Essay:Ruminations on the past decade
As the year 2009 draws to a close, there are a few aspects of the past decade that I would like to discuss. I don’t really have any definitive points to make, but I would like to speculate (in my typical rambling stream-of-consciousness fashion) upon some of the themes and messages of the past 10 years.
The zeitgeist of our time
What is the spirit of the past decade? If the collective mood of the last ten years could be summed up in a few words, what would they be? I believe the answer (sadly) is fear, pessimism, and (oddly enough) complacency. Though these three seem to contradict each other, I believe they describe the essence of the past decade. Let’s take them one at a time:
This one is pretty obvious. The term “politics of fear” has been tossed around a lot this decade, and not without good reason. America (from my perspective at least) relapsed into an era of suspicion and distrust. After one threat faded we immediately switched to another, jumping from terrorism to the environment to the economy to (for some) socialism. America has always been fixated on visions of apocalypse, and in this decade that imagery became greatly magnified.
I’ve heard many people, most of them belonging to the aging “baby boomer generation,” remark that they believe the future is going to be worse than the present. Whether it is the environment, overpopulation, etc., there is a great sense of doom about the future. Some of this pessimism borders on paranoia, and some Americans fear for the future of their country. Granted, the decade has been punctuated by moments of hope and unity, such as Obama’s campaign and the “Miracle on the Hudson.” But after each, it seems, we emerged more jaded and cynical than we were before.
But at the same time, Americans are complacent. We are far from internal turbulence, and our discontent is expressed in words rather than actions. This may be the era of fear and doubt, but it is also the era of passiveness. Yes, there are protests, but for the most part we fight political battles with blather rather than bombs (internally, I mean). This, I believe, marks an important shift that would like to discuss in more detail.
Civil disobedience, technology, and politics in the 21st century
This is the main point that I want to make. Ever since the so-called “baby boomers” forever changed American youth by rallying around political causes and becoming activists, American culture has associated young people with rebelliousness and change. In fact, it is almost as if youth is expected to rebel and flaunt societal norms. Though conservatives have continued to decry these movements, the youth factions themselves no longer surprise panicky traditionalists as they once were in earlier generations. This sense of expectancy, I believe, begun in the 1960’s and has existed ever sense. But in the 21st century, various factors have fundamentally modified the nature of this rebellion. The overriding cause of this change is technology, which has served to both encourage interconnectedness and political awareness but at the same time trivialize political affairs. This new medium, coupled with the influence of the most powerful political forces of our time, has drastically altered the way the youth culture interacts with the rest of the American political sphere. I’ll take a moment to elaborate on these factors here:
The two-party system
As I am about to demonstrate, I believe that America’s two-party system has done more than any other organization or system to despoil constructive political dialogue in the US. Though it was initially a useful tool in America’s political sphere, once political parties gained the ability to use the internet and other mass media to spread their message any hope of constructive debate was lost. With the internet came scores of political pundits whose extreme voices could now finally reach unsuspecting voters (in previous eras, they had been sensibly kept out of the public eye because newspapers, etc., would refuse to print their extremism). This paradigm shift eventually spilled over into previously “moderate” forms of media, and the era of Glenn Beck was born. The results, I believe, are as follows:
- Trivializing politics by reducing it to an immature shouting match between attack dogs
- Bombarding the American people with political banter
- Creating an enormous political and cultural rift between what we now see as the “two Americas”
The lasting impression of these results is (I believe) extremely detrimental to American society, and I will take a moment to elaborate on some of my reasoning for a moment.
- ‘’’It is now impossible to create a true “grassroots” movement that is independent of the two party system. ‘’’ This is dangerous because the two party system itself is often the cause of many of America’s current issues. Furthermore, it makes issues that should undoubtedly be apolitical—such as the environment—merely a part of the ceaseless war of words between the left and right.
- ‘’’It is almost impossible to distinguish significant movements from insignificant ones, and mainstream opinions from extreme ones.’’’ This sounds absurd, but it is actually truer than it initially sounds (and many of our political leaders would like it to be truer still). For example, consider the king of extreme pundits himself, Glenn Beck. Though his views are on the extreme right, because he has such a large pulpit many Americans believe he is a legitimate source of information/a prominent public figure. (But, interestingly, he has become prominent as a result of this self-fulfilling prophesy.) Furthermore, the internet has the ability to legitimize extreme viewpoints, as the popularity of WND and other crackpot news organizations prove.
But now let me return to my original point: How does all this relate to youth culture? I believe the answer is simple: technology, combined with the endless feuding of political pundits, has created a generation that it at the same time jaded and complacently apolitical. Young people (a generalization that includes myself) are far more interested in “fake news” or piecemeal summaries of current events than in analyzing and thinking about politics itself. This has, I believe, killed or strangled political movements that could have become a force for great good. Simultaneously, it has sucked young people into becoming activists for causes that only benefit political leaders. And most dangerously, it has caused youth to view activism as useless and irrelevant. Thus, the system makes the dangerous idealists who are the driving force behind political change almost entirely irrelevant.
Capitalism, advertising and the information revolution
As a Yale student remarked in an interesting paper on postmodernism, “’’We are the generation of the Che Guevara T-shirt.’’”  And indeed we are. However, the problem is not so much capitalism itself as the information overload that has resulted from the internet advertising revolution. Critics have remarked that we have become nothing more than sponges passively absorbing information. Though this generalization is probably only partially true, it bears some serious implications for us. These are as follows:
- Passivity: This one is hard to prove, but I believe there is some truth to it. No, I am not suggesting that the internet has turned us into inactive lumps—instead, I mean that the “information overload” has made youth more apolitical than anything else. Though the internet has fostered activism and provided a medium for activists groups, this medium has also (as I described above) been abused by the two-party system.
- Short attention span: I know I’m starting to sound like some old fart shouting from the rooftops, but I do think that technology, especially the internet and television, has shortened our attention spans considerably (I know it certainly has in my case). Like passivity, this acquired trait greatly decreases our propensity to meaningfully participate in active citizenship, for obvious reasons.
Or am I wrong?
In spite of all this evidence, it is certainly conceivable that my conclusion is completely and totally incorrect. As the Yale student I quoted earlier would seem to disagree with me; as he put it, “The technological revolution, however -- the MoveOn.org revolution, the revolution of the Organization Kid -- is just as real and just as profound as the revolution of the 1960s; it is just not as visible. It is a work in progress, but it is there.” But…is it? Unlike pervious generations, the youth remains politically unfocused, mostly because of the factors I discussed above. Though we are making progress, doesn’t the fact that this progress is more invisible mean that there is, well, less of it? This is a difficult question to resolve, but I maintain that visibility is certainly a central condition to consider when determine the strength of a political movement.
Instead, it is more probable that I am wrong on the grounds that my conclusions are based upon a series of enormous generalizations.
It may sound as if I am damning the young generation (of which I am a part) or decrying technology – I am not. Instead, I am simply guarded about how the future will unfold, particularly where technology is concerned. “Information overload” has at last become a reality, and I worry how it alters the rebellious youth that has been so essential in American politics. However, I acknowledge that the future is always in motion, and we still have the power to reject technology that hinders our progress.
I welcome any comments/criticism. Please comment on the talk page if you feel so inclined.