I am in the back of a packed van hurtling through Southern Illinois. I just had a country breakfast at a farmers’ diner outside Edwardsville, Illinois, so Joe, my belly, is happy. Which gets me to thinking about some things.
I’m on something called the Spitfire Tour. Spitfire is a travelling minstrel show for peripatetic evangelists of the Left. (Loyal readers will recall that I did this before. Various artists and activists swap turns explaining to kids why they should tune in, turn on, and get active. I’m a perfect fit for the carnival atmosphere: “Ladies and Gentlemen! Boys and Girls and All Genders in Between! Come see the oldest young man in the world! Listen to him defend the patriarchy, cheer capitalism, and even speak favorably of prisons and police!” In short, I play the intellectual equivalent of the Washington Generals — the team that always loses to the Harlem Globe Trotters.
What they want is to have their “awareness” raised. I hear this constantly. We must raise awareness of the plight of gays. We must raise awareness of the deplorable conditions of the inner cities. We must raise awareness of the dangers of technology and capitalism and Frankenfood and the designated hitter. After a while it seems that “raising awareness,” at least for many of these people, means “being told what they want to hear.” Anyway, what makes me think of my belly Joe, other than the fact that he’s holding up my laptop computer for me, is that being well-fed used to be the chief barometer of social satisfaction. Bread came first, then circuses. Extending the metaphor, average Americans have better bread — and more circuses — than any “average” human being in the history of humanity. If you are willing and eager, there is almost nothing you can’t do. But when you listen to some of these students; these ardent, dedicated young men and women, you get the sense of how much they want to use the problems of the world — sometimes real, often imagined — as excuses for their own problems. Or they want to use the problems of the world as distractions. “How can I get a job, when the rainforests are disappearing?” “How can I study for my test, when gay people can’t get married?” Being told that success is simply the result of hard work and dedication can be very disappointing to hear, if you are lacking in those things.
But what I really find so fascinating about the attitudes of these young people — fully a decade younger than me! — is their knee-jerk rejection of “the system.” Last night I told students that they should be active in their communities and on their campuses; that they should concentrate at the level where “right” and “left” is often meaningless. There is no “conservative” position on soup kitchens and there is no “liberal” line on mentoring inner-city kids — at least not in any significant sense. But lo! and behold, one of the first questions was from a young man who wanted to know how they were supposed to do that when greedy multinational corporations make all the decisions about their lives. Where do kids get this stuff?
The notion that these people live in a Democracy, where their votes are equal to the votes of Bill Gates or mine, seems laughable to them — literally. Last night I got big laughs when I said that this is a functioning Democratic nation which is not designed to keep people down.
This, I think, is where the real cynicism in kids comes from today. The left continually refuses to admit progress — in the environment, in race relations, in advancement of the poor, in women’s equality — because to do so would weaken their coalition. No wonder these kids think Democracy and capitalism don’t work — they keep getting told that things are only getting worse.