01 June 2006
by Sam Graham-Felsen
Illinois State Highway Patrolman J.L. Hafford walks past a crowd of more than 200 flag-waving supporters of Army pilot Christopher Donaldson across the street from a protest by followers of the Rev. Fred Phelps, who claims soldiers have died because they fought for a country that condones homosexuality, in Shumway, Ill., Friday, May 19, 2006. Phelps' group obeyed Illinois' new 'Let Them Rest in Peace' law, signed earlier this week, by staying more than 200 feet from the Faith Lutheran Church, where the funeral of Donaldon, who was killed while serving in Afghanistan, was held. (AP Photo/James A. Finley)
The greatest disappointment of my generation has been its failure to truly stand up to the Bush administration - and particularly, its refusal to actively oppose the war in Iraq.
We are the youth who are living through what will perhaps be remembered as the most scandal- plagued, secretive, privacy-invading, rights-infringing, incompetent administration in American history - and we have barely made a peep.
How is it possible, that during a time of unprecedented promise for youth mobilization that this generation has remained so silent, so acquiescent?
Many point to the lack of personal threat; there is, as of now, no draft to frighten us into action. Others suggest that the pressures of an unstable and uncertain economy have caused my generation to look inwards, focusing on creating a solid economic future for themselves rather than dilly-dally with Utopian visions.
All of these explanations have merit, but I want to offer an alternative hypothesis. The reason that youth aren't protesting about anything, let alone the war in Iraq, is because there is no longer a serious youth political culture in this country. And the reason for that is because this generation does not believe in its ability to alter, or even slightly disrupt, the status quo.
Community service and volunteering is at an all-time high, so young people do, in fact, care. But this generational shift from activism to volunteerism reflects our lack of faith in our ability to affect broad social change.
We were force-fed the ideology that there is no alternative to the existing model of neoliberalism and corporate- controlled globalization. If we tried to suggest that we could play a role in molding our own destinies, we were laughed at. What's best for business is what's best for the world, we were told, and if you disagree with the bosses, too bad, because no one's going to listen.
All you can do is face this cold reality, get a good job, and try to keep as warm as possible within the confines of your isolated, insulated home.
Idealism died in this country because the doctrine of "There Is No Alternative" killed it. We don't dream of utopia anymore. So it's no wonder that our parents, not us, are showing up to protest the war in Iraq. They believe in the power of social movements because they saw the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam War movement shape history before their very eyes.
I grew up with the belief that the only people who had real power were CEOs. When you grow up in an age of tax cuts for corporate bosses and slashed social programs, this is what happens.
But we are not asleep. We realize, plainly, that we're inheriting a profoundly precarious world. We know our economy is on the verge of collapse, that the climate crisis will soon leave our cities under water, that nuclear weapons will soon find themselves in the hands of willing detonators.
We know that the current course is unacceptable. We know that the future they want to hand us is far from what we want. And we are finally beginning to channel this anxiety into action.
This month, in one of the most significant moment of youth opposition to the war yet, New School undergraduate Sara Jean Rohe boldly challenged commencement speaker and uber-hawk John McCain. "I am young," Rohe stated after scrapping her original speech, "and although I don't profess to possess the wisdom that time affords us, I do know that pre-emptive war is dangerous and wrong, that George Bush's agenda in Iraq is not worth the many lives lost." Her speech created a buzz on the blogosphere and Internet news sites, where those of us who do follow the news read it.
Because the war in Iraq embodies nearly every problematic aspect of the "There Is No Alternative" doctrine, it is the natural starting point for a youth social movement in this country.
If America's young are ever going to shape their own futures, they must first help put an end to this costly, bloody, directionless war.
And if millions of young people take to the streets - as they have in other countries, and as they have in the past in this country - policies will change, the status quo will shift, and young people will once again believe in their own power. Sam Graham-Felsen writes about youth and campus politics for The Nation.