February 7, 2008
Obama and 'Da Yutes'By J.R. Dunn
One unwelcome side effect of Obamamania is the threat of yet another bout of liberalism's youth obsession.
This is not a reference to John Kerry's Botox shots or Nancy Pelosi's face lifts, but the liberal tendency to fall on their knees before the nation's youth at the drop of a skateboard.
Granted that pols right left and center pander to the upcoming voters in search of the "youth vote" -- usually to no avail -- but this is something else. Something compulsive, irrational, and more than a little creepy. It seems to consistently bubble under the surface of American liberalism, erupting only on occasion. We're in the middle of such an eruption right now.
Over the past few months, we've gone from straightforward reportage on Obama's appeal to young voters to semi-mystical rhapsodizing in praise of the new children's crusade on behalf of the Illinois messiah.
In October, Adam Nagourney of the New York Times wrote,
This is clear, concise reportage on a development of interest that might turn out to be a crucial element of the presidential campaign.
Compare it to this piece by Roger Cohen, which appeared last week in the International Herald Tribune, also a Times newspaper:
This isn't reportage, it isn't even opinion. It's somebody who thinks he's writing some kind of gospel. It reflects the tone taken by most of the recent journalism dealing with the topic of Obama and the kids. The latest Time magazine tells us all about "Obama's army", and the fact that "His campaign has become the first in decades -- maybe in history -- to be carried so far on the backs of the young." (A weird image if there ever was one.)
Nor is it limited to the media. According to Roger Simon, Ted Kennedy, in his endorsement of Obama, repeated the word "youth" no less than eight times. There's even a website called "Obama Youth". (No word yet on what color shirts they wear.)
Youth, we're being told, can see where we are blind. They have secret wisdom that we have been denied. They are on a journey through a new political landscape whence we cannot follow, can scarcely even comprehend the nature of, with Obama as their Moses. The only role open for older people (read: Boomers) is to get out of their way in order to assure them a clear path to utopia.
The problem with dese here yutes (you can't help thinking of this in terms of Joe Pesci) is that all this has happened before, and on no few occasions. Snagging the youth has been a primary goal of ideological movements for the past century or more. Mussolini gained power in large part by exploiting dissatisfaction among Italy's young people. (The anthem of the Fascist party was "Giovinezza" -- "Youth".) Then we have the infamous Hitlerjugend. In the postwar era Juan Peron pioneered the technique of utilizing university students as a battering ram to force his way into power.
The American version of this is both less virulent, while at the same time being more obnoxious, as all unnecessary disasters are obnoxious. It involves the 60s, of course, though not quite in the way that most readers may assume. The problem with analyzing the 60s is that everything is overshadowed by the turmoil of the decade's final three years -- we tend to think of the 60s in terms of hippies, yippies, the Movement, Chicago, Kent State, all the resonant images that overwhelm everything else. But of course, the early years of the decade were not at all like that -- and it's in those years that the roots of the problem are found. And when we get there, what we find is: da yutes.
The early 60s was one of the most youth-obsessed periods in American history. There's no simple explanation for this, and we don't really require one beyond noting the fact. It was reflected in the presidency of John F. Kennedy, who was characterized as "young" although, like Obama, he was actually on the cusp of middle age. What youth thought, wanted, and believed was subject to endless public dissection and analysis. Youthful opinion on all sorts of complicated topics, ranging from Cold War strategy to Vietnam to race relations, was actively courted and given serious consideration. At one point, Time magazine chose the "Youth of America" as its Man of the Year.
As the decade wore on, rhetoric concerning the younger generation grew more extreme. Rather than simply having opinions of interest, youth were now said to possess the Answer to all sorts of critical matters. Youth, the public was assured, had important things to say. Youth must be listened to. And finally, "Older people have screwed things up. Let's give the kids a chance." All sentiments that would sound familiar to the Roger Cohens of our day.
All this might have been harmless but for the collapse of the previous generation -- the so-called "Silents". (Actually merely a subset of the GI generation.) Possibly the most overlooked factor of the entire decade is the manner in which this generation, just coming into their prime years, abdicated responsibility in favor of what we've come to know as the 60s lifestyle. It was this, rather than anything the kids did, that caused much of the later trouble.
There's no difficulty explaining this turn of events. Every generation has a strictly limited leadership cohort -- the number is generally held to be approximately 5%. The U.S. lost over a quarter-million men in WW II. A substantial number of the GI generation's natural leaders were killed at places like Kasserine, Tarawa, and Omaha Beach. This is one kind of deficit that simply can't be made up. As a result, positions in the postwar world that required hard-charging alphas were filled by whoever was available, too many of whom weren't up to the job. Government was left in the hands of odd figures like Lyndon B. Johnson (who could never have been elected on his own) and Robert "S. for Strange" McNamara. (The same phenomenon can be seen in the 80s and 90s of the 19th century, the so-called Gilded Age. Consider the lengthy chain of nonentities that served as president during that period. The truly dynamic leaders had been killed in the battles of the Civil War.) The kids (just becoming known as "Boomers"), left without guidance or the benefit of experience, ran wild, with many of their elders grooving right alongside them. And so the country roared full-speed ahead into the children's hour: the 60s of legend, in all their tie-dyed and bell-bottomed, not to mention tear-gassed and rubber-bulleted glory.
And here we are, forty years on, hearing calls for the same thing.
So is it going to be groovy again? That, of course, is the real question. Beyond Obama's campaign and the election of 2008, what the youth mystique advocates are pushing for is yet another reprise of the 60s, the same as they've been doing since January 2, 1970.
The answer is, probably not. The world has changed too much for a simple repetition, over and above the fact that the 60s broke Marx's dictum on history repeating itself by being both tragedy and farce at once. The concerns that energized the 60s -- civil rights, Vietnam, rigid social practices -- no longer exist. And Barack Obama, canny politician though he may be, is not the figure to lead any such movement.
But the real problem with hopes for a new youthquake lies in the status of the Boomers. Any expectation that the Boomers will accept the role of the previous generation of the 60s (however one wishes to label them) and allow themselves to be swept off the stage is a little premature, to say the least. Whatever can be said about the Boomers -- that they're obnoxious, lazy, self-centered, arrogant, grandiose, and simply weird (And I'll cop to all the above, to one degree or another), a willingness to forego the spotlight is not part of the mix. Add a near-Irish mulishness, a still-unsatisfied sense of historical mission, and a tendency to react to political pressure in the same fashion as warrior ants and it's clear that they are not going to step out onto the ice floe any time soon. Anyone seeking to build a political movement based on superseding the Boomers will have his hands full right out of the gate at least until a lot more of them are dead and gone.
(Let's not overlook the effect of lengthened life-spans either. Keep in mind that the youngest Boomers are only 48 this year -- only a couple of years older than the callow and inexperienced Barack Obama himself. It's likely that Boomers will still be having an effect in the 2040s. That's my plan, anyway.)
It would be no less than appropriate if the Boomers, having embodied an earlier youth eruption, should take the responsibility of curtailing a sequel in their middle years. The last thing we need in this millennium is another youth craze triggered by feckless and irresponsible adults.
But it does tell us something about current liberalism that they would really rather we didn't know: that they're truly dumb enough to fall for this kind of thing twice.
J.R. Dunn is consulting editor of American Thinker.