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Friday, March 29, 2013

The Young Generation–Thinking Too Much?

David Brooks writing in the New York Times (3.29.13) reflects on the attitudes of the new crop of seniors graduating from college; and finds that they have lost the idealism that has characterized other generations of young people in the past.  Turning more to empirical analysis rather than larger “ethical and idealistic” vocabularies, they have lost the very bearings needed to guide them in an increasingly complex world. 

Brooks quotes liberally from the paper of one of his students at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs at Yale:

Buhler points out that the college students of 12 years ago grew up with 1990s prosperity at home, and the democratic triumph in the cold war abroad. They naturally had a tendency to believe deeply “in the American model of democratic capitalism, which created all men equal but allowed some to rise above others through competition.”

Then came the Bush years and the disillusionment that came from foreign interventionism and the supremely naïve and arrogant statement by the President after 9/11: ““Our responsibility to history is already clear: to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil.”  The Neo-Cons and their aggressive idealism to spread democracy and the American way of life seemed out of touch – an idealism without a grounding in practicality - and smart young people began to see that while Ronald Reagan’s branding the Soviet Union ‘The Evil Empire’ was necessary to provide the high moral context needed to mobilize national and international opinion and to put irresistible pressure on the Communist regime, the Neo-Cons’ words were empty.  Reagan’s words were backed up by action – not precipitous military action like Bush’s in Iraq, but a deliberate, purposeful American military buildup which would force a similar armament in the Soviet Union which would eventually bankrupt it and bring it down.

The events of 9/11 and the wars which followed; the financial crisis precipitated by what young people saw as excessive greed within a broken, rogue system; and the growth of worthy, driven, and realistically purposeful competitors like the Chinese put young people off.  Idealism had been tarnished, and the world had changed.  America was no longer Reagan’s “beacon light guides freedom-loving people everywhere”; but a troubled nation whose actions no longer matched its words.

Young people, say Brooks and his young student, have withdrawn from this tarnished and ineffectual idealistic posturing to a much more mechanistic and empirical approach to the world. This approach, however, without any guiding moral or philosophical beacon, can easily be reduced to relativism and scatter-shot policies.  While the State Department may never arrive at a Unified Field Theory of public diplomacy, it should at least be guided by principle; and if young, smart, and talented Yale graduates are retreating from global affairs, and are abandoning their traditional position as visionaries, we are in trouble.

Here is where I disagree.  There are more George W. Bushes in the world than Ronald Reagan’s and Reagan was as much a beneficiary of circumstance as he was a true visionary.  The Soviet Union was already collapsing from within and the CIA never knew it.  If there had not been a parallel visionary on the other side of the Iron Curtain – Gorbachev – and had not his country been in dire straits, Reagan’s lofty rhetoric might have been only that – an old man banging on about traditional Republican themes.

Lyndon Johnson invented a casus belli in the Gulf of Tonkin, and American presidents are always spoiling for war.  George W. Bush did the same with yellowcake and WMD. Even a desultory look at history shows that many if not most of our wars – Mexican-American, Spanish-American, War of 1812 to choose just a few – were fought more for a venal national interests than for any larger ideal.  World history is filled with thousands more examples of kings, monarchs, and emperors who invaded other lands for nothing other than personal gain, power, and an extension of territory.

The issue is not idealism vs. empiricism; it is how to deal with irrational regimes without resorting to adventurism.  The world is asymmetrical in many ways, especially the discordance between Western rationalism and Middle Eastern illogic and faith-based politics. What we do not need is a new moral Crusade against Islam, a cause as compelling as that which inspired Christian soldiers on their way to Jerusalem.  We simply have to figure out how to root out al-Qaeda, how to reform our military strategy from its currently Pollyannaish civilian-friendly, casualty-averse position to a more amoral one much more similar to that of the enemy.  That is, we need to lose our idealism about the greatness of the American dream, and to learn how to fight down and dirty.

What kind of idealistic, moral diplomacy can work with the theocrats of Iran? What persuasive, reasonable, and moderate words of compromise can have any effect on al-Qaeda whatsoever?  The job of the State Department is exactly that for which the Yale graduates are preparing – an overhaul of our practical international military/diplomatic strategy based on reality not idealism.

In what I think is an especially trenchant observation, Buhler suggests that these disillusioning events have led to a different epistemological framework. “We are deeply resistant to idealism. Rather, the Cynic Kids have embraced the policy revolution; they require hypothesis to be tested, substantiated, and then results replicated before they commit to any course of action.”

This is a good thing, not a bad one. Admittedly, as Buhler goes on to say, such logical exegesis and analysis can lead to inaction – the ‘on the one hand and on the other’ of dithering economists – but only if it is done within the wrong or inappropriate framework.  If such rigorous study will produce information concerning the whereabouts of al-Qaeda and its affiliates, assess their potential risk to American interests, and rationally determine the likelihood of military or counter-insurgency interventions, then it is the right approach. It doesn’t take a Parmenides or Plato to figure out that al-Qaeda is the enemy of the age or to decipher its intentions; but it does take a Bacon, Locke, or Mill to look at the empirical evidence, to decipher it, and to come up with logical conclusions.

On a less philosophical plane, young people need to be practical, empirical, and resolutely logical in this modern age of data, information, powerful research algorithms, social media, and parallel computing.  They need to figure things out, not to reflect upon their meaning in a higher order of being.

I had many reactions to Buhler’s dazzling paper, but I’d like to highlight one: that the harsh events of the past decade may have produced not a youth revolt but a reversion to an empiricist mind-set, a tendency to think in demoralized economic phrases like “data analysis,” “opportunity costs” and “replicability,” and a tendency to dismiss other more ethical and idealistic vocabularies that seem fuzzy and, therefore, unreliable. After the hippie, the yuppie and the hipster, the cool people are now wonksters.

Sorry, Mr. Brooks, but this is exactly what we need.

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