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Tear Down the System, Not Each Other

Issue 266

Social media-fueled cancel culture is a dead end. Only leading with love will take us where we need to go.

Nicholas Powers Sep 16

Independence Day — Fireworks explode. Our faces glow red, white, blue. Neighbors aim Roman candles and flinch at booms. My son tugs me and I lift him. Tiny hands reach for the sky painted like the American flag.

Fourth of July feels like a practice revolution. Citizens light firecrackers so big they’re really bombs. Cops circle the street, helpless as too many of us break the law. We blow off fingers. We Instagram it.

I want my son to know you. I want him to see Millennials and Gen Z-ers being free. It’s why I took him to the George Floyd protests. He heard you shake the street with chants. On TV, you torched police stations. You had the establishment in their feels. Politicians gawked at the marches, “How far will this go?”

Not far enough. You, Millennials and Gen Z, are creating the world he’ll live in. And that’s why I need to say this loud and clear. You need to burn this shit down. Pulling statues to the ground is great. Next is the ruling class. If you do not, Republicans will steal elections. If they lose, centrist Democrats will make tiny reforms that leave us in the same place. Either way, in 10 years we blow past climate crisis tipping points and lock in disaster.

Alarms are spinning! So, here is my open letter. You have one historical responsibility. Start the 21st Century American Revolution. Use the weapon more dangerous than fire or bullets. Use love. Bury the old America. Give birth to the new one, kicking inside you.

The Betrayal

Millennials and Gen Z-ers are so brilliant. Before you came to my class, I taught Brokeback Mountain and asked who thought gays were doomed to Hell. Half raised their hands and stared with Jesus-Hate or street machismo. So many hard, spiteful eyes. I saw those eyes in high school when gay kids were outed, teased and beaten.

When younger Millennials came, I asked the question and just a few hands went up. One day, none. In class, you had deep insights about love and society. You cared about the literature of minorities. When gay and transgender students came out, you welcomed them.

You, Millennials (born 1981-1996) and Gen Z’ers (born 1997 onward), are more tolerant and intelligent than those before. You’re also more anxious and bitter, arrogant and yet more insecure.

You are defined by betrayal. Millennials were sold a bankrupt American Dream and took out student loans to buy it. I remember graduation in 2009, you posed for photos in blue robes, smiled and wore caps with gold tassels. But dread hung like a dark cloud. The 2008 Great Recession stole your future.

For years, I chatted baristas and learned of talented minds using expensive diplomas to stir coffee. Oh, you’re an engineer? Wow, yes, oat milk please. The cafe was filled with young adults scraping by on part-time jobs.

You, Gen Z, were betrayed by corporations experimenting on you like guinea pigs. How is it that no one, no commission, no regulatory agency tested the effect of putting smartphones into the hands of children?

You live with the working poor, gentrify their neighborhoods, and talk about them on podcasts in graduate school idiom.

In an interview with London Real, author Jonathan Haidt said, “The cutoff seems to be Gen Z, if you were born in 1996, you might have gotten social media in middle school. Imagine kids growing up and … we switch up the input so that everyone is hyper-connected to their peers, massively sharing information and evaluating each other, clicking likes.”

The constant evaluation of one’s self image online caused, he said, “high rates of anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicide.” Is that why I see many of you run from yourselves toward chimeras of love? Or run from the fear of shame? Or feel your social media “self” is the “real” you, and if it’s insulted or ghosted or bread-crumbed then you are too?

You chase new friends, new likes, new tags and posts that seem real, but dissolve when touched. The ground vanishes. The falling begins. What endless vertigo.

The Broken Gyroscope

To get a handle on your crisis, I pulled The Lonely Crowd, published in 1950, from the shelf. The main author, David Riesman, used the metaphor of a psychological “gyroscope” that maintains one’s balance during life.

He posed a simple question: How does each generation build that internal gyroscope? In pre-modern societies, where people farmed tough land and lived isolated from authority, tradition was their gyroscope. It directed them. Church. Authority. Holy books. Prayer.

Modernity broke tradition. The Industrial Revolution’s steam-powered machines sped up the economy. Aristocrats seized land and drove peasants to cities. Science ripped culture like a dishrag. Testimony comes from Karl Marx in the 1848 Communist Manifesto, where he wrote, “All that’s solid melts to air.” He witnessed European revolutions and police crackdowns. The engine of global capitalism churned whole peoples and continents and left “no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest.”Out of capitalism emerged the inner-directed character type, who sought their own goals, their own careers. Work. Money. Status.

In late capitalism, we are constantly connected by new tech like cellphones. The inner-directed gave way to the other-directed. Riesman defined this type as a “shallow” American “uncertain of himself and his values, and more demanding of approval.” The internal gyroscope is not balanced on tradition or an internal self, but bobs on the oceanic, ever fluid currents of Instagram hearts.

One’s image is at the mercy of others.

Here a “like” is an endorphin boost. Here being “unfollowed” or “blocked” is a scarlet letter. Flesh and blood humans are trapped in digital limbo entered via cellphones like portals to the Matrix.

You are in The Society of the Spectacle. Guy Debord’s 1967 book analyzed this epoch, “The whole life of those societies … presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. All that was once directly lived has become mere representation.”

What is it like to be other-directed? Life is a spectacle. Intimacies like a first kiss or drinks at a bar are frozen in a camera flash and posted. Others see it and post, in turn, sexy “thirst trap” photos. Others see that and post their new boyfriend photos. On and on, I watch you yank and pull others to get approval. It’s as if the cellphone is a handcuff and you’re all chained.

The defining aha moment of Millennial and more specifically Gen Z adolescence is the nagging sense that none of this is real. The Facebook, Instagram and Twitter highlight reels hide a lot of mistakes, a lot of weird, a lot of pain.

The broken gyroscope has left whole generations growing up inside an illusion.

Plato’s Cave

It always surprised me how a 2,400-year-old myth takes your breath away. I teach Plato’s Allegory of the Cave in which chained slaves count shadows on the wall. A philosopher frees one and drags him “by force” to the light. He emerges, blinks painfully in the sun and realizes his life was an illusion.

At first, you fidget in your seats. Then I show the Red Pill scene in The Matrix and point out its recycling of Plato’s im- agery. In follow-up exercises I ask, “What’s your cave?” Pen in hand, you think hard. Plato’s “light” shines on your faces.

The lesson works because you felt trapped in a social media cave, chained to strangers, yanked and pulled constantly. Told this. Sold that.

Plato’s “light” makes it possible to see the scars those chains left. The unpayable debt and unbreakable depression, the self-cutting and suicide. It was caused by patriotic and patriarchal myths. Think Corporate America. Think Jesus. Think hetero-normativity. Pain is a truth that can balance you. The broken gyroscope inside your heart works again.

Reborn, you stampede out of the cave with pierced septums, hair dyed red, men in dresses or fro-hawks, dragging the head of a Founding Father. You love transgender and gay people. You try polyamory. You look at student loans and say democratic socialism is better than capitalism. You see Trayvon Martin or George Floyd and say that racism is everywhere, it is in our laws, cereal boxes and statues.

The price of truth is being blinded by its light. When pain is interpreted through leftist ideology, it makes suffering the most valuable part of your identity. It is why your social justice has a puritanical quality and can be so … toxic.

When personal trauma caused by oppression guarantees one’s political value, the result is toxic activism. Some of which is petty, like identifying with the oppressed by wearing all black anarchist gear as if medieval sackcloth. Another comedy is middle class people of color affecting hood manners. Or speakers checking boxes of victimhood from gay to neurodivergent as if showing a trauma resume.

It leads to medium-sized “Oops!” like a war on language. If hurtful words and images are gone, minorities will feel safe. So “masterwork” is banned, Aunt Jemima lost her job selling pancakes, Kim Kardashian can’t wear cornrows, native war bonnets and Hindi bindi at festivals are a no-no. But we’re more complicated than that. Language was never just an index of power but also a subversion of it. Worse, the call-outs hide an awkward truth. Cultural appropriation is the price we paid for integration, and integration is why whites, in huge numbers, came out to protest the murder of George Floyd.

The Puritanical Left’s major blind-spot is one Malcolm X, Alice Walker, James Baldwin and Assata Shakur wrote about it: “Not all skin folk are kin folk.” Victims of the system can be so brutalized that they victimize others. Or they’re not victims but grifters and opportunists. They use the language of social justice to weasel money or attention. Troubled souls and borderline personalities go to meetings and transform them into therapy sessions or crusades against minor slights. You need to stop that shit, stand up and say, “This is toxic activism and it hurts the Movement.”

Or, The Light is so intoxicating that it destroys shades of grey, leaving only contrasts — the oppressor and the oppressed — which makes forging unity in ever-changing coalitions near impossible.

Toxic activism is the result of seeing too much pain, and too little possibility. Figures from Emma Goldman to Angela Davis always said ideology is meant to analyze power, not be a secular religion or a hazing ritual for white, straight or male allies.

Yet this new, pure, woke self is how a generation whose internal gyroscope was broken in childhood found itself. The tragedy is if you hold on to it, you’ll lose this one chance to rescue the rest of us.

Sometimes, I wonder if you do want justice? You were betrayed and maybe this is your revenge? Cancelling Saturday Night Live comedians while the Earth burns.

Street-Smart Socialism

Do you want to get out of this mess? First, stop going down dead ends. I see you in the cafes reading hot-take theory. I hear you repeat points from Jacobin. You follow so many types of socialism; Bernie’s democratic socialism, green and Queer socialism.

I never hear “street-smart socialism.” A type of politics that takes the lessons from the street into the halls of power. Which is odd. You live in cities and know how quick shit goes down. Hustlers, hustle. Never listen to a stranger fronting like a long-lost friend. Walk slow by men on the corner because fear triggers contempt. Code-switch. Look behind you when you walk at night.

You are perfectly posed to start the next American Revolution. Instead, you have this odd tic where you beat everyday people over the head with your useless degrees. You live with the working poor, gentrify their neighborhoods, and talk about them on podcasts in graduate school idiom. You don’t see how they see you.

The People know you mean well but don’t know what you’re saying half the time. And don’t trust you because you don’t win power. Real power.

The People know they’re being fucked. Shoving essays on intersectionality or capitalism down their throat isn’t novel. The question they ask is if you can defend them against reactionary violence that comes with revolutionary change

The People know they live in the Cave. Hell, they make jokes about how big their chains are, all the time. The truth is they knew about the exit but have family too scared to leave. They can’t abandon those they love.

“Street-smart socialism” is not demanding purity as the price for freedom. It’s not holding someone’s past against them. It’s not becoming addicted to your own ideology. Or expecting to show up for the Revolution in your Sunday best. It’s not going down a dark street at night, alone, because Google Maps says it’s the quickest way home.

The Love Tradition

“Welcome little man.” The activist lifted my son on his shoulders. Last summer I took him to Occupy City Hall where hundreds slept outside, cooked and organized, made art, danced and demanded the city cut $1 billion from the police budget and invest it in their communities. Love crackled in the air.

Ten years ago, I was at Occupy Wall Street. In some inscrutable way, the post-9/11 fear that clamped protest evaporated. Maybe it was Obama. Maybe for us New Yorkers, the Freedom Tower healed the empty skyline. We poured into Zuccotti Park and our open-air protest carnival bloomed like roses from concrete in cities across the world.

Or, The Light is so intoxicating that it destroys shades of grey, leaving only contrasts — the oppressor and the oppressed — which makes forging unity in ever-changing coalitions near impossible.

Walking my son through Occupy City Hall, standing at a mural of George Floyd, I felt your generation’s power. It comes in waves. Black Lives Matters flooding the streets, smashing against cop’s shields. Me Too and the Women’s March with pink pussy hats surrounding men abusing power. Water protectors protesting deadly pipelines. Bernie organizers phone banking and doing old school, door-to-door canvassing that made that campaign an agonizingly close almost-win.

You did all that. You amaze me. You are more intelligent than Americans before. You were betrayed and experimented on, and somehow care more about the least among us, the transgendered, the gay, the poor, the very Earth itself.

You also are more bitter and anxious, more arrogant and yet insecure than any generation I have seen. You are torn between seeking justice and exacting revenge, opening space for the invisible and cancelling transgressors.

The gyroscope in your heart can be a knife in your hand. People are scared of you. They don’t always see you as “woke” liberators but the 21st-century Thought Police. If the Millennial Left had an Only Fans page, it would be losing followers.

Which is a wild state of affairs because we need you to bail us out. We’re in a bad place. The sky is an oven. Earth cracks like a dry puzzle. Storms toss homes like dice. Dust fills the bellies of the poor. Millions flee failed crops. On top of that, you live in a time when Christian, white supremacist fascists attack democracy.

What you do or don’t do will determine our fate. None of this is fair. None of this is your fault, but is now your responsibility. I don’t mean you owe the U.S. ruling class, with its college entry scandals, or the Boomers or Gen X-ers a goddamn thing. Too many of them make a sweet living in a machine lubricated by the blood of innocent people.

But you owe us more than your rage. You owe us more than cancel culture. Or burned police stations.

You must love the world as much as it didn’t love you. You have to love it like you loved my son, when you hoisted him on your shoulders at Occupy City Hall and showed him the power of solidarity.

You are creating, every day, in every action, the world he will live in. You create the very language he’ll think in. You’ll be his teachers and doctors, the strangers he meets, the storytellers he hears.

Give him what was not given you. Tradition. Reset that gyroscope to the New Testament verse, “Thou shall love thy neighbor as thyself,” or Che Guevara’s quote, “The true revolutionary is guided by strong feelings of love”, and MLK Jr., who said, “Justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”

You have to love the world enough to leave your jobs, your lives, your dating apps and march. Block roads again. Block airport runways. Create more Occupy sites. Make illegal art. Jam financial systems. Hack databases and erase debt. Vote. Knock on doors. Talk to people. Vote. Tell them the truth. Say the climate crisis is here and yes, you hate their MAGA hats or apathy or QAnon theories but you want their kids to live.

You’ll be arrested. Shot at. Killed.
You’ll win.
You’ll be blood-stained.
You’ll walk out of the cave, smiling because we followed you, finally, into the light.

Epilogue

I saw your best selves again, last night at the Mirage in Brooklyn. Thousands of you danced in the rain as a DJ hit us with a giant bone-shaking beat. You raised hands, a whole crowd, and it looked like hairs on an arm, standing up when charged with electricity. And you were. Charged with joy. Like church.

The kids are alright. You know how to dance. You know how to love. Invite us to the party. I see you, arms up, moving in eyes-closed bliss, rain swinging from your hair. This is your America. This is your Independence Day.

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