Millennial. What a smear that title has become. Through no mistake of popular culture, the words that are most closely associated with this generation are vanity, laziness, and self-entitlement. Movies, television, and journalism all speak together with a unified voice decrying our pampered existence. They can’t stop talking about how we use cell phones and take pictures of ourselves with them. The fact that we are so attached to social media somehow strikes them as vain. And yet we are the first generation to live worse off than the generation of our parents. Millennials are mired in college debt on a level our parents’ generation never remotely experienced. Even though we are the most educated generation to date, we are paid the least. And yet, the generations older than us wonder why we are so jaded and how we have become so politically radicalized. Let me tell you a story.
I was born in 1986 and my first political memory was being in second grade, watching as Bill Clinton replaced George H.W. Bush. I didn’t have any sense of whether Bill was for or against people like my family. I didn’t even have any conception of the political parties. The political system was a far away thing to me and I didn’t notice its influence in my life so I supposed it had none. I do know, however, that the next political memory I have was Bill Clinton’s sex scandal with Monica Lewinski. I was only nine, but I remember thinking it was a rather silly affair. I remember my parents reasoned something like “even though Bill should not have been cheating on his wife, it doesn’t affect whether he can govern. We shouldn’t care about our politicians’ personal lives.” My general memories about how I felt about Bill Clinton were like those you feel about a distant, philandering, yet charming uncle. When I saw him on TV, I thought he seemed like an alright guy. I didn’t know anything about what he was doing, but he seemed genuine and his wife seemed brilliant and articulate. They were a sort of model American couple.
As I grew up I remember watching television with the same rapt attention as others. I had many of the traits of a stereotypical young boy; I loved action figures, I watched cartoons with lots of action, and I played a lot of video games. I was the ideal young consumer. I begged my mom for toys at the checkout stand like every other kid. I harangued my parents for the newest console every few years. But at the same time, underneath the surface, I was having a lot of disconcerting feelings about the commercials, television shows, and movies I was watching. I don’t mean some sorts of puritanical concerns, but instead that the image of society that they to portrayed did not seem to match the world I was living in. Further, I could see how there was a huge personal gain for these companies in portraying it this way. Obviously, they would tell us to consume their products when they made money on them. This just made me incredulous of commercials and advertising in general.
I couldn’t articulate any of my feelings about it or even understand what I was seeing, but now I would describe it as a diehard consumerist culture. These commercials, television shows, and movies equated happiness and fulfillment with buying things. They were selling us a lie about the world we lived in and consciously adjusting our expectations to fit it. The crime dramas all had easy, self-contained plots where the criminals were found, they were made to confess, and they were convicted successfully in court. In television shows everyone was well-off and if they became destitute it was never treated with its due weight; that is unless they were supposed to be disdained or pitied. They didn’t want to talk about anything of consequence. When they talked about issues of identity it was only to tokenize this identity. Nineties sitcoms seemed to almost entirely be predicated upon deflection from real issues of suffering, to focus on the societally acceptable minutiae of life. They were all diverting attention from something that I did not understand. But over the years it seemed to me like every source of power I could see in society was telling me the same thing; conform, we have it all figured out and we know what is best for you.
Years would pass before I can remember having any articulable opinions about politics. I remember being in middle school and one of my teachers came in with a bad attitude one day. He was annoyed that we were being so troublesome. He was a middle-aged white man, surely not too wealthy seeing as he was a teacher in Oklahoma. He stopped the class and put on his concerned adult face. He proceeded to tell us a story about how he had just gone on a hunting trip and he drove out into the rural areas of the state. He told us about how poor and disadvantaged they were and how they lived in broken down shacks and how you could blink and miss their entire town. He told us about how we all have on rose-tinted glasses and how we are all spoiled. While he ranted on about people living in shacks, I sat beside my friend who basically did live in a shack. He lived in abject poverty right there in Broken Arrow with our teacher. On other days, this same teacher lectured us about not standing for the pledge of allegiance and how America was the freest nation on Earth. Looking back, I think he wanted to preach it to us, so he could feel better about his own internal delusions. I wish I could say this was the last time that a Baby Boomer lectured me so pompously, but that would most certainly be a lie.
I have no doubt which event was next in the progression. September 11th, 2001. I was in ninth grade by this point. I got off the bus and went to my first-hour class. Over the intercom, our teachers were told to turn on the TVs. I still remember everyone standing there looking in awe. It was the first time I saw that image of the two towers billowing enormous columns of smoke that we all have burned into our memories now. My friends and I didn’t know anything about what was happening, but we all thought we did. One of our friends said he thought it was China who did it. You see, we grew up with this sort of societally acknowledged truth that China was America’s greatest competitor. Deep inside we felt a sort of nationalistic outrage. We saw the planes crash into those buildings so many times every day, it almost lost its emotional impact when you watched it. But, you still had that nagging question in the back of your mind, “how could this have happened to us? How could this nation, which our teachers attest is the best and freest of all nations on Earth, be hurt so badly?” Surely whoever it was, they were powerful and this boded some worldwide conflict to our teenage minds.
But it wasn’t too long before it became common knowledge that it wasn’t some powerful nation that did this to us. It was some Middle-Eastern man in a turban, named Osama Bin Laden, and he was the head of some kind of crazed terrorist cell called Al Qaeda. We were all confused. We didn’t know anything about Middle-Eastern terrorists, we didn’t even know why they would want to do what they did. The Middle-East was some far-away place we knew nothing about. One thing is for sure, the testosterone was flowing. We all made greater and greater exclamations of the masculine bravado with which America should pillage their enemies. One of my friends, 14 or 15 years old, would say something like, “Fuck ‘em. Just bomb ‘em into glass. The whole damn country.” We would all kind of nod along. How dare they try to hurt us? Didn’t they know that we were the biggest, toughest bully on the block? We thought ‘war’ was just a thing a country did to teach its enemies a lesson. If they didn’t want to get into a fight, they shouldn’t have messed with us. But while we passed through those teenage years to come, we would learn much about war and what drives men to it. Sadly, it appears our leaders acted with the same bravado as a group of teenaged boys.
Do you want to understand a generation of Millennials? Think on this; for many of them, while going through their most formative years, they watched the United States pillage Iraq. They watched as the justifications for slaughtering human beings became more and more flimsy. All the while, the image being touted as exemplary, was George W. Bush. A bumbling moron, incompetent at speaking publicly, and apparently not even competent at managing the office of the president.
I did not stay the hawkish young man portrayed just a few moments ago. Many of us did not. The Millennial generation was linked to the internet; we dug deep, we learned to check sources, to determine veracity, and to discard propaganda. The television was not where you got your news because television news was brief, the sourcing was opaque, and usually the stories were misrepresentations of the truth. The fact that these media sources had pitched the war in Iraq with almost no scrutiny was a devastating blow to their credibility. Over the years, as I used the internet to research more about what was happening, I would find too much evidence of wanton cruelty, indifference to human suffering, and a complete dearth of evidence, to support our actions. This was the story of many others in my generation.
Why were we even in Iraq? What were we hoping to achieve?
Those were the questions Millennials asked each other. It was known in our generation, the reasons our government said we were going to Iraq were false. They had to be; we did our research and found that everything pointed to Afghanistan, not Iraq. The defense that they expected weapons of mass destruction to be there, became less and less likely as time went on. And when you open that can of worms, many troubling realizations result:
- Your nation is headed by liars.
- They lie in order to wage war.
- The war they wage indiscriminately murders civilians
- There is no punishment for corruption and deception.
What are the only conclusions you can reasonably draw from this? I’ll tell you directly; that the system does not work. The most popular reason among the people in the Millennial generation on why we went to Iraq, was simple: oil. The thesis was: we went to Iraq because they were close to Afghanistan and people didn’t know any better, but Iraq had more oil and thus the U.S. manufactured support for the war so they could flood oil into U.S. companies. Bush was from an oil family after all and Dick Cheney was CEO of Halliburton at one point, plagued by scandal after his involvement. Ultimately, we weren’t too far off from the truth. But it wasn’t until we learned a little more history about the relationship between America and Iraq that more of the picture would be filled in. This didn’t repair the damage, though. It wasn’t only that they hoped to procure oil. Those companies were benefiting from rebuilding the destruction that they caused. Dick Cheney, with his close affiliation to Halliburton, stood to make enormous profits from the invasion of Iraq. To make it even pettier, there was some sense that George W. Bush was just continuing his father’s unfinished business. The list of lowly, selfish reasons went on. It only drove that realization in deeper to our generational psyche. The system does not work, your elders are incompetent or asleep at the wheel.
This must sound amazingly familiar to those who lived as young people during the Vietnam War. After all, this was also a very public conflict waged for terrible reasons and full of abject cruelty. There is no doubt that this had a very similar effect on the minds of our parents’ generation. But our story is not over yet.
Read Part Two here.