“Kids Today”

Settle in, folks. This is gonna be a long one…

After my recent post on the origins of Hero-Type, I heard (via Tumblr) from a nineteen-year-old reader with the nom d’Tumblr punkcurly.

I read your books back in middle school and have re-read some of them a few times.

She goes on to say some nice things about my work and about me, which modesty prohibits repeating here. And then continues…

I am writing you this message today because I read your article about why you wrote Hero Type, and I was very intrigued by your intentions and how they correlated to what I got out of the novel when I read it when I was younger. I think when I first read Kevin’s story, I was appalled at the notion that removing the ‘support our troops’ stickers from his car might be a good thing. I have friends and family that are veterans, and friends serving currently, and I didn’t understand the separation between supporting the choices of my loved ones, and supporting the choices of our government. My political opinions have changed so drastically since I was young, seeing as all I knew was what was being fed to me by my uber religious parents and private elementary school teachers.

I think reading your book did exactly what you wanted it to do to me though. It stirred me up and got me thinking critically for myself for the first time.

Hey, I’ll take that. Look, I don’t write to promote an agenda or to change people’s minds…but Hero-Type is certainly the closest I’ve come to doing so. It’s particularly gratifying to hear that something I’ve written got someone to think a little differently about the world.

I’m 19 now and I don’t agree with my parents on most political and sociological things. I think there’s a stigma about young adults that says that we’re some brand of left-wing pacifist with a social justice warrior outlook on life now, but that will all change once we become truly sensible adults.

I’m curious about what you think about this. Do you think Kevin, and other young adults/teenagers, are only fired up because we’re young and full of heart? Or do you think we’re often right, and its the older generation that cares more about economics than social reform that needs to rethink their positions?

There’s an old saying: “My son is 22 years old. If he had not become a Communist at 22, I would have disowned him. If he is still a Communist at 30, I will do it then.” Meaning, in essence, this: When you’re young, you have no investment in the overarching power structure of society. Therefore, it’s in your best interest to be rebellious and revolutionary, to change the system to your advantage.

As you age, the benefits of living in the system become more apparent  (allegedly) and as you attain status, position, and property, you become less interested in tearing down the status quo and more interested in preserving it.

This is the crux of the issue you mention, and it can best be summed up as “Liberals grow up to be conservatives.” Makes sense in a purely pragmatic manner, but it ignores that people are able to act in ways contrary to their own narrow self-interests, even as they age. The fact that liberals exist all along the age spectrum puts the lie to this notion.

Still, youth is typically the best time to experiment with your politics and your beliefs. You haven’t yet had your philosophy calcified by the drudgery of day-to-day adult life. Your thinking is still flexible enough to juggle disparate ideas and solutions. The odds say that you’ll probably never be as radical as you are right now.

(In college, I lived with five other guys, four of whom were political conservatives. Only one other guy could be considered a liberal, and even he admitted that he was destined to “grow up to be a Republican someday.”)

But none of this is a fait accompli. It’s not as though you turn thirty-five and a random Romney shows up at your front door with your GOP voter card and a lawn sign reading, “I want my country back!” Yes, many people become more conservative as they age…but many others become angrier and angrier by the disparities they see around them and by the fact that these things have not changed (or have changed too slowly). Bernie Sanders is 112 years old (it’s true — look it up) and that dude is as pissed off as an 18-year-old who still has a curfew.

The stigma that you mention is there because it has an element of truth to it. A lot of people get fired up when they’re young and then the realities of a mortgage, taxes, raising kids, etc. pummels them into accepting the world as it is.

And hey — we shouldn’t judge those people! Not one bit. Life is hard. It’s harder for some than for others, but for pretty much everyone, life is hard. If you once cared passionately about the environment, but now all you can do is muster the energy to vote for the candidate who talks the talk on climate change, then that’s fine.

But that’s the thing — just because you stop marching or protesting doesn’t mean you’ve given up. You can still vote for the candidates you believe in. You can still try to explain your beliefs to others who are willing to listen. Maybe you’re not out there in the streets, but ballots count, too. Maybe more.

I’m curious about what you think about this. Do you think Kevin, and other young adults/teenagers, are only fired up because we’re young and full of heart? Or do you think we’re often right, and its the older generation that cares more about economics than social reform that needs to rethink their positions?

I know when you wrote the book the prospect of war was what was laying on a lot of high school and college students plates, as it was a heavy hot-button topic. Do you think this particular subject matter would work today? As a young adult myself I see that we care much less about such things and more about things like getting more power over our own bodies and lives, as well as the rights of others to do as they please. Are we progressing, or do you think our generation is going to fuck up this country big time?

For one thing, I think that your generation, sadly, has grown up knowing nothing but war. When I was your age, we had just invaded Panama, but no big, right? My grandmother used to threaten to send me to Canada because she was convinced Reagan was going to start a war in Nicaragua and restart the draft, but that never came to pass. I knew the Cold War as a kid, but not actual war, not until the first war in Iraq, which — honestly — seemed surreal and not like a real thing. And it came to me when I was an adult (well, a college student), not — as war has for your age cohort — a pre-schooler.

War may not seem like such a hot-button issue to you because you’ve always lived with it.

But that’s not the main issue you bring up. The main issue you bring up is: Are we progressing, or do you think our generation is going to fuck up this country big time?

First of all, understand: We are always progressing. Ask those on the right and they’ll tell you we’re moving ahead too quickly. Ask those on the left and they’ll say we’re moving much, much too slowly. But we are moving ahead. And that’s the important thing.

To answer the second part of your question, the part about fucking up, I have to delve once more into my own past.

At Yale, I was fortunate enough to stumble into taking a history class taught by John Morton Blum, who was something of a legend on campus. As it turns out, the class I took was the last he would ever teach. Blum had hit Yale’s mandatory retirement age, you see, and even though he was still as sharp and as brilliant as ever, the rules were the rules, and he would have to retire.

The class was on American political history between the First and Second World Wars. I won’t bore you with details, but essentially it strove to show how that time period birthed the political movements and issues that still echoed in the nineties (when I was in college).

Blum was a smart guy. (Duh.) And he was good at imparting that knowledge. But, man, he had a mad-on for the GenXers he taught! To listen to him, you would have no choice but to think that everyone my age was either a knee-jerk liberal with no practical sense of the way the world worked or a reflexively heartless right-winger with no conscience.

And truthfully, I started to believe him.

On the last day of class, though — on the last day of his career — something amazing happened.

Blum wrapped up his final lecture early. And then he spoke for a few moments about his time at Yale, about what he would miss, about what he’d been so fortunate to have.

And then he said something like this (paraphrasing from memory, of course — damn, I wish I’d been rolling tape that day!):

I’ve been hard on you this semester. That’s because the world is in bad shape and I want you to understand it. I want you to understand that its problems stretch back into our history. None of these problems are new. And they weren’t created by you. You didn’t vote for Richard Nixon. Or Ronald Reagan. None of this is your fault. I’ve been hard on you, but we’re all counting on you to do a better job than we did. You’ve been very kind to me this semester. Thank you.

It. Blew. My. Mind.

Because, of course, he’s right, and he’s always been right, and he’ll always be right.

The world is not your fault!

This world is your world. You own it. You’re inheriting a world that has been screwed up beyond belief by the people who came before you. And it’s not your fault. You guys didn’t vote for Ronald Reagan — your grandparents did. You guys didn’t vote for George W. Bush — your parents did. You’re not the ones who’ve been ignoring climate change since the 1970s. Again — your parents, your grandparents.

And this is the best part: instead of saying to you, “Oh, God, kids, we’re so sorry we messed up the world. Can you ever forgive us?” they instead decide to give you crap about everything under the sun.

So when some old person starts blathering about “Kids today” and tells you that the world’s going to hell in a hand basket because of your generation and despairs of the future because of “you and your friends,” I want you to turn to them and say, as calmly and as politely as possible, “Don’t you have something IMPORTANT to complain about? Shouldn’t you be out there FIXING THE WORLD THAT YOU FUCKED UP SO THAT I DON’T HAVE TO DO IT FOR YOU?”

Your generation can’t “fuck up this country big time,” punkcurly, because mine and my parents’ and my grandparents’ generations already did that quite nicely for you. Don’t let anyone ever tell you that your generation is at fault — you guys haven’t had the chance to fuck up. The blame for everything you see in the world around you can be squarely and unambiguously laid at the feet of, you know, the olds.

(To be fair, the credit for the good stuff goes to us, too!)

Every generation in history has despaired of the generation to follow. Floating around somewhere on the internet (I can’t be bothered to find it) is a quotation from someone in ancient Rome that basically boils down to “Jesus Christ, what is with kids today?”

Do your best. Follow your passion. Try to leave your small corner of the world a tiny bit better than you found it.

That’s all anyone should ever demand of you.

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