On Wednesday afternoon, something remarkable happened. A group of young people at Yale got upset about something! I don’t mean the moralizing-op-ed-page upset or the YPU-pretend upset. I also don’t mean the ironic-Jon Stewart upset. I mean the good old-fashioned Mom-and-Dad’s-college-stories kind of upset.
Two hundred and fifty protesters marched together across campus on Wednesday to express their frustrations with Yale’s new corporate pressures on graduate students and faculty. A lanky German grad student hit a water jug rhythmically as a small woman with a megaphone led the crowd in a rousing, “Hey, hey, ho, ho — where did all Yale’s money go?” A feeling of excitement permeated the gathering made up of mostly graduate students. They seemed to be thrilled by the idea of participating in a real, earnest display of opinion. A happy dog in a sweater that read “THE HUMANITIES MATTER DOGGONE IT!” entangled his evolutionarily unviable legs in his leash. I caught the happy dog’s gaze and we shared a long, knowing stare. I knew we were thinking the same thing. He, like me, was super-excited to see all of the kids. He, like me, had never seen young people act like this before. He, like me, was confused to be wearing a sweater. JK, I wear sweaters all the time!
But, really, after I stole the dog, I went back home and reflected on the brief and beautiful protest. I had no personal ties to the grievances of the Graduate Employees and Students Organization (GESO), but the march itself moved me because it was dreadfully unique in my memories of college. In my years at Yale I haven’t seen an opinion expressed earnestly by a large group of students since the night of Obama’s election. We gathered on Old Campus and sang the national anthem and cried and kissed one another’s faces. But, when since then has the campus come out for or against anything? Sure, we scoffed at the unrelenting idiocy of the DKE bros, financial aid reform kinda tussled our feathers, oh, and, police brutality was pretty lame, too. But no protest has seen more than a few dozen marchers and no petition has been signed with more than a few hundred names. So why is this? I reject the premise that it is for want of important issues. Two wars, a financial crisis, genocide? Misery and injustice abound, my friends!
As my Grandpa would say, “So what the hell is wrong with you kids?.” I don’t know, Grandpa. I don’t know. Are we heartless, brainless and spineless? Do we just not give a shit? Contrary to what we’re told, I think we do care. But, we are snarky and jaded and cynical. This is one of our biggest problems.
(N.B.: I don’t excuse myself from this indictment, and the fact that I can’t even write this piece without being goofy is evidence of my point. Part of me is too cowardly to write without snark, and part of me thinks no one would get past the first paragraph to hear me out. If you’ve made it ’til here, get out while you can! I’ve nearly run out of detached derision!)
But, in all sincerity, our generation excels at being insincere; being earnest is far more difficult for us. We love to laugh, but we’re hesitant to engage. This phenomenon is evidenced by the political figures that the young liberal college student rallies behind. Keith Olberman and Rachel Maddow don’t speak to us (duh, cuz they’re super-annoying), but Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert somehow do. The political rally attended by the most college students in recent memory, “Colbert and Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity,” had very little to do with a tangible political issue. It was a smattering of young people who wanted things to get better.
But, defining ourselves by what we aren’t only gets us so far. We make fun of people with real opinions, but we are reluctant to voice our own. Instead of debating specific policy points and championing actual causes, we spend our time watching videos of Glenn Beck in tears (which is hilarious).
While these positions are often implicit in good satire, rarely are they explicitly discussed. After we dust off the snark and snide from Gawker and Colbert, I fear there won’t be enough sincerity left to rally public opinion.
“But what about Jon Stewart’s pivotal role in the First Responder’s legislation!?,” you say. “I know! That was great,” I say to you, one of my three remaining readers. But, actually, have you seen that episode? It’s really not funny at all. Stewart interviewed a panel of firefighters and policemen who were the first to arrive at Ground Zero on 9/11; they spoke sincerely of their crippling medical bills from injuries sustained during their rescue attempts. Unsure of how to react to the genuine emotions before them, the room was tense, the audience giggling awkwardly through the entire thing. But, watching from home, I was moved. Jon Stewart was effective in promoting change precisely because he was earnest on that particular issue.
Don’t get me wrong, I do think satire has its place. And I do think Stewart and Colbert have handled particular issues very well. Like Sarah Palin, for example. Or anything else too ridiculous to fathom. Laughing at things until they go away sometimes works. I say we continue to make fun of Ms. Palin until she disappears into the abyss of funny things that happened in American history. Like, remember when alcohol was illegal in the ’20s? Or when GigaPets were big? Those were silly things we did. That’s how I hope we’ll think back in a few years on Lady Palin, Princess Bristol, Sir Todd and the rest of the adorable folksy fam.
But for most other issues, satire just isn’t enough. Education policy, the financial crisis, health care reform and immigration are not issues that can be made fun of until they disappear. These are all complicated issues which require careful thought and deliberation on our part. We need to engage issues such as these and work together, sincerely.
The GESO protest moved me because it gave me hope that we aren’t completely lost. If our generation wants to be a pivotal force in making our nation/world better, we must find ways to make sincere engagement cool again. Jaded detachment is too easy.
Thanks for reading the whole article, Mom. Love you.