In Defense of Youth Activism

Occupy-Youth-575An implicit, underlying theme of much of the mainstream media’s criticism of Occupy Wall Street has been, “young people shouldn’t expect a voice in politics”. Via Guernica:

Occupy Wall Street has faced criticism from the outset. Since September 17, the protesters have been condemned for a number of things, among them disorganization, a lack of specific demands, and the absence of a unified message and goal. Whether or not you agree with these criticisms, they raise worthwhile questions: what comprises an effective social protest movement, and how does it accomplish anything?

There has, however, been another objection to Occupy Wall Street, one less thoughtful and more catty: the demonstrators have been attacked for being young. “Occupy Wall Street protesters are behaving like a bunch of spoiled brats,” ran a New York Daily News headline. Boston Globe op-ed columnist Joanna Weiss described the participants as “furious young protesters, some of them wearing masks and climbing flagpoles” and went on to clarify that such behavior constituted “a circus—some participants seem to have taken a chute straight from Burning Man.”

A rant in Forbes by financial consultant Doug Hirschhorn advanced the motif of haughty advice for wayward young people, addressing “generation entitlement” with these words:

“Surfing the net, reading blogs about pointless (although possibly interesting) information… probably not the best use of your time. And call me crazy but spending hours, day after day, for weeks holding up signs in parks or in front of buildings, chanting, singing, complaining about what is wrong or broken in the world, while it may be fun or even what you think has meaning at the time, I am thinking it’s not a great plan for how to get your life and career back on track or even started.”

Meanwhile, in the first piece to appear in the New York Times on the subject, writer Ginia Bellafante buried her scorn underneath ostensible concern for the demonstrators:

“The group’s lack of cohesion and its apparent wish to pantomime progressivism rather than practice it knowledgably is unsettling in the face of the challenges so many of its generation face—finding work, repaying student loans, figuring out ways to finish college when money has run out. But what were the chances that its members were going to receive the attention they so richly deserve carrying signs like ‘Even if the World Were to End Tomorrow I’d Still Plant a Tree Today’?”

These attacks are shamelessly personal. They’re portraits that cast the largely twenty-something protesters—who, by the way, are not the only demographic showing up in Zuccotti Park—as hypocritical, stupid, naïve, and spoiled. Why? Are young people not entitled to political opinions, or do opinions simply not count when they come from anyone under 30?

U.S. history makes clear the absurdity of such a notion. This is hardly the first time that students and young people have been at the forefront of a protest movement. Surely the 1960s—the free speech movement, the fight against the Vietnam War—weren’t so long ago that we’ve already forgotten them? Back then, college campuses were exciting, progressive places bursting with the prospect of change.

Writing earlier this month in the Washington Post, Martha Woodroof, a former Vietnam demonstrator, challenged Bellafante on her attitude: “When I read her phrase ‘not easily extinguishable by street theater…”—[Bellafante referred to the protests as street theater that couldn’t eliminate the ‘nasty byproducts of wayward capitalism’]—“I wanted to remind Ms. Bellafante that that’s what They (you know, them, the Establishment) once said about the Vietnam War.”

Given the precedent of being vilified, perhaps we should accept the current wave of disparagement as nothing new, the ritual whereby the establishment welcomes a new protest into the world. But perhaps we should also expect the press and the public to have learned a valuable lesson by now: young people can be leaders. Not only that: young people should be leaders, because (not in spite) of their age. At the base of Woodroof’s comment lies the suggestion students and twenty-somethings may be the only ones willing to attempt such a monumental task as questioning the government, or in today’s case, the Wall Street-corporation-government complex. If not the members of society with fewer professional and personal responsibilities, then whom?

Nowhere has the potential of youth leadership been more apparent than in the Middle East, where, earlier this year, groups of young people sparked the Arab Spring, a wave of uprisings and revolts in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Libya, and beyond. American journalists were rightly sympathetic to the rebels, characterizing them as courageous and inspiring. Yet while the organizers of Occupy Wall Street say they were inspired by the Arab revolutionaries, many publications and writers have refused to grant them the same respect. Of course, the U.S. is a democracy, as nearly every country in the Middle East is not; at the end of the day, American protesters are up against nothing as brutal as a repressive dictatorship. But comparisons of suffering are pointless: we don’t gain anything by them. Each fight is a struggle all its own.

For years, my generation—Generation Y, the Millenial Generation—has been charged with detachment. Because of us, adult writers coined the term “Facebook activism, ” and they lectured us that clicking “Like” buttons and signing electronic petitions could never effect real change. Now some of my cohort has leapt from the virtual to the real world: they’ve taken to the streets, their numbers are swelling, and they refuse to leave. They deserve a little more faith.

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  • Redacted

    If young people don’t have a voice, then neither do the old.

    Haha who am I kidding, nobody has a voice.

  • Anonymous

    If young people don’t have a voice, then neither do the old.

    Haha who am I kidding, nobody has a voice.

  • quartz99

    Yeah, those 30-something and 40-something vets from our various continuous wars who showed up to OWS, they’re too young to expect a voice in politics! The retired people out there because of threats to their social security and medicare, they’re too young to expect a voice in politics! The 30-50 somethings taking their kids down to the protests, they’re too young to expect a voice in politics!

    I do believe that “young” is not the word these people are reaching for. I do believe the word they mean is “poor”. These people are too _poor_ to expect a voice in politics.

  • Anonymous

    Yeah, those 30-something and 40-something vets from our various continuous wars who showed up to OWS, they’re too young to expect a voice in politics! The retired people out there because of threats to their social security and medicare, they’re too young to expect a voice in politics! The 30-50 somethings taking their kids down to the protests, they’re too young to expect a voice in politics!

    I do believe that “young” is not the word these people are reaching for. I do believe the word they mean is “poor”. These people are too _poor_ to expect a voice in politics.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=773433966 Rus Archer
  • Rus Archer
  • http://voxmagi-necessarywords.blogspot.com/ VoxMagi

    It should be said loudly and clearly that Occupy has many views within it…

    …because many views are tolerated and encouraged to be expressed.

    What sets this apart from the apparatchiks of the right wing is that unlike the orthodoxy approved, carefully screened, inspected and edited messages from the right…which are always clean, short and consistent (albeit idiotic, puerile and even insipid)…this is the voice of many people…each permitted to speak and address the issues they hold to be important.

    It isn’t one message…and it isn’t one point…

    …and it shouldn’t have to be…because America isn’t one person…its 350 million persons…and 99% of them are tired of fighting over the fast shrinking scraps that have allowed to us.

    So what if many of the voices are young? They are the inheritors of our failures…and if ever a group of voices needed to be heard…theirs would be the ones.

  • http://voxmagi-necessarywords.blogspot.com/ VoxMagi

    It should be said loudly and clearly that Occupy has many views within it…

    …because many views are tolerated and encouraged to be expressed.

    What sets this apart from the apparatchiks of the right wing is that unlike the orthodoxy approved, carefully screened, inspected and edited messages from the right…which are always clean, short and consistent (albeit idiotic, puerile and even insipid)…this is the voice of many people…each permitted to speak and address the issues they hold to be important.

    It isn’t one message…and it isn’t one point…

    …and it shouldn’t have to be…because America isn’t one person…its 350 million persons…and 99% of them are tired of fighting over the fast shrinking scraps that have allowed to us.

    So what if many of the voices are young? They are the inheritors of our failures…and if ever a group of voices needed to be heard…theirs would be the ones.

  • Puffydog

    Of course the powers that be don’t want to listen to young people…it is TOO THREATENING!  Plus, they DON’T CARE ABOUT THE FUTURE…it’s all about their present.

    IF THE YOUNG PEOPLE DON’T GET OUT THERE AND CHANGE THINGS, THEIR FUTURE WILL BE BLEAK INDEED.THE OLD WHITE HAIRED GUYS IN CHARGE COULD CARE LESS BECAUSE THEY WILL BE DEAD WHEN THE IMPACTS OF THEIR IRRESPONSIBLE ACTIONS TAKE EFFECT.

  • Puffydog

    Of course the powers that be don’t want to listen to young people…it is TOO THREATENING!  Plus, they DON’T CARE ABOUT THE FUTURE…it’s all about their present.

    IF THE YOUNG PEOPLE DON’T GET OUT THERE AND CHANGE THINGS, THEIR FUTURE WILL BE BLEAK INDEED.THE OLD WHITE HAIRED GUYS IN CHARGE COULD CARE LESS BECAUSE THEY WILL BE DEAD WHEN THE IMPACTS OF THEIR IRRESPONSIBLE ACTIONS TAKE EFFECT.

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