Why Are the Millennials Like This? Part Two

Photo Credit: Daniel Barham

In Part One of this article, I discussed what it was like being very young and witnessing the escalation of the Iraq War. But it is important we do not stop there. The radicalization that people attest to among Millennials was not yet catalyzed at this stage. Most of us had settled into the realization that the Republicans were the enemy, Iraq was a bungled, horrific abuse of human rights, that oil companies were dangerous, and that right-wingers were responsible. We were well on the way to following the same path as our parents, becoming team players of some political party and toeing the line for them. I had personally begun to dip my toe into the arena of political theory and I was quickly discovering that corporate influence was a very dangerous thing in America. I had not become armed with the specifics, but I had the sense that this system could not sustain itself. Maybe if the system had continued on with its fake visage of stability, I would have thought I was wrong and I would have conformed to a very corrupt society.

Then came the financial crash of 2008. It was the catalyst for everything. I had graduated from high school several years previous. Sitting in my car about to go to work, listening to NPR, I heard them explain that Lehman Brothers was declaring bankruptcy. I did not know nearly enough about our economy to understand how big this was, but I could sense the fear in their voices. My belief that the system could not sustain itself was playing out in front of my eyes and, now that it was here, I could sense that there was much suffering to come.

The fear in the voices of the newscasters did not steady, however. A fever pitch intensity beset national and international media. All around, one could sense that a very complex structure was coming unraveled. The housing market plummeted, people lost their savings, pensions were slashed, AIG declared bankruptcy, the world economy was crushed. And just like in Iraq, when you waited for the newscasters to tell you what happened, you got nothing of any substance. This felt familiar to many in our generation; this feeling that we had to go dig up the facts ourselves. We learned a lot about this economy, very fast. It was not a comforting experience. What we discovered was that the rot was much deeper than we had ever thought. This made the inane discussion about the crisis which reduced it all to “toxic assets” all the more infuriating. If we could turn up the systemic problems, why did they refuse to discuss them?

Upon research, what we found was that the financial services industry had used its power, created by decisions like Buckley v. Valeo and Citizens United v. FEC to bribe and coerce our government. And the manner in which they used their influence was to deregulate the market, to subjugate the marginalized, and to extract the intergenerational wealth of a people. Specifically, it came to many people’s attention that they had repealed the Glass-Steagall Act, which was enacted after the Great Depression. This Act would have made the entire 2008 crisis impossible, by separating financial investment firms and banks. It also would have prevented the expansion of the Big Banks, expansion to such a degree in which they are capable of crashing the economy so thoroughly, to begin with.

What one will find very quickly when researching the repeal of Glass-Steagall, is that our president was Bill Clinton. To many of us who were Democrats by default position, unified against Republicans, this was hard to reconcile. But upon research, it got worse, not better. One would turn up with ease, that Bill Clinton was actually a very right-wing president economically and, in many ways, a fiscal conservative. He passed stringent crime bills, he deregulated the financial services industry, and he passed NAFTA, which was a deathblow for unions in America. For many people, this marked a moment of honest reflection upon who our allies actually were.

But, this destroyed a very central delusion that society attempts to perpetuate: that we are slowly moving forward and improving our flaws and that if you just choose the right party, they will facilitate this forward movement. When we began to research what was wrong with our system, we realized that we were moving backward faster than we were moving forward. All the while, they focused on Bernie Madoff and toxic loans as an abstract entity, distracting from the fact that these enormous companies were settling for colossal sums in court cases to avoid prosecution. After everything they had done, they were being bailed out, while their CEOs and top executives were paid enormous bonuses. The bailout was discussed in terms of “is this necessary to calm the economy?” They did not discuss “what can we do to fix the things that led us here?” and “who should be held responsible for the fraud that took place?”

We felt despair and hopelessness. The belief that the system could change was waning. It was then appropriate that a young, handsome, intelligent black man preaching hope and change should inspire our generation so much. It wasn’t just this rhetoric that inspired us either; it was the specific criticisms he made against Wall Street, his support for single-payer health care, his support for civil rights. We saw in Barack Obama a glimmer of possibility. His smile, the articulate way that he discussed the issues; we thought that perhaps the system was going to self-correct.

But Barack Obama did not follow through on his promises. He did not fight Wall Street, he bailed them out. Obama, being placed on the boards of the failing banks, could have fired the executives and nationalized their failing institutions. He could have held them criminally liable. Instead, he pushed a piece of utterly ineffective legislation called Dodd-Frank. He did not give us single-payer healthcare; in fact, he didn’t even try. Instead, Obama passed a piece of healthcare legislation that was modeled from Mitt Romney’s right-wing pipe dream. Obama did not care about our civil rights. He emboldened PRISM to gather our personal data and helped push the NDAA in 2011, which codified indefinite detention. He did not fight against police brutality, he ignored it completely. He did not fight against the War on Drugs, he ignored it. He did not stop the wars, he escalated them. And there was no excuse in his first two years. He held a majority in both chambers. Even if the Republicans were obstructionist, why was he not using his bully pulpit? Why did he seem so sanguine about what was happening?

This was the final straw. We put our hope into the system, we trusted that it would self-correct, and it utterly floundered. We were now most assured that our previous realization was correct: the system does not work, your elders are incompetent or asleep at the wheel.

And thus, Occupy Wall Street. There is a benefit to being far outside the Overton Window of your society. That benefit is that anyone who is powerful enough to successfully co-opt you doesn’t want to. This is not to say that no one tried to co-opt us, there are many stories yet untold about how the different branches of the movement avoided that. No, Occupy Wall Street built enormous networks of leftists, feeding each other with knowledge, sources, and historical literature to catalyze a lasting political movement. They organized enormous marches, built encampments in every state in the nation, and radicalized a generation for a lifetime. In a sort of tragic beauty, it was not until Howard Zinn was dead that his statements about the 99% and the 1% would enter into our public lexicon. But after it did, it caught fire. We saw as the people of this nation quickly absorbed the messages of the movement. The issues of wealthy inequality, campaign finance reform, and predator corporations have become topics of debate at worst, and become part of the public consciousness at best.

Even though the fervor of the Occupy burned brightly for a year or so, eventually the media blacked out our marches. Even though the Occupy had people of all ages, genders, colors, and creeds; the media smeared the protesters as white, middle class, male, and teenagers. Nonetheless, after it was all done with, wealth inequality was no longer something outside the discourse. Universal health care, unionization, regulation, and social welfare were not dirty topics anymore. Instead of believing the system was self-correcting, we now believed that we had to act to fix it.

I learned about Bernie Sanders during the Occupy movement, before he came to run one of the most inspiring and transformative campaigns in modern political history. I watched the video of him lambasting Alan Greenspan and I saw a real leftist in him.

He was fearless in demolishing the economics of a failed establishment. But I never thought I would see him on a television because I knew that he was the adversary to the vulture capitalists controlling our society. Imagine my shock and joy when I found he was running for president in 2016. Imagine my further satisfaction in knowing that he would be crowdfunding his campaign. That he would not take money from the Wall Street bankers who fraudulently collapsed the world economy. That he was going to be funded by us. I watched as, much to my expectation, the corrupt media organizations blacked out his campaign, disallowing him from picking up the steam he needed to win the primaries.

Now; imagine my most ardent displeasure in researching his primary opponent, Hillary Clinton. Our generation learned a lesson from Barack Obama: even if they seem charming and they offer you honeyed words, do not trust them. Trust only that the list of donors who fund their campaign will be their top priority. When I look back upon Obama’s run, I realize I should not have ever believed his words. He broke donation records in money received from Wall Street, the very firms that destroyed our economy and that of the world in 2008. And it took no digging to find that Wall Street firms were Hillary Clinton’s top donors in 2016. Worse than Obama, she barely even gave a pretense that she was in opposition to these firms. She could barely bring herself to speak a word of ill against them. Clinton gave speeches to Wall Street in private and her family was directly tied to this same industryShe didn’t pretend to be anti-war. She didn’t pretend to want single-payer. Not only was her track record much like that of her husband, she didn’t even lie that she was going to do differently. It was apparent that the lesson to her camp, and the Democrats in general, was that Obama won because he was black. And thus, it seemed to them, Hillary should win because she was a woman. What we witnessed was one of the most incompetent and arrogant campaigns run in modern political history. Hillary’s team ran like she was appointed like it was her time. Their hubris got us, Donald Trump.

You think that our generation looks at Donald Trump and will flee in fear to Democratic party political centrism? You have not understood what you are reading if you think so. The election of this incompetent, greedy, idiotic businessman is yet another confirmation that the system will not self-correct and that we cannot trust the Democrats or the Republicans. It doesn’t drive us closer to acceptance of a corrupt system. It drives us further away from these entities in revulsion.

If you study the last 100 years of political history in this nation, you will find that purity tests were not what killed leftist movements, capitulation was. Cooperating with your enemy allows your enemy to manipulate your goals. Incrementalism is easier to pass but also easier to overturn. This is one of the reasons why sweeping legislator victories are what last; they become woven into the fabric of society. The leftism of the early 1900s was not killed because of “purity tests,” it was killed because the left conceded to the Red Scare. The Millennial generation will never be made to conform; instead, society will. If it takes decades of waiting for those in power to die of old age, this society will fix its problems when we get the reins. If in the meantime, the entrenched establishment wants to keep resisting, they will only spell their crushing electoral defeats to come, no matter which party they are in.

Those of my generation have been forced for years to sit around and listen to the smug condescension of a generation of people who crashed this country into the ground. Vanity, laziness and self-entitlement are not so much a description of the Millennials as they are a description of the Baby Boomers who birthed us. They project their own vanity onto us. Baby Boomers destroyed this society with selfishness, bootstrap ideologies, and apolitical abdication of duty, then called us lazy for suffering through the insecurity of youth in the charred wreckage of their creation! They call us “special snowflakes,” they rant endlessly about participation trophies. But it was our parents who called us special snowflakes, not us. They didn’t give us participation trophies because we asked for them. They gave us participation trophies because our parents could not stand to be the parent of a loser. So ingrained was the individualist ideology that they could not stand to imagine they had birthed a mediocre child. No child stood in proud accomplishment while holding their participation trophy! Those trophies were not for us. They occupied a dusty corner in a closet. They were for the egos of a generation of Baby Boomers coddled by economic plenty. This generation rejects the notions of our parents because we can witness their failure with clear eyes. To acquiesce to the establishment would be to acquiesce to failure.

A few days ago I sat in an Indian restaurant with my girlfriend, not too upscale, but in that part of town where you get a profusion of old, white, wealthy people. To our right, a few tables are two elderly women, dressed in gaudy jewelry and ugly designer clothes that reek of privilege. They fit a sort of perverted stereotype of the rich white woman; they hit on their Indian waiter nonchalantly, they laugh in those fake, nasal “ha-ha-ha-ha” punctuated laughs. After their waiter is gone, they begin having a conversation about downtown Tulsa. One of them makes a comment about going to downtown Tulsa and how dreadful it is and the other responds, “Oh yes, I can’t even go downtown anymore because I don’t want to wade through the homeless.”

I want to go over to her table and say to her, “Oh, you can’t wade through the homeless? How terrible for you. It must be so nice to live in your vaunted, coddled world where homeless people don’t exist. But the rest of us do. The rest of us live in fear of homelessness and destitution for ourselves and those we love.” But I don’t say anything, of course. My girlfriend and I carry on and make jokes. I read Twitter and I see think pieces by middle-aged people where they smear my generation, where they smear Sanders supporters, where they try to push a narrative that “if only they had capitulated further we would not have Donald Trump.” To us, while we read these pieces, when we hear these stories on TV, we do not hear wise words from our elders. We hear those two old rich women in the restaurant. We are done with the laziness and the spinelessness of Neoliberals. So if your intention is to punch down and absolve the rich of their duty to society, to complain about the filthy homeless, to blame the weak and the oppressed citizenry, do not expect capitulation from us. The system will either capitulate to us or they will be discarded to the dustbins of history.

Written by Daniel Barham

Daniel Barham has worked as an interstate coordinator for Occupy Wall Street groups in the mid-west, as well as a regional organizer for central Oklahoma on a ballot measure to have marijuana decriminalized in the state of Oklahoma. He also worked as a volunteer, canvassing and phone banking on Bernie's primary campaign. Daniel graduated from University of Oklahoma with a Bachelors degree in Physics and a minor in Philosophy. Follow Daniel on Twitter @apeirophobic.

Daniel is a Guest Contributor to Progressive Army.


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  1. Daniel, I sure hope you’re right when you say, “This society will fix its problems when we get the reins.” It’s important for every new generation to hold onto HOPE for as long as possible. So keep being optimistic.

    Radicals in my baby-boomer generation thought the same way, too. We were dismayed when greed became enshrined as good by the yuppies. Unions went into decline, and wages stagnated or even shrank. Like your generation, we were poorer than our parents’ generation: my dad raised a family of six on one income, while my generation needed two incomes to raise a family of four.

    Like you, we eventually came to blame the establishment Democrats as much as the Republicans. Corporate power has grown to the point where they are the masters and we are the slaves. We thought things would get better, not worse. We were wrong. The only minor gains have been in more civil rights for blacks, women, and gays — plus the public is a lot more concerned with the environment.

    The power of the Establishment shouldn’t be underestimated. The corporate media has a consistently pro-corporate bias — which is probably why Bernie lost. I certainly can’t blame the voters, because when do they ever let us vote on something that matters?

    I’m convinced that protest is the only hope, because any anti-corporate gains made in the distant past came about only because the people took to the streets and demanded them. The 40 hour week, the end of child labor, the all-too-brief power of unions — none of these gains were given to the people by the government. The people had to rise up, throw off their chains, and demand justice.

    I loved reading what you wrote. What I learned is just how similar the world looks through the eyes of your generation and my own. The establishment is always trying to divide us so they can conquer. Bernie showed that his issues (inequality, corporate power, government by bribery) have the power to unite us all. That’s the only thing which gives me hope — that Bernie almost won.

  2. Thank you for this article that gives me hope that my country will return to sanity and justice. Although I am an old woman now, I too was inspired by Bernie Sanders and wanted his revolution. I am inspired by you. The March on Washington was my first foray into protest but it won’t be my last. I hope to live long enough to see you prevail.

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Why Are the Millennials Like This? Part Two