November 27, 2007
“Do you think this is the right stereotype?” asked the journalist. “I don’t want it to be all funky when we pin it on.”
“Looks good to me,” her editor said, without even glancing at the article.
Meet the new face of journalism’s anti-youth activism movement. Courtney Martin, a young author, speaker, and adjunct professor, has recently penned a series of articles for the American Prospect attempting to document the political proclivities of Generation Y, the Millenials, or, in short, us kids. Her latest, “The Problem With Youth Activism,” shows just how far she is from understanding what the current generation is doing.
Martin would like to see today’s young activists adopt the tactics of the 1960’s student radicals–protests, theatrics, and the like. Martin’s complaint is that young people today are too complacent, too safe, and too co-opted by “the man.” We’re just not angry enough, she argues. But today’s young activists are angry–they’re just too busy attempting to create meaningful change to sit around waving signs. Martin, despite her travels around the country speaking to college students, doesn’t understand what a new generation of activists is doing to effect political change. In fact, she doesn’t even understand who today’s young activists are.
There’s no doubt that too many Americans, young and old, are apathetic about politics and the world around them. But the fact is that young people are politically active on and off campus and more involved than many other demographic groups around the country. If you judge by their voting patterns, activism, organizing, and use of new technology, young people today are doing more now than in previous decades. Martin says we need to take advantage of our “raw power–the priceless power of being young and mad.” We already are young and mad, but we’re smart, too. Young progressives have moved beyond superficial displays of anger to spend more time changing the world than complaining about it. This isn’t to discount the strides our forebears made in the golden age of the student movement; it’s simply time to realize we don’t have to fight their battles all over again.
Martin’s first mistake is to restrict her view of young people to those who attend universities–the ones she has met. Mike Connery, a blogger who focuses on young people’s role in contemporary politics, points out that only 21 percent of all 18-29 year-olds currently attend college; even fewer are enrolled at the elite institutions at which Martin speaks. Two recent examples of successful youth activism were driven by activists who don’t fit Martin’s mold: The protests in support of the Jena 6 were brought to national attention thanks to youth-produced online campaigns, and the massive immigration protests in 2006 were successful in part because of online youth organizing, including the more than 100,000 high school students who walked out of class thanks to MySpace organizing. This isn’t to mention work by, for example, the League of Young Voters, an explicitly off-campus organization, and many other groups that engage young people without a campus focus.