Activism and generational outlooks

Wed, 22 Jul 1998 12:44:39 EDT

A while back Anne Marie Ellison posted a thoughtful piece about attitudes
towards activism among folks of her age group (graduating from college)
compared to that of her parents' (60s/our) generation. I wished I had
responded right away, and would like to see some discussion of these themes on
the list if others are so inclined. Clearly we live in different times --the
global economy, the pervasive media/consumer culture of entertainment, the
15-20 years of "Right Turn" (Reaganism/Thatcherism), and the various sectarian
splinters from the 60s.....

I'm always asking my students how their world view is different from/similar to
those expressed in 60s movements, and how/why their behavior is different.
Anne's post suggested several familiar themes...

> Among my age group, though,I think activism has taken on a
>different lilt than in my parents' generation. <snip> "Activism" has moved
>closer to "volunteerism" these days and you have folks from the Points of Light
>Foundation on C-SPAN talking about what good people we all are for doing what we
>should do, as citizens. I think anything much beyond that, and people are

The ideology of "individualism," of the market as "most efficient" distributor
of goods. That's one big thing that undermines collective action. I think
Anne's making the crucial distinction between "volunteerism" (a good thing,
but not activism) and "political action" which after all is all that will
CHANGE the conditions that cause the problems (oppression, poverty,
destruction of the environment, 3rd world exploitation, wars/invasions...).
But political action requires awareness of the idea of "acting-with-others"
and I'm not sure how much younger folks have ever experienced this as
something meaningful? The consumer society teaches that one "acts" or "is
empowered" by selecting among already-produced commodities ON ONE'S OWN.

The other piece in here Anne mentions is fear --an interesting one. Fear
about careers? Stepping off the ladder or treadmill (or as Paul Goodman put it
years ago, escaping the "apparently closed room"). An ideological piece
thoroughly taught by our schools and political and economic "respected
leaders." ANd a reality to this one: the economy is being wrung out by
globalization, so the competition is keener.

Anne mentions the difficulty in getting students involved on protests --a
familiar experience for anyone involved in student (or other) organizing, I'm
sure; sure rings true at Lehigh. She mentions the lack of a central
mobilization issue like vietnam, which I think is relevant. But there is
something deeper, in her comments about the kinds of "politics" her generation
has experienced (scandals galore, political ineptitude, empty promises,
etc.)... which, in my view, adds up to a kind of powerlessness/ inability to
envision effective political action of virtually any kind.... Political
leaders have something to do with this. With all their horrific warts, it
strikes me that there's some intangible difference between Kennedy, Johnson,
Nixon and the likes of Bush & Clinton (& Carter & Reagan) --or is it just the
structure within which they operate. Perhaps more to the point, there were
highly visible leaders who could inspire people with the belief in acting to
change things --King, Malcolm, RFK.... Re there likes anywhere around, or do
the media just destroy them before they get too big (or scare the good ones

Anyway, I'd be very interested in how others explain these obvious big
differences, the enormous difficulty in getting any kind of significant
mobilization going. Especially (?) among the young? And I know there are a
host of grass-roots things going on out there; it's just that there optimal
effect is a kind of rear-guard defense of something threatened by huge forces.
I might also add, that in my participation in a local chapter of the Labor
Party, we seem to tap into a strong DESIRE among quite a few people (I suspect
it's a majority) to somehow right this train-heading-for-a-wreck and make this
a better world. But there's a powerful lot of fatalism, too. MUCH different
from the early 60s.

Ted Morgan