I read Courtney Martin's piece yesterday on the state of youth activism, and while it was good, I think she gets it wrong. Martin argues that institutions hold all the power and are killing radical individualism, but I think she forgets that not all institutions are bad. In fact, they can make youth more organized, better funded, and more effective. I'm an associate editor at Campus Progress, one of the largest and best funded progressive youth organizations in the country and I've been really impressed with some of the young people we've encountered. Martin's argument is that youth today are just too safe. They're resume-builders, not radicals, she says. But what's wrong with building your resume? Then you're better equipped to go on to make those big changes.
Martin uses anecdotal evidence at a Catholic college about a girl concerned about the aesthetics of her antiwar ribbon as evidence that the youth today are silly, frivolous, and disengaged. To be fair, this is hardly a new argument. Our friend Rick Perlstein has argued that youth today just ain't as good as the baby boomers. It's true that data shows disengagement among the majority of youth when it comes to politics, but I tend to think that the differences between this generation and previous ones is pretty minor. Does Martin really think, for instance, that there weren't hippies that were worried about how their beads might look? The danger is in nostalgia. Activism in the 1960s was radical, but it wasn't perfect. Today, if we go around specifying methods for change, we limit the outcomes.
Additionally, the kinds of radical alternatives that Martin proposes: computer viruses, mock draft cards, and activism dance parties seem rather ineffective ways of making change. Her argument that working within the system is bad doesn't really ring true to me. After all, in the end, that's how change is made. We have some of the brightest people under 30 in high level positions on campaigns, running activist organizations, providing elite commentary, and even running for office. I'd hardly call that disengagement.
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