FOR PUBLISHERS, the “youth manifesto” is a familiar formula. At regular intervals, an editor will gather up a few thoughtful ruminations and lunatic rantings from twenty-somethings and package them for public consumption.
Sometimes the motive is purely commercial; other times it’s explicitly political.
This magazine’s founder, R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr., participated in such a project in the early 1970s, a book humbly titled, MANIFESTO Addressed to the President of the United States from the Youth of America (Macmillan, $5.95). As one might expect, it was an uneven collection, filled with the type of things one could get away with only in the ’60s and ’70s.
For instance, one essay crescendoed by suggesting protest of a different caliber: “For the real Power in the black community will not be decided by who controls 200,000 votes, but by who controls the 22’s, 25’s, 38’s, 45’s and the M-16’s.”
Others were more sensible, or at least more entertaining. A libertarian contributor provided a strong case for legalizing LSD; meanwhile, an avant-garde writer—whose essay is punctuated by statements like, “And I personally have little or no use for Carter’s cotton underpants even if they are very absorbent on a wilting, melting, damp, limp afternoon”— provided a strong case against legalizing LSD, at least for me.
The book’s editor did little to downplay expectations. “The ramifications of this document are myriad,” he wrote in an introduction, “forcing us to reconsider nearly every aspect of who we are and how we function individually and as a species—but its gospel is simplicity itself: survival. Not Youth survival, or even Human survival…but the naturally evolving survival and harmonious perfection of all Life in the Divine Cosmos.”
This is, on its face, a preposterous statement. Other youth manifestos perhaps do not go quite so far, but they are undergirded by the same assumption: There are intractable problems! We know how to fix them!
To my ear, Tyrrell’s contribution to the book had it about right:
It seems to me snortingly presumptuous for a twenty-four-year-old to send off to all the world his manifesto. Such an endeavor makes me wince, for presumptuous people generally appear silly. Further, there are strategic questions: to whom is my manifesto heading, and if it is whoosing toward anyone who matters, why in God’s name would he read it? Has he not read similar decrees before? Is he unfamiliar with the youthful pontifications from the twenties,The thirties and the fifties? People who matter must know more than to listen to the twaddle of callow youth.
INDEED, a conservative youth manifesto would seem to be, in more ways than one, a contradiction in terms.
“The youth,” of course, are famously liberal. In 2008, voters under 30 backed candidate Obama by a 2 to 1 margin. Protest, from the Woodstock days to Occupy Wall Street, has always been a young person’s game. As the aphorism goes, “Anyone who is not a liberal at 20 has no heart.” Some would suggest that the first challenge to creating a manifesto of intelligent young conservatives would be to find any.
Then there’s the matter of language. “Manifesto” is one of those terms—like “social justice” and “diversity”— that has been so thoroughly abused as to now spark automatic recoil.
Further, the very idea of a youth manifesto, the suggestion that a generation can speak with one voice, seems itself inherently unconservative.
Sure, it’s probably true that common events and experiences shape those who share them. Growing up amid the hardship of the Great Depression and the horror of World War II probably inculcated the Silent Generation in the seriousness and gravity of life. My generation, which came up in a post-Soviet boom, probably inherited a sense of optimism and frivolity.
But given the breadth of human individuality, why should we define ourselves on generational terms? Indeed, one could make a fairly good parlor game out of trying to name the most awkward, incongruent pair from a given cohort.
Generation X: Marilyn Manson (1969), maniac singer; and Chris Farley (1964), motivational speaker.
The Silent Generation: George Carlin (1937), known for occasionally joking about dirty words; and Ron Paul (1935), known for occasionally joking about becoming president.
The Baby Boom: Bill Clinton (1946), who never inhaled; and Cheech Marin (1946), who always inhaled. Famed windbag Bill Maher (1956), and famed windbags Dolly Parton (1946).
For my part, I feel a much stronger connection to an 85-year-old, morbidly obese, married, retired magazine correspondent—someone who has trod the path before me—than I do to a 25-year-old doctoral student in gender studies named Harmony.
Perhaps even more troubling for our effort, conservatives tend to be those who recognize the limitations of youth.
One of the guiding tenets of conservatism is that there is wisdom in the traditions of society—that, in essence, the old dead white guys knew more than they were letting on. Under such a philosophy, even the wisest among us possess only a startlingly small subset of human knowledge. And how much smaller is the further subset mastered by the young!
Jonah Goldberg recently raised ire for pointing this out in an interview, when he told the Daily Caller that nothing correlates quite so well with ignorance as youth.
“There is a certain power worship that finds its expression in this adulation of youth,” said Goldberg, steeling himself for a noticeable uptick in his regular hate mail. “My view is, ‘They’re going to run the country one day, so we should really explain why they’re so frickin’ stupid about so many things.’”
Goldberg wasn’t being malicious. He was simply pointing out that experience matters. The whole trope about events repeating themselves seems pretty spot on, and—having never been here before—young people don’t know to duck when the Arc of History comes swinging back through. It’s easy to think, as President Barack Obama has told us, that “We are the ones we have been waiting for,” if your exile in the political wilderness lasted from 2000 to 2008. And the simple fact is that there are only two groups of people who learned nothing from the Cold War: those born after 1991, and communists. The former, at least, have a good excuse.
SO WHAT, THEN, are we doing here? Having already barred the way forward, how shall we now proceed? Well…very carefully.
The Spectator’s youth manifesto claims to speak for no one but its authors. It does not aim to spark radical protest, nor does it condone unauthorized camping in public squares. It does not urge that Millennials become the next “Greatest Generation,” but that they invent a product, build a business, start a family, and let history take care of itself.
That said, we also recognize that the problems facing this generation are of a different sort than those that inspired manifestos past. Many of the protestations of the ’60s and ’70s were frivolous attempts to reshape society. Free love. Drugs. New Age spiritualism. The difficulties that lie in wait for modern youth are more pedestrian, yet more real. We are long past arguments to remake our society, and to the point of simply trying to save it. We fear—or at least I fear—that my parents’ generation may turn out to be the high-water mark of average American life.
In education, collegiate cost-benefit ratio continues to plummet. Americans now owe more in student loans than they do on credit cards. Some predict we will look back on this as a bubble, provided we make it through the bursting unscathed.
When young Americans do graduate, they’re greeted by the most dismal job market in decades. Millions are unemployed or underemployed, and missing the first foothold into a good career and a middle-class life.
On entitlements, the ball has hardly moved. My entire life I’ve been hearing about the entitlement crisis. (“We have a great opportunity now to take action now to avert a crisis in the Social Security system.”— Bill Clinton, 1998.) The question now isn’t whether someone is going to get hosed, but who, and how badly.
And our culture seems to have been trivialized. Consider that the sixth-most-watched video on YouTube has been viewed, as of press time, 469,375,087 times. The clip is about a minute long, which means humanity has poured about 7.8 million man-hours into watching a young British boy complain that “Charlie bit my finger!” (For comparison, constructing the Empire State Building required only a paltry 7 million man-hours.)
What are young conservatives to make of these problems? How should we begin to address them, and on what lines will the battle be drawn? We put these questions to a distinguished panel of young writers. Whether they’ve succeed in answering, you will have to judge for yourself.
At the very least, we hope this symposium will provide another armful of tinder for the fiery debates over entitlements, spending, and cultural erosion that will doubtless begin to burn in years to come, as Millennials begin to throw their political weight around.
Oh, and one more thing: Viva la revolución!