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Occupy Wall Street and a Generation Adrift

We discuss, on the latest Young Guns podcast (out later today), this fascinating Maura Pennington piece. So I thought I’d share a few thoughts about this generation adrift.

From my perspective, the demonstrations and protests in New York City and across the nation in the Autumn of 2011 reveal a great deal about the divide which exists within American society today. The gulf is most comparable to the differences between the traditional American understanding of existence and the increasingly European attitude taught within schools and by much of mass media.

The inherent belief among most Americans is that you direct your destiny. Essentially, this boils down to the idea that with hard work and time and energy you can reach out and seize the future you want for yourself. If you pursue happiness, you can realize it.

This contrasts strongly with the attitude of most of Europe and Asia, where destiny is not subject to individual pursuit. Instead, you live within a world outside your control, where you navigate between social and economic barriers within your time. It creates a point of view where life is about navigating within a world outside of your control. You are powerless as the sailor is over the waves of the sea. Thus, the only response to bad situations is an appeal to the enshrined other, the powerbrokers and larger forces, for rescue, protection, and fair treatment.

This is a vast oversimplification, I’ll admit (but hey, this is a blogpost). But in New York City and elsewhere, the Occupy gatherings seem to be an expression of this mindset. They are an inchoate appeal by the distressed, the unemployed, and the frustrated for help from higher powers. They are disgusted with what they perceive as the unfairness of life, by bailouts and corporate cronyism and a government that is not solving the problems they face.

This is not an inherently leftist movement, though many with leftist and anarchist politics have co-opted it for their aims. Rather, it is a cry for help from an uninformed, frustrated America.

Sadly, the attitude of many on the political right has been less than eager to respond to these movements with anything but ridicule. The Occupiers are not some latent conservative movement. But at their core, they are animated by disgust with many of the same things that drove Tea Partiers to the streets in 2009. They are responding to their circumstances the only way they know how, thanks to a flawed mindset ingrained in them by teachers and leaders. Too many of those who favor free enterprise are reacting not by advancing winning arguments, but by conceding them to the radical Left.

It reminds me of an essay by the great Thomas Sowell, a retelling of an old fable: 

Once upon a time, a grasshopper and an ant lived in a field. All summer long, the grasshopper romped and played, while the ant worked hard under the boiling sun to store up food for the winter.

When winter came, the grasshopper was hungry. One cold and rainy day, he went to ask the ant for some food.

“What are you, crazy?” the ant said. “I’ve been breaking my back all summer long while you ran around hopping and laughing at me for missing all the fun in life.”

“Did I do that?” the grasshopper asked meekly.

“Yes! You said I was one of those old-fashioned clods who missed the whole point of the modern self-realization philosophy.”

“Gee, I’m sorry about that,” the grasshopper said. I didn’t realize you were so sensitive. But surely you are not going to hold that against me at a time like this.”

“Well, I don’t hold a grudge… but I do have a long memory.”

Just then, another ant came along. “Hi, Lefty,” the first ant said.

“Hi, George.”

“Lefty, do you know what this grasshopper wants me to do? He wants me to give him some of the food I worked for all summer, under the blazing sun.”

“I would have thought you would already have volunteered to share with him, without being asked,” Lefty said.

“What!!”

“When we have disparate shares in the bounty of nature, the least we can do is try to correct the inequity.”

“Nature’s bounty, my foot,” George said. “I had to tote this stuff uphill and cross a stream on a log… all the while looking out for ant-eaters. Why couldn’t this lazy bum gather his own food and store it?” …

Lefty looked pained. “I’m surprised at your callousness, George… your selfishness, your greed.”

“Have you gone crazy, Lefty?”

“No. On the contrary, I have become educated.” …

Lefty not only won the argument, he continued to expand his program of shelters for grasshoppers. As word spread, grasshoppers came from miles around. Eventually, some of the younger ants decided to adopt the grasshopper lifestyle.

As the older generation of ants passed from the scene, more and more ants joined the grasshoppers, romping and playing in the fields. Finally all the ants and all the grasshoppers spent all their time enjoying the carefree lifestyle and lived happily ever after, all summer long. Then the winter came.

Yes, a significant portion of these protesters are old guard hippies bent on drum circles and jazz hand assemblies, aimed at bending the naive and the uninformed to the vile lie of socialism. They laud the idols of free stuff and deviance. They play Lefty to the Grasshopper. But the response from those who believe in free enterprise is all too often not advancing an alternate argument, or convincing the Grasshopper that he would be better off with a paycheck instead of an unemployment check. Instead, the response is ridicule and anger.

For the generation facing this daunting economy and little in the way of answers, the desperation of protest is the only path they know to take, the only way to respond to being adrift on the high seas. “We did everything we were supposed to,” one 2009 graduate from Dartmouth recently told The New York Times. “What was the point of working so hard for 22 years if there was nothing out there?” This brings to mind the old John Cheever line: “The main emotion of the adult American who has had all the advantages of wealth, education, and culture is disappointment.”

Part of the problem is that these young men and women face is that many were promised, from the beginning, that everything would be great. A fascinating cover story in The Atlantic Monthly last March by Don Peck noted the unexpected difficulty this generation faces in adjusting to the world:

Ron Alsop, a former reporter for The Wall Street Journal and the author of The Trophy Kids Grow Up: How the Millennial Generation Is Shaking Up the Workplace, says a combination of entitlement and highly structured childhood has resulted in a lack of independence and entrepreneurialism in many 20-somethings. They’re used to checklists, he says, and “don’t excel at leadership or independent problem solving.” Alsop interviewed dozens of employers for his book, and concluded that unlike previous generations, Millennials, as a group, “need almost constant direction” in the workplace. “Many flounder without precise guidelines but thrive in structured situations that provide clearly defined rules.” All of these characteristics are worrisome, given a harsh economic environment that requires perseverance, adaptability, humility, and entrepreneurialism. Perhaps most worrisome, though, is the fatalism and lack of agency… in today’s young adults. Trained throughout childhood to disconnect performance from reward, and told repeatedly that they are destined for great things, many are quick to place blame elsewhere when something goes wrong, and inclined to believe that bad situations will sort themselves out—or will be sorted out by parents or other helpers.

Arguably no author understood this generation better, despite the inconvenience of being dead since before some of them were born, than Walker Percy, Christian existentialist and chronicler of Southern wayfarers and those adrift in a different age: “You live in a deranged age, more deranged that usual, because in spite of great scientific and technological advances, man has not the faintest idea of who he is or what he is doing.” In 1985, he wrote: “The Christian notion of man as a wayfarer in search of his salvation no longer informs Western culture. In its place, what most of us seem to be seeking are such familiar goals as maturity, creativity, autonomy, rewarding interpersonal relations, and so forth.” In Lost in the Cosmos, he wrote: “How it is possible for the man who designed Voyager 19, which arrived at Titania, a satellite of Uranus, three seconds off schedule and a hundred yards off course after a flight of six years, to be one of the most screwed-up creatures in California—or the Cosmos.” Or, more flippantly and more friendly to pessimistic valedictories: “You can get all A’s and still flunk life.”

The Percy expression that applies best to the hordes in the Occupy movement is one of contrast, from The Last Gentleman, when protagonist Will Barrett, transplanted Southerner, Princeton dropout, lost and adrift in New York City, catches a glimpse of a beautiful woman through a spyglass in Central Park, and has an epiphany:

For until this moment he had lived in a state of pure possibility, not knowing what sort of man he was or what he must do, and supposing therefore that he must be all men and do everything. But after this morning’s incident his life took a turn in a particular direction. Thereafter he came to see that he was not destined to do everything but only one or two things. Lucky is the man who does not secretly believe that every possibility is open to him.

This is the ironic truth about these young Americans adrift. Even in this downturn, their generational opportunities are unmatched. They have all the tools they need for success. The whole world is open to them. And it is too much for them to bear.

This is why it’s so important for those who understand that fairness and justice are not ideas at war with liberty and free enterprise – in fact, they are at its core — to advance this case. Equality of opportunity is at the heart of our American system of government. As Calvin Coolidge said, “Democracy is not a tearing down; it is a building up. It is not denial of the divine right of kings; it asserts the divine right of all men.” The moral case for a meritocracy of earned success is not something these protesters should find unacceptable.

Yet where there is no one to make this argument, it remains unheard. A colleague of mine went down to the Occupy Chicago event intending to make a video mocking the protesters. They asked them why they hated capitalism. But instead of angry socialists, they found the frustrated and distraught unemployed. “We don’t hate capitalism,” one young woman said, “we just want it to work again.” Someone needs to tell her that it can.

  1. Diane Ellis
    C

    Mr. Domenech, you are a machine. We finished up the podcast not 10 minutes before you published this piece.  Astounding. I guess you’ve just justified my choice in hero of the week!

  2. Ben Domenech
    C
    Diane Ellis, Ed.: Mr. Domenech, you are a machine. We finished up the podcast not 10 minutes before you published this piece.  Astounding. I guess you’ve just justified my choice in hero of the week! · Nov 18 at 9:39am

    In fairness, the piece was already written up for today. I am not THAT much of a machine!

  3. DrewInWisconsin

    I need to read more Walker Percy. I tried one of his novels (can’t remember which) and was a bit confused. It’s possible I was too young at the time to appreciate it.

    But here’s a related bit from one of my favorite Southern Catholics, Flannery O’Connor.

    “It is easy to see that the moral sense has been bred out of certain sections of the population, like the wings have been bred off certain chickens to produce more white meat on them. This is a generation of wingless chickens, which I suppose is what Nietzsche meant when he said God was dead.”

  4. Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    Ben Domenech, Guest Contributor:

    The inherent belief among most Americans is that you direct your destiny. Essentially, this boils down to the idea that with hard work and time and energy you can reach out and seize the future you want for yourself. If you pursue happiness, you can realize it.

     The moral case for a meritocracy of earned success is not something these protesters should find unacceptable.

    Yet where there is no one to make this argument, it remains unheard.

    With respect, the moral case for meritocracy is part of the problem.

    Life simply isn’t a meritocracy, and nothing we do to tweak social arrangements will ever make it one. Life is simply too full of windfall gains and losses for meritocracy to ever be attainable.

    People aren’t fools for rejecting the morality of meritocracy, or the illusion that we direct our destiny and pursuing happiness automatically results in us realizing it. They’re being realistic.

    No economist — Sowell included — is in the business of selling meritocracy. Rather, they’re keen to point out that, whatever chance has handed us, we can make the most of it through hard work. That should be our message. Not meritocracy.

  5. Western Chauvinist

    The Left has been mocking and deriding traditional lifestyles for more than a generation now.  Getting married, having kids, homemaking, working an 8 to 5 job, and living in the suburbs — all scorn-worthy.  

    A friend from university brought a friend of his by my suburban middle-class home one time and he sang the song Little Boxes to me…

    And the boys go into business

    And marry and raise a family

    In boxes made of ticky tacky

    And they all look just the same.

    There’s a green one and a pink one

    And a blue one and a yellow one,

    And they’re all made out of ticky tacky

    And they all look just the same.

    Maybe they’ll find camping in Zuccotti Park is more fulfilling for them. I doubt it though.

  6. Give Me Liberty

    I think one factor that often gets over looked is the Baby Boom effect on the economy.  They are the pig in the python, they suck up a lot of oxygen, and move the economy to their desires. 

    Unfortunately, many of their voices, especially the loudest–the media and academia, are thoroughly leftist.  In a growing economy, thank you Ronald Reagan, there is plenty of opportunity for everyone, but in a contracting economy, thank you Obama, the folks behind that python are at a greater disadvantage. 

    Not to mention, the effect of an aging Boomer generation producing and consuming fewer goods and services, but expecting their share of government services puts those in the post Boomer generations in a tough spot.

    Lastly, because of Boomer idealism and puffery for leftist ideology the following generations have been poorly equiped to understand how our economy works at a time when that knowledge is most crucial.

  7. Illiniguy

    “This is the ironic truth about these young Americans adrift. Even in this downturn, their generational opportunities are unmatched. They have all the tools they need for success. The whole world is open to them. And it is too much for them to bear.”

    This is the Gordian Knot which every generation must solve for itself.

  8. Leslie Watkins

    For the generation facing this daunting economy and little in the way of answers, the desperation of protest is the only path they know to take, the only way to respond to being adrift on the high seas. “We did everything we were supposed to,” one 2009 graduate from Dartmouth recently told The New York Times. “What was the point of working so hard for 22 years if there was nothing out there?”

    Oh, cry me a river. Honestly, it’s like people saying that Obama inherited the worst situation of any president ever! If their entire problem is existential, these young people are doomed to never throw down their foolish utopian notions, read some history before 1963, and set out to do something besides squat in the rain for eight weeks. It is right out of a postmodern humanities program that you hear some 22-year-old say, “We did everything we were supposed to” only to discover that remaining in the upper crust isn’t going to be as easy as graduating. We’re supposed to applaud this? They have much worse things to worry about than right now—the future debt congress is saddling them for one.

  9. Illiniguy
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake

    With respect, the moral case for meritocracy is part of the problem.

    Life simply isn’t a meritocracy, and nothing we do to tweak social arrangements will ever make it one. Life is simply too full of windfall gains and losses for meritocracy to ever be attainable.

    No economist — Sowell included — is in the business of selling meritocracy. Rather, they’re keen to point out that, whatever chance has handed us, we can make the most of it through hard work. That should be our message. Not meritocracy. · Nov 18 at 9:58am

    What is a meritocracy but the reward for hard work? Windfall gains, as you describe them, don’t fall from the sky. They come from planning, effort and perseverance.

  10. Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    Illiniguy

    Windfall gains, as you describe them, don’t fall from the sky. They come from planning, effort and perseverance.

    No, “windfall gains”, at least in the sense that Sowell uses the term (and he uses it often in his books), is in fact a specific term for benefits that don’t come from planning, effort and perseverance, but from circumstances beyond our control. Like being born tall, or with perfect pitch, or into a rich family, or with a high IQ.

    Likewise, “windfall losses” are are stuff like being born with missing legs. You can’t help them, and they do circumscribe your opportunities in life — there’s no sense in pretending otherwise.

    We cannot help all the good and bad that happens to us, and when we use rhetoric that suggests otherwise, we undermine our case. But we can, always, make the most of whatever situation we’re in. That’s, to my mind, a much more realistic message.

  11. Western Chauvinist
    Illiniguy

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake

     

    With respect, the moral case for meritocracy is part of the problem.

    Life simply isn’t a meritocracy, and nothing we do to tweak social arrangements will ever make it one. Life is simply too full of windfall gains and losses for meritocracy to ever be attainable.

    No economist — Sowell included — is in the business of selling meritocracy. Rather, they’re keen to point out that, whatever chance has handed us, we can make the most of it through hard work. That should be our message. Not meritocracy. · Nov 18 at 9:58am

    What is a meritocracy but the reward for hard work? Windfall gains, as you describe them, don’t fall from the sky. They come from planning, effort and perseverance. · Nov 18 at 10:26am

    I think Midge was addressing the expectation of fairness these people have.  They’ve been told the lie that life is fair and have been lead to believe it can be lived without pain and suffering.  This is a huge disservice to the young and explains the deep ingratitude they have for the unfairness they’ve enjoyed in being born American.

  12. Nyadnar17
    Illiniguy

    What is a meritocracy but the reward for hard work? Windfall gains, as you describe them, don’t fall from the sky. They come from planning, effort and perseverance.

    Hard work doesn’t and can’t guarantee success. When you promise people that hard work always pays off you are lying to them. It doesn’t. You can work inanely hard, be incredibly studious and still end up unemployed and broke.  Many of the OWS crowd did work hard, they did plan, and they still see no path ahead. I know plenty of hardworking, studious people who can’t find jobs right now. The Free Market doesn’t promise to reward hard work. The Free Market promises to provide the most opportunity possible, to the most people possible, given the resources available. That is all it claims to do. Anytime we promise people more than that, we are setting them up for disappointment.
  13. Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    Illiniguy

    What is a meritocracy but the reward for hard work?

    If meritocracy merely meant “on average, hard work tends to be rewarded”, I wouldn’t have a problem with that. But that’s not always the image conjured up in people’s minds when they hear the term, and we should be aware of that.

    Many envision meritocracy as a system where hard work is perfectly rewarded, which is simply impossible here on earth.

    Fact is that on this earth, there is no guarantee that hard work will be rewarded, even though it often is. To take an extreme example, suppose a family works very hard to be able to afford a bone marrow transplant from Family Member A to Family Member B, since B will die without one. Suppose the family succeeds in earning the money for the surgery, and A gives his marrow to B — and B dies anyhow.

    We can never be sure that our hard work and sacrifice won’t pay off, so the best bet we can make is that it will — there’s no other rational way to live. Still, a best bet remains a bet. That’s life.

  14. Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    Western Chauvinist

    I think Midge was addressing the expectation of fairness these people have.  They’ve been told the lie that life is fair and have been lead to believe it can be lived without pain and suffering.  This is a huge disservice to the young and explains the deep ingratitude they have for the unfairness they’ve enjoyed in being born American.

    Nyadnar17

    Hard work doesn’t and can’t guarantee success. When you promise people that hard work always pays off you are lying to them. It doesn’t… The Free Market doesn’t promise to reward hard work. The Free Market promises to provide the most opportunity possible, to the most people possible, given the resources available. That is all it claims to do. Anytime we promise people more than that, we are setting them up for disappointment.

    Ayyy-men. Preach it, brothers and sisters :-)

  15. David Williamson
    Ben Domenech, Guest Contributor: 

    This is not an inherently leftist movement, though many with leftist and anarchist politics have co-opted it for their aims. Rather, it is a cry for help from an uninformed, frustrated America.

    If they are crying for help from a higher power (i.e. Mr Obama) it implies to me that they are leftists.

    As you say, Ben, the root cause is the American education (aka indoctrination) system – Mr Ayers has done a good job. 

  16. Western Chauvinist
    Diane Ellis, Ed.

    Western Chauvinist: The Left has been mocking and deriding traditional lifestyles for more than a generation now.  Getting married, having kids, homemaking, working an 8 to 5 job, and living in the suburbs — all scorn-worthy. 

    Yeah, if I’m honest with myself, I realize that I’ve been imprinted with this attitude of scorn for these things.  It probably happened [...] when I mentioned in conversation to some classmates that I aspired to eventually have three or four children and hoped to be able to stay home with them. I got raised eyebrows and smug, condescending responses.

    And instead of brushing off the scorn and continuing on with my plan, I unwittingly adjusted it, and sort of adopted the same, smug attitude.  At this point, the attitudes aren’t an easy thing to correct, but I’m conscious of them and I battle them pretty constantly.

    Let me encourage you to keep up the battle.  Keep God and family at the center of your life and all else will be correctly ordered.  Besides, if all you ever accomplish career-wise is editing Ricochet, I think you can call it good.

  17. Good Berean
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake: Just from personal experience, I know people who reject conservatism largely because they believe it preaches a meritocratic ideal which they know to be impossible.

    And I know people who hate God because they expected life to be a meritocracy — then it turned out not to be. · Nov 18 at 11:15am

    Inherent within any system of human judgment is the lack of transcendent perspective. A human meritocracy will have its flaws; at times rewarding the undeserving and depriving the deserving of their “just rewards”. There is, however, a divine meritocracy, whose judgment never fails but whose justice is not always witnessed or proven in our limited space and time. In Him I place my hope!

  18. Kelly B
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake

    When a system is set up to reward failure (say, in the name of being “compassionate”), then it’s no longer such a good bet that hard work and sacrifice will produce the best payoff. In these cases, choosing failure can become a rational way to live, at least in the short term, and perhaps sometimes the medium-term. (Long-term, I’d say allowing yourself to be rewarded for failure is never the best bet, but not everyone thinks that long-term.)

    Incredibly sick and sad, isn’t it? · Nov 18 at 11:44am

    Yes! I see this going on all over the place (“compassion” providing a reward for failure), and I have to fight mightily against despair.  It just seems to be the norm any more, and my gut reaction tends to be, “Just why am I working so hard, again?”  Mostly, I’m able to smack myself back into line – so far.

  19. Illiniguy
    Nyadnar17

    Hard work doesn’t and can’t guarantee success. When you promise people that hard work always pays off you are lying to them…Many of the OWS crowd did work hard, they did plan, and they still see no path ahead. I know plenty of hardworking, studious people who can’t find jobs right now.

    I didn’t mean to say that hard work will always be rewarded. What I meant was that unless you’re a Kennedy, you’re more likely to succeed with studious application rather than sitting around waiting for good things to happen. I have a hard time sympathizing with the OWS types who graduated from college last year and think they should be in a corner office this year.

    bernard-schoenbaum-sure-life-isn-t-fair-but-that-s-all-right-new-yorker-cartoon.jpg

  20. Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    Good Berean

    There is, however, a divine meritocracy, whose judgment never fails but whose justice is not always witnessed or proven in our limited space and time. In Him I place my hope! 

    Yes… and no. God gives us our just reward, true, but He gives even more than that. He gives us unearned love, undeserved grace. The Divine doesn’t fail to be a meritocracy, but surpasses meritocracy. 

    Or so I think :-)

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