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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.