 AM

On October 27th step away from your television sets and computer monitors. Take a walk. Get to stepping with thousands of others who want war to end now. Power to the people starts with you. Fall out against the war October 27, 2007 with 11 regional demonstrations.

National mobilization to end the war in Iraq.


Posted by: Dion | Oct 23, 2007 10:53:08 AM

"Organize. Inform. Protest (but skip the stupid puppets and other 'street theater')."

In other words - be politically engaged and do your best to bring attention to a cause, but remember - the slightest deviation from my expectations will justify my decision to totally discount your views.

It won't cause me to discount your views, but it will cause a lot of people to. You can't expect other people to take the issue seriously if you don't even take it seriously yourself.

I'm sure Abbie Hoffman's heart was in the right place, but he's really the worst thing that ever happened as far as political activism goes. If you want to be a merry prankster or some kind of performance artist, go do that. Politics is serious business.

The reference point ought to be the Civil Rights Movement, not the goddamned Yippies.

Posted by: Jason C. | Oct 23, 2007 11:32:43 AM

for generation overwhelmed....

i think things are very different now.
having been an activist in the sixties, there was not the general sense of corporations, lobbyists, hedge funds, sovereign wealth funds being lockstepped into government. there was not a feeling that special interest groups would make it nearly impossible to change the system.
....for instance,it is hard to know how to be an environmental activist and affect change, when we know that the government is bought and paid for by oil companies, big agribusiness... or health issues, when you are dealing with pharmaceutical and insurance companies.
...there did seem to be more accessiblity and transparency in the sixties, although perhaps that was an illusion.
...for this time, martin buber wrote a small transformative book, called "the way of man".
in it, is discussed the notion that we can create change in profound ways, wherever we are.
...i think volunteerism gives everyone that opportunity.
esl programs, mentoring,food banks, docents for children in the legal system, volunteer aides in schools that really need help, hospitals, crisis hotlines... only to name a few....there is so much help that is needed and if one is feeling overwhelmed and not knowing where to put energies...some of the time spent on a computer can be given to another human being in a fragile place.
....one-on-one contact where you truly make a difference, even in the life of one person, is also a way to change the world, and yourself.
....every single person who helps someone is making a difference. it may not seem like a sea change, but everyone doing it together, it is.
tikkun olom.
heal the world in any way that you can.

Posted by: jacqueline | Oct 23, 2007 12:55:06 PM

Maybe this is a true analysis (of a certain subset of a certain age of a certain place). But IMHO it's also a whiny and pathetic one. I'm honestly not impressed at all with the most privileged people in the most privileged society in the world "feeling powerless and unsafe." What this piece fundamentally lacks is any sense of historical perspective. Actually, most people don't give a shit about politics, not because they're "overwhelmed" but just because it doesn't affect them and their lives. That's always been true and probably always will be true. Then there's the certain select group of upper class bleeding heart liberals, you know, the "outraged" ones who "care so deeply about" the world. Let's face it guys. If you really did care about the world, you would be doing about it. If you're not, then it's not because you were "overwhelmed" or "paralyzed," it's just that deep down you really did not care that much. Which is again the vast majority of all people that have ever lived.

Posted by: Korha | Oct 23, 2007 3:56:01 PM


This is silly

"If you really did care about the world, you would be doing about it. If you're not, then it's not because you were "overwhelmed" or "paralyzed," it's just that deep down you really did not care that much." - Korha

FDR, changed the world for the better not by wearing burlap sacks, but doing the right ting when his time came.

The idea that one powerless individual can change the world is just more "blame the victim psychology". People on the Forbes 500 can change the world just by ever so slightly putting their shoulder to the wheel, but they don't. By contrast, most people would have to live millennia to acquire the disposable capitol that gives people the influence required to actually affect change on anything, but a miniscule scale. That's not to say everybody should not do something, but expecting everyman to be Nelson Mandela and sacrifice their entire life to change while 500 real shakers and movers sit on their fanny is a bit rich...no?

Posted by: S Brennan | Oct 23, 2007 4:51:23 PM

"That's not to say everybody should not do something, but expecting everyman to be Nelson Mandela and sacrifice their entire life to change while 500 real shakers and movers sit on their fanny is a bit rich...no?"

I suggested no such thing. What I am suggesting is that "Generation Overwhelmed" needs to get over themselves and stop whining. Also see my elaborated post in the other later thread.

Just as an example, I personally am sitting right here typing on a computer screen and eating pizza. Later I'm going to go a party. This is a nice chunk of my daily life. Clearly, I am not working to solve social problems even when I have ample spare time to do so. Why? I don't shy away from the obvious conclusion, which has nothing to do with feeling overwhelmed or hopeless. It is because I really do not care enough about those social problems to actually invest my time and energy in ameliorating them. Like the vast majority of people that have ever lived. I don't pretend I'm better than the average person in this way, nor do I pretend that the cause of my inaction is "the establishment" or whatever. The state of the world apart from my personal life just doesn't matter to me enough.

Posted by: Korha | Oct 23, 2007 7:01:24 PM

I know you have your opinions on our generation Ezra, but really... what good has struggling done? Nothing accomplishes anything against Bush but brute force, and for now, he's the one with all the really big guns so even force won't work.

So we're forced to work behind the scenes or on a local small scale because to do otherwise would be to have the media make you irrelevant so that the reactionaries can destroy you. Even the ballot box is broken as I'd as soon as spit on the vast majority of Senate Democrats as vote for any of them.

Posted by: MNPundit | Oct 23, 2007 7:44:24 PM

The biggest and most important difference between now and the 60's and early 70's is no draft. If all the youngun's and their parents and grandparents perceived them to be at risk, the political scene would be quite different.

Posted by: JackD | Oct 23, 2007 9:10:50 PM

Meh said, "Finally, to all those 'oldies' who like to complain about 'youth.' Your legacy to us, was Reagan and Cheney."

And refrigerators, microwave ovens, centralized air conditioning, inoculations from diseases, and a million other things you take for granted.
We oldies also gave you a country and a world in which the Cold War (and the constant threat of nuclear anhilliation) was over. You're welcome. Now go back to play.

Posted by: anti-Meh | Oct 24, 2007 11:43:25 AM

To preface this, I'm about 26 years old; probably pretty solidly in the "Generation Overwhelmed" that the articles are talking about. I also work in Washington, DC, for a nonprofit. I can't talk for the rest of my generation. But from what I can see, political activism - at least in the form that older people are used to - doesn't work.

Every week here in DC, we have some protest or other. Sometimes it's the pro-Life people, sometimes it's the pro-Choice. Sometimes the local Ethiopian community is clamoring outside the State Department for action against their dictator back home; sometimes the Hispanics are gathering on the Mall to protest the immigration crackdown. I've even been part of some protests if I felt strongly enough about the issue - in the cases where I'd have felt bad about myself for not being there.

But protesting is a part of life here. It's background noise. Nobody who makes any kind of actual decision notices it. Nobody cares.

The audience of the protest - the media and the Congress - is never present. The events are so constant that the media doesn't cover it. Even arrests don't make the headlines. Some idiot is always sitting down in the middle of the street and making the cops move him. It's only news if somebody throws a brick.

As for Congress, half the time it isn't even in session when they're protesting. And even if they were in session, So what? When's the last time a Congressman said to himself, "Gee, there sure are a lot of people over there yelling something at me. Maybe I'd better change my mind?" Has this happened once, ever, since the 1960s? Did it even happen that way in the 1960s?

Street protests don't work anymore, if they ever did. And if what you're doing isn't actually changing things, why keep doing it? The lack of protesting, then, seems to me a sign of sanity. People know it's just shouting to an empty room, so they don't do it.

Posted by: Tel | Oct 24, 2007 12:00:51 PM

I agree with Tel.
Also, some people (especially Republicans) have real jobs, which require them to work all day rather than spend their time protesting.

Posted by: agree | Oct 24, 2007 1:04:03 PM

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