Sharing Ambivalence

When Robert M. Eisinger listens to his students, he thinks their problems amount to more than the cynicism pundits attribute to their generation -- and he worries.

August 25, 2006

A student asks me what I am doing this weekend. I respond, “I am going on a date.” “Where,” he asks? I answer coolly, “Dinner,” not wanting to provide details. He responds, “First you sleep with her; then take her out to dinner and get to know her.” As a college professor in Portland, Ore., I encounter this candor all the time.

This student is not alone in sharing his views. He and his cohorts are neither cynical nor angry; that myth has been perpetuated by pseudo-intellectual, 40-something bloggers and pop sociologists who think that their anomie is also ours; we yuppies, sadly, have bought the bloggers’ angst -- hook, line and sinker.

We shouldn’t.

Students’ absence of boundaries today alarms us. They casually talk about and experience drugs and sex the way we talk about laundry detergent and books. Their openness is at times inappropriate, but in their willingness to disclose, today’s youth are sharing their ambivalences and ambitions.

Are they skeptical? Yes, and they should be. They are repeatedly told (by us) that politics matters, but when they listen to debates between Democrats and Republicans, they have good reason to be disappointed and disbelieving. They are told (by us) about the primacy of family, but their fragmented family unit relegates quality time to cell phone discourse. Is it any wonder that they take with a grain of salt the concepts of fidelity and solemn vows? After all, as mom and dad (sometimes called by their first names) "grew apart," discussions about separation were the norm. The result was a questioning of permanence, an affinity for transience, and a simultaneous affinity for frank discussion.

Their doubting of elite sensibilities demands an appreciation for sarcasm, most notably Jon Stewart and J"The Daily Show." Stewart’s berating of "Crossfire" hosts Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala serve as their post-9/11, defining media moment. Finally, someone was speaking their language and articulating their thoughts. Why do Americans listen to pundits and "spokespeople"? Why are ideologues’ sound bites so predictably and artificially contrived? How can we change this crap?

Politics -- most notably inequality -- plagues them, even as their behavior perpetuates it. Young women are willingly infantilized, preferring to be referred to as "girls." Thursday night tequila shots (or pick the drink du jour) drunken off of their naked navels are celebrated as normal. Early Friday morning promiscuity undoubtedly ensues, paradoxically generating an emptiness that accompanies the concomitant pleasures associated with gratuitous sex.

Selfish and at times sarcastic, today’s youth are trying to create a meaningful, hedonistic life. How, they ask, does one change one’s politics when the world around them evolves so quickly, and they admittedly have no patience or discipline to contemplate? They have no answer, and it pesters them. Doggedly, they seek to make politics real and spiritual in an era when the superficial Desperate Housewives and the narcissism of Terrell Owens reign supreme.

They are frustrated and lonely, but their actions are neither childish nor childlike. One of my students, I’ll call him Zak, discusses his active sex life as if it were James Bond’s. Zak is artistic, athletic, confident, and by his own admission, a bit lost. Numerous conversations with him reveal a remarkable forthrightness. When he has gotten high, the potency of his sex drive, his inability to focus, his relationships with friends, Zak shares anything and everything, without hubris or solicitation.

Zak’s eagerness to divulge may be the product Dr. Phil and Oprah, but Zak does not watch television, and his disinterest in it is palpable. I-Pod and Wi-fi, yes, but cable, why? A semester in Africa taught him that television is a luxury best avoided. Music is another matter entirely. Zak downloads all types of music illegally; it is a part of his generation’s weekly routine. He enjoys our occasional discussion about morals, in large part because he has not seriously considered the consequences of downloading, or for that matter, of other ostensibly victimless crimes. Pot smoking? No biggie. Pot dealing? Buying black market Ritilin before an exam? Whatever. Is this laissez-faire moralism a product of our culture? Maybe so, but Zak dismisses television and video games as overly commercialized and conventional.

Instead, give him a latte (fair trade coffee preferred) and a companion to share -- anything -- and he is ready to consume life. Not cognizant of the latest trends in fashion, Zak nonetheless owns a vast wardrobe of T-shirts, khakis and comfortable, thermally advanced gear. This casual coolness is borne in a beige, calm indifference that my generation (born, 1965, raised on television) entirely lacks. Extroverted 40 year old males who once wore red power ties, now sell annuities or real estate. Zak sells his earthy earnestness.

He spent this past summer working for an environmental group, and actually enjoyed hustling door to door, seeking monetary contributions from liberal Portlanders. Zak was canvassing in a dangerous neighborhood; a man was shot nearby, and Zak, close to the scene, consoled the man until the police arrived. Soon afterward, Zak returned to canvassing. A woman answered her door, looked at him in shock, and only then did Zak realize that he was covered in blood. Zak is proud of his willingness to help a wounded stranger, simultaneously showing a peculiar, Garden State-like detached forgetfulness. After all, how do you forget that you are bloody? For Zak, the lesson here is “Damn, the streets are tough.” For me, the questions are, “Why continue the shift after consoling the wounded?”  “Does Zak realize that even progressive do-gooder non-profits can exploit their workers?” “How come the shooting never made it to the front pages of the newspaper?” My queries are lost on Zak; he is caught up in the moment, not the history or the politics.

Zak consumes life by seeking innovative ways to give back to society. He sends me e-mails, and listens attentively when I detail their faulty logic and reasoning. He participates in "Critical Mass,” a group of bicyclers protesting automobile riding, almost agreeing with me when I argue that the radical cause of making the working poor late for their shift may be doing more harm than good. He speaks openly about his intolerance for homophobia, but also of his reticence in silencing a buddy’s anti-gay epithets. Zak yearns for social justice without pretending to have all the answers, yet still possesses too much modesty and trepidation to take the necessary risks needed to alter the status quo.

He rides his bike because he likes the breeze on his back, and because his versatile 21-speed does not burn fossil fuels. He also owns a gas guzzling truck, often used for driving to campus, the gorge or the coast. For him there is no paradox, no contradiction, no cognitive dissonance. Do what you gotta do, but do not become preoccupied with logical consistency. Logic is an optional college class -- not a credo. Living, after all, is about relationships -- physical, intimate, casual and drifting.

Zak and his peers pay the bills, cook for themselves, go to concerts, and have multiple friends, some of whom have sex with when they feel like it and refer to as "fuck buddies." Yet they are lonely. Living for today implicitly demands an acceptance of the temporary, and a rejection of stability.

Zak is not alone. There is Jeff, who told me about his anger toward his father for not leading by example. Jeff’s dad used to bring home several women (simultaneously), and the bedroom sounds of group sex, excited and confused Jeff as he realized that his father was disrupting community and family in the name of pleasure and immediacy. There is Meredith, who smokes too heavily and eats too little, yet shuns my attempts to assist her, or even my attempts to engage her in a discussion about health. There is Joel, who thinks his frequent partying may emanate from his parents’ emotional and physical disabilities. Katie plagiarized, later admitting that her father wrote her term paper. They openly admit that their parents cheat on each other and on financial aid forms.  They also share their own indiscretions -- misdemeanors and occasional felonies -- without shame. These youth have yet to develop a moral core, in part because they find passing judgment a dangerous enterprise. Why vocally question mom or step-dad? Why bother? Who cares if smoking is bad for you? Have not we all erred?

They lack discipline -- a skill that escapes them in the age of carefreedom. The thought of showering daily and putting on a business suit -- basically, of becoming mainstream -- is foreign to their world. Yet their idealism slowly is being transformed to moderation. Drug use no longer fascinates them as it once did even a year ago. The superfluous sex is becoming more banal and less fulfilling. Even hedonism fails to satisfy them.

Time for a toke? No Forget the weed -- it is time for late night bike ride, alone -- without a helmet. Zak will soon be thinking about friendship, intimacy, freedom and privilege. A meaningful life beyond college -- with Roth IRA’s, monogamy and mortgages, is not even a dream; it is a fiction neither shared nor pondered.


Robert M. Eisinger is chair of political science at Lewis & Clark College, in Oregon. He is the author of The Evolution of Presidential Polling (Cambridge University Press).  


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