How I became a 100-year-old, motorcycle riding, white evangelical hip-hop member of a steel drum band begins with my consideration of why today’s generation of young people are not a visible political presence when the entire civil rights movement is going quietly to its grave.
I have spent a lot of time hoping, waiting for a new wave of the civil rights movement to take hold, a movement embodying the civic energy of the 1960s as reinvigorated by the youth of today. I wonder why there is such apathy.
My students are, on the whole, less anxious about this than I am. They tell me that activism hasn’t disappeared–it’s just all happening in cyberspace. The Internet is their commons. I am glad to hear it, and when I think about MoveOn.org, it seems reasonable that there might be real movement by real bodies. At the same time, as anyone in academia knows, those of college age and below are online all the time. Even in class, the laptops are burning up–they’re taking notes ostensibly, checking cites and sources not sites and solitaire, the busy little bees. Yet however genuinely engaged in their classes they may be, it is also true that often we teachers can’t see their lips moving anymore, just the tips of their noses over the raised tops of their laptop screens. They speak, they interact, but always a part of their heads, a slab of their faces, an ear or an eye, is sucked into those powerful machines. You can see them receding–heads, necks, arms, torsos disappearing into the fog. Sometimes I just want to pull them out by their feet and manacle them to their chairs.
Recently, I joined Facebook and MySpace, two of the more popular networking sites, to see if I could incorporate some of it into a lecture, nudge them back to what I think of as the real world, from the inside out. For all the much-discussed–and valid–questions of sexual predation, what was most striking to me about the social climate of these sites are the invisible hands that seem to be guiding what goes on. It’s often said of MySpace, for example, that the participants “choose” to foreground their interests so as to be connected to other like-minded souls. But you don’t just choose by wandering and grazing–you proceed by filling out themed questionnaires and following links and pursuing guided suggestions. If you choose a Paris Hilton-themed path, you might be asked how often you go shopping. If you choose hip-hop, you’re asked to “fess up to the acts of a true thug.” The jokey, formulaic questions demand to know if you’ve ever smoked or used drugs or committed a crime, or what, by the way, your sexual orientation is. They ask how you see yourself dying and on what date, how many guns you own, how many orgasms you have in a day and how much money you make. Who would you be if you were a famous dictator? Do you like Hello Kitty? What would you name your own personal police force? The sites analyze and organize your personality as though rendering a horoscope, based not on the stars but on what your dream car would be.