Magazine | July 6, 2015, Issue

Not Avid for Ovid

Not long ago, four members of the Columbia University Multicultural Affairs Advisory Board wrote a letter of complaint to the university alleging that the study of classic works of Western civilization — specifically, the Metamorphoses — was insensitive and made many of the students feel “un­safe.” So please add reading Ovid to the growing list of potential triggers, -isms, and phobias that could rattle the brittle psyche of a college student. Even the act of grading — sometimes known as “grade shaming” — can leave young people feeling distressed.

The news that there are students unable to handle the Western canon at one of the leading universities in the country sparked a new round of think pieces contemplating the question: Is this the most sensitive — and least intellectually curious — generation ever? And if so, what does it mean?

For years, I’ve suppressed the impulse to attack the supposed laziness, narcissism, and puerile views of many Millennials. I imagined that as they grew older, they’d find spouses, have children, water lawns, and pay unreasonable property taxes just like their parents. And just like their parents and grandparents, they’d grumble about how the country was being bankrupted by a new generation of obnoxious upstarts. But an entire generation does not share a collective aspiration or a single worldview. Certainly, I reasoned, we can’t hold everyone born between the years 1981 and 2000 responsible for an entire generation’s failures.

Until, that is, I learned more about emoji.

Emoji, a conflation of the words “picture” and “character” in Japanese, are an amazingly popular form of communication that relies on a visual system of cartoon smiley faces, hearts, and hundreds of other ideograms that are substituted for the antiquated words that once represented speech. Surely you’ve seen them. Emoji are, according to Professor Vyv Evans, a linguist at Bangor University in Wales, not only a new way for young people to convey their feelings in electronic communications but also the world’s fastest-growing language. Millennials, the first generation to own cellphones as children and the first to have unlimited access to a global system of interconnected computer networks, have trouble interacting with mere English. They have given us lemonhead hieroglyphics. They must all shoulder the blame.

And then I heard about Kim Kardashian’s most recent book.

If there’s one person who represents the pampered, entitled Millennial, it’s Kardashian, a star whose talents include being endowed with an ample posterior, performing in a homemade sex video, and existing on a reality show. Millions of young people punish the rest of us by wearing ill-fitting clothing meant to imitate her look. Her book, Selfish, consists entirely of selfies. Yes, that’s 445 pages of selfies, arranged chronologically over three decades, telling the story of Kim Kardashian one self-glorifying picture at a time. It was a huge bestseller. Not all Millennials bought it. But many did. This can’t be forgiven.

There are more serious criticisms to be made of Millennials, of course. As the most ethnically diverse generation ever, they claim to be more tolerant of differences in our culture. But in reality, they have a growing aversion to the institutions and ideas that protect legitimate ideological and philosophical diversity. The younger you are, the more likely you are to support hate-speech laws and laws that undermine religious freedom and political speech.

A fifth of Americans claim to be atheist, agnostic, or religiously unaffiliated, according to a 2012 Pew Research Center survey — which categorizes that demographic as the “nones.” Young adults are less devout than any other age bracket polled. Almost a third of them are religiously unaffiliated. They are also less religious than previous generations were at the same point in their lives, and describe “Christianity” — every denomination, apparently — as “hypocritical” and “judgmental.” One doesn’t need to be a theological authority to understand that judgment is an important aspect of faith. Millennials don’t want to be judged.

Unhitched from these traditional belief systems, Millennials drift elsewhere. A Reason Foundation poll in 2014 found that although Millennials claim to have an aversion to both political parties, 42 percent favored socialism over capitalism.

Most polls find that presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton will easily capture most of the Millennials’ vote in 2016. If anything, the former first lady may not be liberal enough for them. The real preference of Millennials, according to a Fusion poll, is Stephen Colbert. Nineteen percent say that they’d like to see him as president, versus 17 percent each for Jon Stewart and Tina Fey. They will not rest until we have a clown as president.

Study after study finds that Millennials are less likely to own a home or a car, have a full-time job, or use a credit card than the American generations that directly preceded them. American Millennials are also the worst, or nearly the worst, at a host of vocational skills when compared with people the same age in more than 20 other countries. “Millennials are often portrayed as being on track to be our best educated generation ever, but their skill levels are comparatively weak,” a researcher from Educational Testing Service has said. This American unexceptionalism isn’t limited to those who need more education. Millennials with a master’s degree or better are also near the bottom.

So what is it about Millennials that makes them the way they are? Do they possess a toxic mix of superficiality, entitlement, and self-absorption that threatens the uniqueness and morality of American life? When Pew Research Center pollsters asked different generations what made them unique, Baby Boomers had enough sense to respond with qualities like “work ethic.” One of the most popular answers from Millennials was “clothes.” Something is wrong. And maybe we can’t blame all of you. But we can certainly blame most of you.

– Mr. Harsanyi is a senior editor of the Federalist.

David Harsanyi is a senior editor of the Federalist and the author of First Freedom: A Ride through America’s Enduring History with the Gun, From the Revolution to Today

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