Whose Fault is Generation Me?

Hey all, I’m Ned Resnikoff. Along with Barrett Brown, I’m part of the latest batch of dewy-eyed greenhorns to start contributing regularly to this blog.

A little bit about me: I’m a recent NYU graduate, and a current researcher at Media Matters for America.* In the past, I’ve contributed to Campus Progress, Cracked, Spencer Ackerman’s joint, the Ms. Magazine blog, and Wunderkammer, though these days my freelance stuff shows up most frequently at Salon. My solo blog is here.

I’m also a Millennial–though I really, really hate that word–and, if the consensus among social scientists is correct, then I should probably be apologizing for that. It seems like every month brings news of the latest study confirming that Americans in my age bracket are compassion-stunted narcissists. The newest entry in the series, via Campus Progress’ Simeon Talley, comes to us from the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research.  The findings? “[C]ollege students today are 40 percent less empathetic than they were in 1979, with the steepest decline coming in the last 10 years.”

I’ve heard plenty of friends and peers angrily dismiss studies like this, but I’m not so sure dismissal is warranted. If it were just one case study, then sure, I might buy accusations of flawed methodology. But the mound of concurring research is getting pretty hard to ignore. Plus, though I’m reluctant to say it, anecdotal experience says we can be a pretty self-absorbed bunch. (I can’t exactly exonerate myself from charges of narcissism, either. You might have noticed that I’m a blogger.)

The big question is why. Talley and Michael Tomasky lay the blame largely with what the latter calls: “the modern era of conservative dominance.” Talley writes: “A worldview that idealizes rugged individualism and atomistic, selfish existence could be the culprit.”

That explanation is far too elegant and appealing for it to be correct. Not that I don’t think there’s some truth to it; take a good long look at the Tea Party and then tell me that modern American conservatism hasn’t fostered an atmosphere of aggressive nihilism and self-interest. But sweeping cultural shifts like the one I fear we’re witnessing rarely happen because of a single culprit, especially in a society as large and pluralistic as ours. Blame belongs not to a single cause, but to a cloud of interconnected factors.

I’ve got my thoughts on what a short list of those factors might look like, but for now I’ll stick to the overtly political and suggest that we on the left aren’t entirely blameless. How could we be? I don’t know the demographic breakdown of the study, but I do know that my generation is significantly more left-leaning than its parents, and that this is especially true for the college-educated kids being surveyed. I don’t find it inconceivable that even kids who feel a deep, visceral revulsion at the sight of George W. Bush, Sarah Palin, et al.  could be performing poorly on this study in a statistically significant way. So if we’re to accept any causal relationship of the type Talley and Tomasky suggest, then the strongest claim we can make is that my fellow Millennials and I internalized the pernicious subtext of the conservative message even as we rejected both the messenger and the messenger’s policy preferences.

Perhaps that’s because they weren’t given much of an alternative. Glenn Beck, as thoroughly contemptible as he is, understands one thing that a lot of his opponents miss: that the left-right battle isn’t just over policy, but over first principles as well. That’s why he promotes his own first principles at every available opportunity, and demonizes all those who beg to differ.

The left has yet to offer much of an alternative to the browbeating. When we engage in philosophical arguments with the right, it’s most often to make negative claims about why discrete plank in mainstream conservative philosophy is morally depraved. Or we do as President Obama has done, and try to reassure dubious conservatives that modest left-wing policies can be reconciled with right-wing philosophical convictions. Then there are the folks on the left like Noam Scheiber, a very sharp observer who has the unfortunate tic of labeling as “non-ideological” those politicians whose governing philosophies he happens to like.

None of those strategies directly engages with the problem. Instead, each is as good as an abdication. If we’re to combat political narcissism and nihilism, then we need to have a compelling alternative. We need to be unafraid to speak publicly, in strong, unequivocal terms, about things like morality and virtue. But prior to doing any of that, I think we need to have the internal debate that I never saw happen before the 2006 liberal resurgence. For all the talk about Democratic and progressive “soul searching,” we mostly plumbed our souls for the answers to tactical questions. There are bigger questions prior to those, and I don’t think we can avoid asking them for much longer.

*Not like you don’t know this, but just so I’m on the record about it: The views I express on this blog and in all of my other extracurricular endeavors, are mine alone. Nothing I write here or anywhere else should be taken to represent the views of my employer.

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110 thoughts on “Whose Fault is Generation Me?

  1. I’ve certainly argued here recently that the left needs to offer more cultural objectives, instead of simply resisting whatever cultural objectives the right offers.

    However, I tend to see narcicissts as making use of whatever ideas work, and there certainly are plenty of those ideas on the left. This is totally annecdotal, but my wife and I have a friend (actually, she was my wife’s lover not so long ago) who we eventually realized is pathologically narcisisstic; to the point where she does damage to most people who are involved with her, including my wife, and I think she will eventually damage her child (having a child was, in itself, a narcisisstic act in her case). The point is that she has a whole line of bullshit to justify her abhorrent behavior, and in her case, it all comes from a sort of new-agey far leftism. The men she treats terribly are fascist representatives of the patriarchy, the women are all spiritually unenlightened dupes, our society is steeped in greed, racism, ecological devastation, and war: she has the deep and pathological contempt for other people that seems to grow out of narcisissm. But, none of her intellectual sources are farther to the right than Michael Moore. Now, we can associate this sort of alienation with radicalism more generally, and I think that would be an interesting discussion. But, I’ve known too many far left narcisissts to agree that it’s an especially right-wing problem.

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    • @rufus,

      Yes that’s a good point, and lord knows I know people who match that description as well. I didn’t mean to suggest that this is exclusively a conservative problem. But I think there’s something to Tomasky’s idea that the recent trend is correlated in some sense with the rise of the modern right.

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      • @Ned Resnikoff, Yeah, I can see that. Couldn’t we sort of flip it though? We could take what Mr. Schmitz calls “atomistic individualism” and see that as the precondition for the rethinking of conservatism (and liberalism too, of course), instead of the product of a political orientation. Maybe conservatism really does go from an emphasis on tradition, order and cultural stability to an emphasis on individual meaning and creative destruction- as a reflection of deeper cultural shifts that predate those changes.

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        • @rufus,

          I am increasingly doubtful that anyone supports atomistic individualism. I know that I don’t. Sure, I support market economics and a tolerant, pluralist culture.

          But you know what I see as the payoff here? Cities. Giant, complex, constantly interacting masses of humanity, with everyone pursuing thousands and thousands of different interests together. Arts. Culture. Great food. Social spaces for everyone and everything.

          We have freedom in part so that we may create communities, and so that no one will be able to get in the way when we do.

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        • @Jason Kuznicki, Sure, I don’t think those things hinder people from creating communities, and maybe they’re really excelling at it and don’t know it. But, I sure hear a lot of them saying they feel it’s not happening and bemoaning that fact. I mean, what you’ve pointed out are what the left and right hold up as culprits, and sure I’d agree that it’s not nearly as simple as that. Actually, I don’t really think political ideologies offer any solution to the eternal problem of loneliness. Maybe the truth is it’s not really generational at all. Certainly, I’d be hard pressed to think of a time in history in which humans weren’t struggling with the problem of loneliness. It seems to be inescapable.

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      • @Ned Resnikoff,
        “The recent trend is correlated in some sense with the rise of the modern right”

        Just to clarify, are you talking about the Neocons, Paleocons, Paulites, Beckians (is that the proper proper adjective?), or some other kind of conservatism? Does this narcissism refer to “Millennial” narcissism? Or a general narcissism sweeping the country, cause I think there’s a solid case to be made that political narcissism is a boomer thing, whether its the tunnel-vision of “values voters” or elitist secular Democrats.

        Cheers and welcome.

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        • @Christopher Carr,

          Just to clarify, are you talking about the Neocons, Paleocons, Paulites, Beckians (is that the proper proper adjective?), or some other kind of conservatism?

          Probably not the Paleocons or Paulites because those are both marginal forces inside the larger conservative movement. But look, American conservatism is a huge coalition united more by general disposition than any specific set of principles. That’s generally the way with coalitions, and the general principles are what I’m referring to. Nor do I think that narcissism is solely a Millennial problem, although, as I’ve said, studies like this make it hard to dismiss the idea that the problem’s growing worse.

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        • @Christopher Carr, So I assume you’re talking about movement conservatism then, kind of the reactionary form embodied in the tea party. Fair enough.

          I’m still not buying the whole narcissism thing though. It reminds me of those eugenics studies at the beginning of the twentieth century where the Germans were the highest rated in “leadership”, the Irish were the highest in “stubborness” and the Jews were the most “obtrusive”.

          That isn’t to say that generation studies are dangerous or evil like eugenics studies probably were. It’s more a comment on just the complete unsoundness of their conclusions from a scientific perspective. The claim that “The Millennial Generation is narcissistic because of the rise of conservatism” just seems absurd.

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        • @Christopher Carr, You’re not getting the full implications of my point. I never meant to imply that your contention was that narcissism was directly caused only by conservatism (I can read.)

          My formal logic is a little rusty, but I’m pretty sure the word “because” doesn’t preclude other causes.

          A because B

          is the same as

          B caused A

          In this case, you’re saying conservatism is one of many causes of narcissism.

          This is kind of like saying “liberalism is one of many causes of willingness to slap one’s own father.” which is more or less based on an old Nicholas Kristof column.

          I’s like you to explain to me how establishing a causal relationship between two roughly defined and amorphous conventional ideas is not absurd? Preferably in a non-smug way. :)

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        • @Christopher Carr, You’re not getting the full implications of my point. I never meant to imply that your contention was that narcissism was directly caused only by conservatism (I can read.)

          My formal logic is a little rusty, but I’m pretty sure the word “because” doesn’t preclude other causes.

          A because B

          is the same as

          B caused A

          In this case, you’re saying conservatism is one of many causes of narcissism.

          This is kind of like saying “liberalism is one of many causes of willingness to slap one’s own father.” which is more or less based on an old Nicholas Kristof column.

          I’s like you to explain to me how establishing a causal relationship between two roughly defined and amorphous conventional ideas is not absurd, Preferably in a non-smug way. :)

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  2. Glenn Beck, as thoroughly contemptible as he is

    I’m translating this as “he has different first principles than my own”, is that completely off?

    Anyway, welcome to the league.

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    • @Jaybird,

      Thanks! And thanks to everyone else for the welcome. To answer your question about Beck: I actually wish it was possible to have a friendly, reasonable discussion with him about these things, as it is with many other conservatives who broadly share his first principles. My problem with Beck is that he routinely misrepresents his opponents in the most hyperbolic way imaginable. It’s hard to tell whether he’s consciously lying or is just pathologically incurious about why people might disagree with him, but either way it’s not good.

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  3. Both the left and right seem committed to atomistic individualism. One stresses the economic aspect and another stresses the sexual, but the view is about the same.

    Take, for example, the so-called Catholic left in this country, as represented by voices like Commonweal magazine. It is committed to defending the policies of the Democratic Party in vaguely religious and utterly unconvincing terms. What it could do, instead, is propose a position well to the left of today’s party based on Catholic notions of subsidiarity and, more to the point, solidarity.

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      • @Mike Schilling, Yeah, I sort of disagreed with “sexual” as well. But, of course, I would.

        What I find more interesting though is that both the left and right are expressing deep misgivings about that atomistic individualism. The right, of course, has been talking about this for decades in terms of the loss of tradition and the collapse of institutions of cultural authority, and the personal instability that collapse has caused. But, while the left doesn’t quite talk about the same things, I don’t know anyone on the left anymore who doesn’t talk about “the loss of community” in much the same way. So, there really might be a deep loneliness there that transcends politics.

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        • @rufus,

          If you talked to me before I met beth, I would have felt a lack of community and loneliness but I really don’t feel it anymore.

          I think that is because she introduced me to a new group of friends that I had not managed to build for myself. Things like roller derby, DnD and my other gaming hobbies meant that my social calendar now feels almost overfull.

          I suspect a large part of this is I finally found the liberal pocket in my southern city which means I don’t feel like I am the only person who has my values and my perspective on what most people think are the big questions(The real big question to me is what should I be doing right now?).

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        • @rufus,
          What I don’t understand about the young generation is their submission to authority — if anyone ought to be rebelling against statism, its the young people who helped bring to blossom the greatest resistance to abusive authority ever — the internet. The thought of a fist raised high to a suited, lying, double-dealing, rascalized, patronizing politician promising a chicken in every pot makes my eyes a little misty. Where have all the revolutionaries gone, long time ago?

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        • @rufus,
          PirateGuy, no, that’s not it, because there are too many vocal liberatrians who are anything but authoritarian, but good try. Even if hat you say s true, the hypocrisy of some is no excuse to not have your own integrity. I used that old – I don’t go the church because of all of the hypocrits — when I was younger and full of shit.

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        • @MFarmer,

          So you weren’t looking for an explanation?

          I was telling you why based on what I can tell of my generations perceptions. If you want to understand a persons pov then by definition you should want to know what they are perceiving.

          For example I don’t see you as anything resembling someone with a good connection to reality because you defend creationist nutbags like Glenn Beck as not crazy people. Seriously evolution denial is a huge indicator that someone isn’t worth taking serious in any intellectual endeavor.

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        • @rufus,
          Excuse me if I don’t take you as representative of a generation — Megan McCain is the representative from what I hear. I defend Beck because everyone who believes in fairness and is unafraid of peer pressure should. Whether I agree with all he says, or not, I totally disagree with the hatchet jobs. You don’t know me, do you?

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        • I defend Beck because everyone who believes in fairness and is unafraid of peer pressure should. Whether I agree with all he says, or not, I totally disagree with the hatchet jobs.

          That’s too meta for me. Beck is dishonest and a demagogue and deserves to be held accountable for that whether he also draws unfair criticism or not.

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  4. Welcome, indeed!

    Intentionally or unintentionally, I think you identify something that gets to the core problem of movement politics – it has a bad tendency to devolve into little more than simply anti-Other Side and quickly becomes unmoored from First Principles. Substituted for First Principles becomes a laundry list of particular policy preferences and cultural markers.

    I can’t speak about Glenn Beck, as I’ve never actually watched him (and as such it’s certainly possible that he’s moving the Right more back towards First Principles…indeed, from what I have seen and heard, there’s probably some truth to that), but I’ve long argued that this was the problem with the Right for the entirety of the Bush years and that it remains a rather large problem for the Right. But it has also indubitably become a growing problem on the Left as well, particularly over the last two years.

    Thinking on this a bit more, it occurs to me that this is an area where the Tea Parties have real value to the Right, at least insofar as they generally remain leaderless. Much has been written about the lack of a detailed Tea Party agenda – but that is actually a good thing in that ultimately the Tea Party is primarily about establishing a small set of First Principles to which it wants politicians to adhere. The trouble I have is that the politicians and many of the would-be leaders of the movement are just longstanding GOP retreads and rebranded movement conservatives who seem to be convinced that the old litany of policy litmus tests (“Happy Meal Conservatism” as John Derbyshire brilliantly termed it) remain valid, even as they refuse to say how, exactly, they intend to honor the Tea Partiers’ First Principles.

    Anyways, as for the whole Generation Me thing, and speaking as a late-era Gen Xer (or am I Gen Y?), I’m hesitant to assign much blame to politics. I’d argue instead that “Generation Me” is a function of: an entire lifetime growing up during an era of unprecedented economic prosperity, combined with almost universal access to the internet, combined with social networking sites and blogs that make it entirely possible to interact with only those things and people one finds interesting or agreeable, combined with a particular style of parenting that developed in the late 80s/early 90s in which kids were completely insulated from anything that could possibly be bad. I’d argue that the declining emphasis on the liberal arts in education also plays a role, but I’m not at all certain that there’s been such a decline in emphasis.

    But, all is not lost – I struggle to think of a generation that wasn’t frowned upon by its elders when it first started graduating college. Other, more positive, generational traits have a tendency to become apparent as the generation gains experience and age.

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  5. Welcome.

    “The big question is why. Talley and Michael Tomasky lay the blame largely with what the latter calls: ”the modern era of conservative dominance.” Talley writes: “A worldview that idealizes rugged individualism and atomistic, selfish existence could be the culprit.” ”

    Holy cow! You are right to move away from this — how much dust did they have to shake off this misperception to make it presentable?

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  6. “Perhaps that’s because they weren’t given much of an alternative. Glenn Beck, as thoroughly contemptible as he is, understands one thing that a lot of his opponents miss: that the left-right battle isn’t just over policy, but over first principles as well. That’s why he promotes his own first principles at every available opportunity, and demonizes all those who beg to differ.”

    You have mischaracterized Beck who welcomes conflicting ideas and debate — Beck has consistently stuck with a battle of ideas, and any response to individuals have mostly been in defense — he is under attack by the left like no one else on the right. I understand the fashionable dismissal of Beck, but you dismiss him as contemptible him at the risk of closemindedness and capitulating to peer pressure.

    It actually hurts your premise, which is to addess the issues head-on and debate the ideas and morals involved.

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  7. Hi, Ned, and welcome!
    I know you wanted to focus on politics, but I think the most parsimonious explanation has nothing to do with politics. Seeing how college-graduated narcissists of the Baby Boom generation seem to be wrecking everything from the environment to the schools to the world’s financial systems to entire other countries, I suspect the effect isn’t one of real decrease in empathy, but more accurate self-awareness. College students of today have used their extreme connectedness, which the psychologists of the linked article speak of like a bogeyman, to understand their own empathy and control their emotional states far better than baby boomers could do at the same age.

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  8. Welcome.

    I’d second Mark’s observations above about growing up in a rich, safe powerful, country certainly might lead to atomization. Having so much has clouded our vision in many ways. One way is that it terrifies so many people that we could lose it all. there has long been a terrified minority of people that think the richest most powerful country ever is one day going to fall apart. Certainly thats possible but not likely to just happen overnight or without an asteroid hitting us.

    Our incredible mobility, which most of us love, certainly has a lot to do with this. It is so easy for us to move across country away from everything and everybody we knew, there is no way that doesn’t lessen our bonds. Our level of wealth as a country has lessened our acknowledged dependence on each other. I agree with Rufus to a point that the Left should be offering more of a cultural critique, although that does happen to drive Right Wingers insane in many ways, so i’m not sure how useful it could ever be. Hell, the prez said people are scared due to the hard times we are in, not exactly a controversial or out-there statement, and half the blogosphere wet its pants.

    Anyway, welcome again, this is a great topic to chew over.

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  9. Welcome.

    “If we’re to combat political narcissism and nihilism, then we need to have a compelling alternative.”

    That’s a big “if.” I mean, I go to wikipedia, god bless it, for a definition of political nihilism, and it doesn’t seem half bad. I think we could at least use a little more SKEPTICISM regarding how we use the state and its monopoly on violence.

    As for political narcissism, again, I am not sure what it menas. But what’s the opposite of narcissism? Being focused on others? Charity, or something? Sounds like a prescription for busy-bodyism. In the political realm, I think I might prefer the narcissists. Perhaps they might at least leave me alone.

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    • @Sam M, I don’t think you would be alone in making this comment. However i think it misses the possibility that communitarian values can actually have an upside. You frame narcissism as only a benefit to you without raising the possibility where it may also cause problems. I’m not saying i know what the perfect balance is. However the way you define the issues points directly at the question Ned raised without actually answering it. What is the right balance of self and community and where is his generation at? I think many of our poli debates are actually about this question but without directly stating that way and clouding it over with L vs R battles.

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      • @gregiank,

        Greg, I can buy that, but the way this is framed… “Who’s FAULT is generation me?”

        That seems to have already given away the game. Why not, “Who should get the CREDIT for Generation me?”

        Take a hot-button issue like gay marriage. A lot of people around here have strong views about it. I lot of young people support it because of a strong interest in justice and liberty and equal rights. I concede that. But a whole bunch of other young people support gay marriage becasue they don’t give a crap what other people do in the bedroom. At all.

        is that nihilism? Narcissism? Cuuld be. But I am just as likely to consider it a healthy dose of political apathy.

        Hey, what do you think of socio-economic conditions in Iran, and their implications implications for Russian relations with Chechnya?

        In most cases, I think the world would be better place of more people answered this questions with, “I dunno. But dude… did you try the new Mountain Dew? They’re letting you VOTE on which new flavor they stick with!”

        Otherwise, their answer might be similar to Bill Kristol’s.

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        • @Sam M, I don’t particularly disagree i just think there is another side to not giving a hoot about others. Yeah its good some people just don’t care if gay people marry so they don’t care to stop it. But that could also be “okay you’re you’ll die without chemo and can’t get health insurance/homeless and mentally ill/got thrown in jail without evidence, etc, but how does that affect me? It doesn’t, well see ya later.” If all we care about is what affects us, then we also may not care when the rules F people over. Who cares about the levies, i live on high ground.

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    • @Sam M,

      It’s frustrating to see this turned into a political question. Communitarian values ought be shaped by neither government nor social coercion. Each of us is perfectly at liberty to choose which communities we want to join, and to what extent we want to be involved with them.

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  10. Welcome to the League, Ned. And let me just say, yes, yes, a thousand times yes!

    We are still waiting for our Eugene Debs to step up and show a real, clear vision for the left. We all hoped Obama was it, but as you say, he bends to the conservative world view constantly and tries to work within it. That’s as good as giving up.

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