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When Young People Get Excited

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

We regularly hear about Barack Obama's appeal to youth, about how he has been able to excite and mobilize a generation of young people to become politically involved, his rare ability to excite young people, and about how many new voters will register (and vote Democrat) as a result.


All this seems to be true. The question, however, is whether it is a good thing for the country and not just for Barack Obama and the Democratic Party.

The answer is that it probably is not. With a few exceptions -- and those exceptions are usually those rare cases when young people confront dictatorships -- when youth get involved in politics in large numbers, it is not a good thing.

Of course, there are those who believe that the mass movement of America's young people in the late 1960s and early 1970s was a great thing for America -- a bright shining example of young people mobilized against an unjust war and on behalf of a world filled with love.

If that is how one views the legacy of the baby boomer generation, the mobilization of youth for Obama is probably a great -- not to mention nostalgia-inducing and personally validating -- development.

For those of us who view the late '60s and '70s as the beginning of a downward spiral for American society, however, the mobilization of many young people on behalf of Barack Obama is not encouraging. It is only the latest example of young people getting excited as a result of their unique combination of naivete, lack of wisdom, romantic idealism and narcissism.

Most adults throughout history have recognized that young people are likely to be unwise given their minuscule amount of life experience. After all, most adults, even among baby boomers, believe that they themselves are wiser today than 10 years ago, let alone than when they were 20 years old. It is remarkable, then, how often adults romanticize youth involvement in politics -- "Isn't it heartwarming to see young people getting involved?"


Actually, for a wise adult, it is not heartwarming.

Most thoughtful observers now regard the massive youth demonstrations in France in 1968 as the narcissistic explosions that they were. As French columnist Jean-Claude Guillebaud (Le Nouvel Observateur) wrote recently in the New York Times on the 40th anniversary of those demonstrations:

"I lived through May '68. I was a 24-year-old graduate student and a journalist who covered the revolt, during which students armed with cobblestones battled the police, and 10 million workers went on strike. … To borrow an expression of Lenin's, we were useful idiots."

As regards the positive views of those events held by French elites -- just as American elites hold the '60s and '70s mobilization of American youth in awe -- Guillebaud continued:

"This generation of baby boomers largely controls the news media and cultural life. The majority of broadcast chiefs and newspaper, magazine and book publishers and senior editors 'did' May '68. They are simply indulging their own nostalgia. The boomers … are first and foremost celebrating their own youth."

The same holds true about the idealization of a politically involved young generation here in America. The politically activist baby boomers were "useful idiots" here, too.

They were a major, perhaps the major, factor in America withdrawing from the Vietnam War. And if one believes that the American attempt to prevent South Vietnam from falling under Communist totalitarian rule was an immoral, imperialist venture, then America's young people were terrific. Likewise, if one believes that the movement toward having college students help shape college curricula was a good thing, then the youth movement of that time was a boon to education. But if one believes that America's defeat in Vietnam was unnecessary, and that it led to unspeakable atrocities in Southeast Asia, to a greatly weakened America and to a revived Left; and if one believes that college education in the liberal arts has deteriorated since then, enabling students to obtain college degrees with little knowledge of history and of Western civilization, let alone increased wisdom, then the youth movement of the '60s and '70s was a moral, social and political disaster.


Yes, young people were also involved in the civil rights movement. And that was a wonderful thing. But unlike the anti-war movement, which was largely spearheaded by, and relied for its effectiveness on, young people, the civil rights movement did not need massive numbers of young people in order to prevail.

Having been a young person at that time and having watched as my university (Columbia) had its classrooms taken over and teaching interrupted by fellow students; having watched the sexualization of society that followed the "Make Love Not War" generation; having watched America become obsessed with youth rather than wisdom as a result of the "Never Trust Anyone Over 30" mantra of the '60s young people; having seen the myriad speech codes that arose, ironically, out of the "Free Speech" movement at Berkeley and elsewhere; having watched pacifist-like doctrines decimate America's moral compass; having witnessed a selfish preoccupation with an ever increasing number of inherent "rights," with a commensurate devaluing of inherent moral obligations, I, among many others, am not enamored of the '60s and '70s youth movement.

So, forgive me, but I for one am not encouraged by the ecstatic reaction of young people to Barack Obama. The track record of politically excited youth movements in modern Western history is not a good one. And I see no reason why this will prove to be the first major exception.


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