RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Nobody's Perfect

When the Occupy Wall Street folks began expressing their disappointment with, well, just everything, most progressive baby boomers thought, “What took you so long?” After all, we’ve spent years disappointed with everything from the economic system to politics to the ways industry tears up the planet.

But these Occupiers are not us. In fact, they’re our kids. And we haven’t always been honest with them. Like parents trying to avoid an argument, we’ve hauled the kids to soccer games and the mall, given them money for video games and pizza. We’ve told them they can be movie stars and pro football players—they’re that good, we’ve said over ice cream after the show! They’re perfect. And we’ve told them that if they get good grades, they’ll prosper, at the same time Daddy’s been flying to China, making deals with Chinese factories to ship the bad jobs, which now look not-so-bad, overseas. And we’ve taken away their technical schools, telling them they can be dentists and lawyers. We’ve taken away their arts, telling them they can be accountants.

No wonder they don’t trust us—we’ve been lying all along.

Now the kids’ challenge is to take their great, but instinctive, ideas—consensus building, making every voice count, canceling their international bank accounts—and turn them into political and social policy. They need to do what we did in the face of the Vietnam War. They need to articulate what they want, and challenge current policy.

In their few years on the planet, even though they may not realize it, this policy has come from the top and in the form of statements. Laws from the government, fashion dictates from the fashion industry, food from the corporations. Since the day of the founding fathers, Winston Churchill, MLK, the policy has come from leaders, generally trained in oratory. Boomers had our own orators, and the Occupiers will need theirs.

From now on, however, the Occupiers are saying, policy will come from the bottom. And, rather than always dictating answers, policy will often come in the form of questions. Everything, from banking to housing to who can marry who and the definition of family and materialism, is on their table. They’re deconstructing it all, and isn’t it about time? It’s as if they’re using the internet as an example, or at least the idea of “net neutrality.” Every packet has equal weight. No censorship.

But the policy of everyone having weight can translate into nobody has weight. Every voice being heard turns into no voices being heard.

And, like the internet, the Millennials see everything, but without detail. They will soon discover the complexity, and remember the hundreds of years have gone into the system that’s now working for and against them. The system that gives them Twitter, anonymous and mechanized, also takes away the jobs that once built the middle class.

Still, this must be the generation that saves the planet. Check out the flooding in Bangkok, the still-leaky nuclear disaster in Japan, the fracking in North Dakota. The Occupiers will have to make better choices, even if they have to deprive themselves. By pointing out that owning one bicycle, horse, or car makes sense, but owning five of them doesn’t. By making sure that resources are shared rather than hoarded. By reducing, recycling, repairing, re-using, re-purposing.

Unemployment has helped drive this home. They’re bringing back DIY and re-skilling themselves, and they feel proud about it rather than deprived. They’re discovering their voices and using “just in time” learning, figuring out how to solve a problem when you need to solve it, whether the problem is sewing on a button or changing a law.

I visited the Occupy St. Louis site, the closest one to my home, and I was impressed and I’ll go again. In little groups of three or four, folks were meeting and talking. And, for those of us who have worried whether the gentle art of communication will be reduced to jingles from the phone, texts that say I B hom tmrw, and, when they’re home, grunts and sputters, a little group talking is a great sign.

It distresses me greatly that they don’t have policy statements, at a time when Congress is marching new trade agreements through their halls, agreements that will make the job situation even more difficult for these kids. And I’m distressed that they know so little about history and how to get things done. I wish they’d ask us for advice, but maybe I’m just jealous, remembering the adrenalin rush.

But, at the same time, Millennials are connected by social networks they take for granted. They know more about other cultures than we did, because they see them on You-Tube. And, without jobs, they have time to work on their policy statements, which we’ll probably find excellent when they get them hammered out.

And they’ve been well-prepared to think they’re perfect, and finding themselves imperfect and starting over. If there was any lesson we taught well, that’s the one.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. She blogs at Email:

From The Progressive Populist, November 15, 2011

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