Friday, June 10, 2011

A Lost Generation

Now that we've wrapped up the effects of technology on society in a nice neat little bow[1], I hope to on move to a different sort of topic. Though they might seem disconnected at first, these new topics all fall under the umbrella of exploring an ostensible generational apathy.  In a world that increasingly veers towards the valorization of individualized choice, where morals belongs in the realms of how we treat others, but not necessarily in how we choose to live our life, it becomes harder to speak about certain issues. This development, though, this hands-off approach, one that we will need to define and develop, demands investigation.

Many thinkers lament the malaise of our generation, a generation that doesn’t vote, that oozes apathy towards civic duty, an American generation embroiled in three wars that probably couldn’t name any of the generals in any of the wars, a generation caught up in an economic crisis of which they don’t understand how we got there in the first place, a generation that sees poverty, malaria, and aids ravage third world countries but does little to even become knowledgeable about this issues, a generation more excited to watch bravo then read a newspaper etc. etc. etc.  It’s hard not to take these accusations personally. Every generation takes pride in what they’ve accomplished or at least attempted to accomplish, but when people look at us they see nothing but apathy.
How did we get here? 

The charges leveled against us demand a response, but first an analysis of what exactly the charge entails.  We must define what we mean when we talk about apathy, because like all loaded words, it carries along with it a history, a history of associations that often are unintended. Apathy often carries along with it a denotation of narcissism. A person does not care or feel towards other people or larger causes, because, we assume they are self-centered. Books frequently come out, supported by studies, either debunking or buttressing the claim of our generation as the narcissistic generation. I find this view unsubstantiated, experientially, but more importantly, unhelpful intellectually. I find it simplistic, almost moralistic, to just explain that many of the ills of our society, the malaise, the cynicism, the apathy, stem from a less repressed narcissism. Some, believe we've grown into this narcissism, that the culture breeds narcissism, while others believe the culture indulges narcissism, and narcissism that always remains dormant, but only now has it been given the key to break out of it's jail. I think the discussion of narcissism leads us down an unhelpful road, but it must remain part of the larger discussion of the change from one era to the next, because we cannot be naive enough to think something hasnt changed, fundamentally. 

These introductory words can sound confusing, allusive at best, so before we delve into this topic, I again turn to the words of a much smarter person than myself, Tony Judt. Judt, an intellectual historian who wrote the seminal work on postwar Europe just recently passed away. Before he died, he penned a sort of manifesto entitled Ill Fares the Land about the state of politics that despite your leanings, left or right, illumines the stagnant state of American politics today, but also serves as an example of the general helplessness or apathy, depending on your view, people experience today. Here's Judt's opening words:

Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today. For thirty years we have made a virtue out of the pursuit of material self-interest: indeed, this very pursuit now constitutes whatever remains of our sense of collective purpose. We know what things cost but have no idea what they are worth. We no longer ask of a judicial ruling or a legislative act: Is it good? Is it fair? Is it just? Is it right? Will it help bring about a better society or a better world? Those used to be the political questions, even if they invited no easy answers. We must learn once again to pose them.
The materialistic and selfish quality of contemporary life is not inherent in the human condition. Much of what appears “natural” today dates from the 1980s: the obsession with wealth creation, the cult of privatization and the private sector, the growing disparities of rich and poor. And above all, the rhetoric that accompanies these: uncritical admiration for unfettered markets, disdain for the public sector, the delusion of endless growth.
We cannot go on living like this. The little crash of 2008 was a reminder that unregulated capitalism is its own worst enemy: sooner or later it must fall prey to its own excesses and turn again to the state for rescue. But if we do no more than pick up the pieces and carry on as before, we can look forward to greater upheavals in years to come.
And yet we seem unable to conceive of alternatives. This too is something new. Until quite recently, public life in liberal societies was conducted in the shadow of a debate between defenders of “capitalism” and its critics: usually identified with one or another form of “socialism.” By the 1970s this debate had lost much of its meaning for both sides; all the same, the “left–right” distinction served a useful purpose. It provided a peg on which to hang critical commentary about contemporary affairs.

On the left, Marxism was attractive to generations of young people if only because it offered a way to take one’s distance from the status quo. Much the same was true of classical conservatism: a well-grounded distaste for over-hasty change gave a home to those reluctant to abandon long-established routines. Today, neither left nor right can find their footing.
For thirty years students have been complaining to me that “it was easy for you”: your generation had ideals and ideas, you believed in something, you were able to change things. “We” (the children of the Eighties, the Nineties, the “Aughts”) have nothing. In many respects my students are right. It was easy for us—just as it was easy, at least in this sense, for the generations who came before us. The last time a cohort of young people expressed comparable frustration at the emptiness of their lives and the dispiriting purposelessness of their world was in the 1920s: it is not by chance that historians speak of a “lost generation.”
If young people today are at a loss, it is not for want of targets. Any conversation with students or schoolchildren will produce a startling checklist of anxieties. Indeed, the rising generation is acutely worried about the world it is to inherit. But accompanying these fears there is a general sentiment of frustration: “we” know something is wrong and there are many things we don’t like. But what can we believe in? What should we do?
This is an ironic reversal of the attitudes of an earlier age. Back in the era of self-assured radical dogma, young people were far from uncertain. The characteristic tone of the 1960s was that of overweening confidence: we knew just how to fix the world. It was this note of unmerited arrogance that partly accounts for the reactionary backlash that followed; if the left is to recover its fortunes, some modesty will be in order. All the same, you must be able to name a problem if you wish to solve it.
Let's name that problem. 
Thank's for reading, 

1 comment:

  1. A friend recently shared a very interesting thought. He rationalizes that the excess success (wealth and other) experienced by the generation of baby boomers is because they have been "stealing" (ie borrowing) from our generation. For instance, quite literally borrowing from future American generations in Social Security and adding to the already massive US debt load through arguably irresponsible geo-politic commitments. The friend consequently argued that our younger generation is therefore ENTITLED to live off our parents' checkbooks for longer periods of time.

    Whether or not this argument has any validity, I think the key word is ENTITLEMENT.Growing up relatively affluent and safe, we haven't had to fight for anything. As we were provided with bread and circus, an overwhelming sense of passivity infiltrated our lives. I think the Barack Obama phenomenon of "Yes We Can" struck a powerful chord as the antithesis of this mindset, yet the ambiguity of the phrase directly mirrors your thoughts on our lost, directionless feeling.