Call This Passive?
I'll never forget the first time I marched on Washington. It was an overwhelming rush to join such a huge crowd, drumming and dancing, shouting to stop the war. When we saw the small city of people-- 100,000! -- assembled on the Mall, we knew we were making history.
The date? Oct. 26, 2002. My age? 22. The war? Operation Iraqi Freedom.
As the vigil of Gold Star mother Cindy Sheehan has refocused a jaded media's attention on the antiwar movement, some are asking: Why has a middle-aged mom emerged as a hero? Why not a young radical? Where is the youthful passion that fueled popular politics a generation ago?
Well, it may come as a shock to those who wear the blinders of nostalgia, but the youth movement of today is bigger than ever before. We're just having some trouble getting the world to pay attention.
Despite the familiar, unthinking smear of young people as apathetic, I and the countless othersI've met and reported on over the past five years care just as much as our parents ever did. The difference is in the balance of hope and despair -- how much we believe we can truly affect a world that progressives, anyway, think is going horribly wrong.
The truth is, the 2000s so far have taught our generation that the old methods of expressing your beliefs -- activism, voting -- aren't going to work by themselves. And we're just now figuring out what to do next.
Let me say right now that I'm not so in touch with the mood of young, politically engaged conservatives. I know, from reading the papers, that there are millions of them, focused, articulate and -- in a coup of organization that progressives are just starting to duplicate -- supported by up to $35 million in annual campus funding from groups like Young America's Foundation.
But I'm writing here about the under-30-somethings who supported John Kerry over George Bush by 55 percent to 45 percent last November, who overwhelmingly support gay marriage and think the war in Iraq was a mistake.
These kids have given their all to reinvent the progressive movement. Groups like United Students Against Sweatshops led the way in the anti-globalization movement that burst into the mainstream consciousness with the 1999 Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization. Suddenly, activism meant online organizing, massive turnout, creative dissent and the direct-action power to shut a city down. And with global networks already in place both on and off campuses, the demonstrations against the war on terror have easily been some of the biggest, best coordinated, most imaginative in history.
Iremember elbowing my way into a packed assembly on Yale University's campus only a few weeks after Sept. 11, 2001. The legendary Rev. William Sloane Coffin, who marched with Martin Luther King Jr., told us how happy and proud he was that we young people were standing up against war so soon, when it took several years to get a protest movement going during the Vietnam War. At exactly the same time, in Boston, 20-year-old Eli Pariser set up the Web site 9-11peace.org to call for a peaceful response to the attacks; within days, the site had 2 million hits. Pariser went on to become the international director of MoveOn.org and the youthful, bearded face of e-activism.
So why can't my generation get any respect? Why, after record numbers on both sides volunteered in the last election, and under-30 voter turnout increased by 9 percentage points (the sharpest spike of any age group), did the Associated Press run a story headed, "2004 not the breakout year for youth vote after all"? Why is it still so easy to tag young people as uncaring?
Maybe what's taken over is our own sense of futility at going unheard. Because no matter what we do -- e-mailing Congress, marching, volunteering, holding bake sales for democracy -- we feel as if things have only gotten worse.