Apple and Agent Orange

Posted by Jack Ferguson

With the coming elections in November, and politicians running back and forth everywhere screaming like their shirts caught on fire, I am reading a lot about the apathetic (or at least ‘unenthusiastic') youths. Are we so apathetic? If so, how did we get here?

On a recent train ride up from New York City, I met and befriended a man who had grown up in our parents' generation. As we talked, I realized something about the modern day discussion on youth culture: comparisons of our society to that of the Sixties are everywhere. With nearly every mention of the Iraq War comes a correlation to the Vietnam War; the threat of global warming looms as large as the Cold War's specter of Mutual assured destruction; universities have an even stronger toehold on the liberal discussion than before.

It is not unreasonable, then, that my new friend asked me: why aren't all you more politically active? Why don't you take to the streets?

By a better comparison of the Sixties to the present day, I hope to draw better distinctions. Hopefully this will leave us better able to define exactly what we are. Drawing analogies to the overarching dilemmas (lies that got us into a massive war; potential planetary ruin) have some merit, perhaps, but the comparison between generations is erroneous.

MTV, video games and Facebook are not the causes of our hesitance and lack of action nearly as much as the historic moment in which we were born.

Our parents, of the picketing, protesting and pamphleteering generation, were born of the Baby Boomer generation, into a world of both U.S. prosperity and deep uncertainty. I think it is safe to say that by the time of the Gulf of Tonkin Incident in 1964 (after which Congress wrote President Johnson a blank check for the Vietnam effort) our parents were approximately the age that we are now. They lived in a divided U.S., wherein the Civil Rights movement was struggling to have its voice heard. Political activism and politically charged discussion pervaded their generation both abroad and at home. Moreover, the undercurrent of this generation was the threat of the Cold War, which started as soon as WWII ended – that is to say, started with our parents' birth.

They were born at the onset of the Cold War, and into a divided nation that did not know what to do with its prosperity, responsibility and rocky history. The nation's divisions were heightened all the more so with the draft and the economic and racial inequalities of the U.S. army.

Contrast this with when we were born – the median of which I will put at 1990. We were born into the pinnacle of U.S. prosperity and security. Our major, national moral confrontation (in the media, at least) was whether or not the president was the recipient in an instance of oral sex. When our parents saw the dogs and water hoses used in Montgomery, Alabama, they saw reflections of a system, perpetual and pernicious, eating away at the Bill of Rights. Our two political worlds defy comparison.

We – the children of the Internet boom and Walmart – were hurled into a world without precedent. The End-Game horrors of global warming present themselves in a thousand different man-made processes, not from a big red button at a distant missile silo. The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were from without, and therefore much harder to grasp and rail against.

What does a ‘War on Terror' even mean? This war has no centralized enemy to confront, rather a proliferated ideology. Too: this ideology is abhorrent beyond debate; this was not so in the Sixties, with Communism.

So how do we become politically active? How do we go from a world of one huge enemy with one huge weapon to that of myriad possibilities and processes that potentially leave us vulnerable, or even threaten to destroy us? How do we open a debate on what political activism means when we cannot decide on what to confront first?

I suspect that this atmosphere contributes in a major way to the Tea Party and similar movements (which exist among environmentalists and liberals, too) that are so radical as to see the world in binary terms.

Surrounded by variables, we entrench into simplicity. Which is understandable. But we, the Young and Educated (like it or not), who are beginning to perceive nuance and contradiction, who balance variables and evaluate confusion, are hamstrung.

We search for something intelligible (that is also intelligent) and what do we find? Where do we go with our world of many threats, unschooled and under-nurtured from birth in the ways of political action? We need to form an active political consciousness and thrust.

I'm not about to propose that I know how to do that; I wish I did.You can start by voting.

Jack Ferguson is senior history and English double major from Philadelphia, Penn.

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