Guest Post: The Case of America’s Missing Rebellion

Today’s guest post is from William J Briggs, my number one son. Note that it’s J and not M: he’s named after my father.

Last night NYC was host to an event entitled, “Jobs. Justice. Climate.” The mission: bring climate change experts and union leaders to the stage to discuss the future of green jobs. The result: pledged action and a few songs by Judy Collins. However, a bigger problem presented itself at the conference. Where had America’s youth placed their rebellious, questioning, spirit?

Arriving late I squeezed onto a bench that sat a variety of union representatives. The one closet to me was a heavy-set redhead who needed to wing her arms outward in order to check her Blackberry. As I result I was forced to lean forward and keep my legs glued together—pushing my nose against the toupee in front me.

Settling finished, I turned my attention to center stage. Half the panel were lazily petting their ties while a soft-spoken women (named, I discovered later, Mary Robinson) was energetically listing off items on a print out. Bored, I looked around. Flags, posters, and colored strips of cloth hung on backs of chairs, over shoulders, and across knees. About 90 percent of the crowd were union members happily representing their union’s name, color, and purpose. A few seats down from me a union man chewed on a fresh cigar weighing the panel up.

The other 10 percent of the audience consisted of the handlers, supporters, staffers, and filmmakers of the panel members. They paid tireless attention and grinned around them whenever a joke was approached.

One panel member, a loud Aussie women, with the first commanding voice of the evening, demanded into her clip-on microphone that “anyone who has a logical brain can see climate change on the horizon.” Applause. A few whistles.

Her mood calmed and she thanked us for listening. Moderator Mary turned the floor over to Ethan Nuss, the sole reason I’m writing this essay. Ethan was billed as a Maryland Campaign Coordinator on the night’s program. He has blond, curly locks and when I first saw him, perched between the Aussie women and a union leader (name missing), I thought he might fall over if the audience and I decided to clap too forcefully. Looks deceive. He remained seated as he spoke, but his clear voice filled the hall and warbled with passion when he said words like, “Obama”, “children”, “lives”, and “environment.”

Ethan was ordered by Mary to paint a picture of how the “youth” perceives climate change and what they are doing about it. Ethan reminded everyone that the “youth elected Obama” and that they alone were “looking down a double-barrel shotgun of economic and ecological crisis.” He paused. He mentioned Noah, a one-year-old girl he meet last week. He paused again. The women next to me had put down her Blackberry and was finally looking at the stage. “Noah’s life,” he said “hangs in the balance. We need to stand up and fight climate change!”

He eyed the whole room, gripped the arms of his chair, and, with perfect emotional timing, roared, “The youth and everyone here needs to participate in non-violent direct action!” Applause and whoops followed for a half a minute. Mary cleared her throat and reminded everyone that time “is of the essence” and started to escort the panel off the stage.

Shortly thereafter I stepped out, between the folk music act and as Roger Toussaint, Vice President of the Transport Workers Union, cleared his throat.

Everyone at the conference had a shared agenda: secure enough money in order fight climate change and create green jobs. Short of calling for “direct non-violent action” no one had any concrete ideas of how they should fulfill their goal. Everyone was pretty content to salivate over future “green” checks and what they would do with them. It was like discussing dreams—fanciful and only entertaining for one party.

Ethan, the conference’s obligatory “voice of the youth”, is the voice of the youth and that’s why we should worry. He is what happens when ego and cause breed. His passion is self-replenishing because it’s impossible to grow weary of a cause that is applauded. Ethan doesn’t mention numbers. Nor figures or science. He only employs emotional cliches.

That’s my generation. The group of 20 somethings who aren’t yet 25. We’re driven by causes, inspired by speeches, led by trends, and turned off by dogmas. We don’t want to accept the status quo, instead we want to enjoy ours. In other words, we question conventions, but we never question the unconventional.

Don’t believe me? When we were growing up there was a series of ads for Apple Jacks that summed up our generation’s behavior well. It played out like this: a group of cool kids, eating Apple Jacks contentedly, were approached by a clownish authority figure who would ask them why they are enjoying a product that is named after an “Apple” when it clearly doesn’t taste like one. The cool kids look at each other in confusion. Their eyes all say, “this guy’s a square.” The lead actor declares, “We eat what we like.” It’s a act of defiance that’s accepted, but not explained rationally or questioned. Today, commercials play the same song for us. We see young men, jailed in adolescence, buying products to meet their unconventional needs borne from whims, not necessities (much to the anger of their folded-armed spouses–who represent the conventional).

A few people in my generation use the same rationale to choose their ideas and their leaders.

If someone asked Ethan to prove, without a doubt, that climate change would kill the one-year-old girl he mentioned earlier, he’d most likely just say, “I can think what I like,” while he motions to everyone around him that his interrogator is likely a “square.”


  1. jmrSudbury

    The previous generation, those of us who are Thirty somethings but above 35, had the same rudderless idealism. Many still do because they refuse to think critically about issues. Indeed, they rarely take the opportunity to think critically at all dreaming instead of realizing. I am getting tired of people who are content to discuss the weather, possible future ailments we may get as mentioned in magazines, and other frivolous topics. At least my generation will listen kindly to critical ideas while nodding knowingly before changing the subject. — John M Reynolds

  2. Luis Dias

    I found the story slightly entertaining, and I cheer the young Briggs’ ability to write as well as his own father. I also found the psychological analysis of the crowd something to think about. Of course, then a question popped my mind. Is young Briggs’ attention span to the unquestioned also a sign of his own personal memethic structure?

    Once you over-generalize others and reduce all they think or believe into something of a deluded fad, you should be aware that the exact same criticism can be wheeled towards you. Perhaps you are different from the crowd you witnessed. Not necessarily for the better.

    Lastly, complaining about the stupidity of the crowds is not something that is original from the 00’s of the 21st century. I can still remember Lenin’s complaint about the “useful idiots” in the 19th century

  3. WJb


    I welcome a punch from my own argument.

    I just mean to say: Young people marry beliefs before they have thought them through. I’m guilty of it. Every generation is.

    What’s intriguing is how my generation responds to slights against their newly bedded causes.

    Climate change, fad or not, is still fresh enough to be a favoirte “cause” of the youth. Will activists and rebellious youths be able to speak to the science of climate change? Or will they simply roll their eyes and exercise the same irony late night comedians like John Stewart employ ad nauseum? I bet the later. It’s up to debate, however.

    It’s also interesting that scientific arguments gain support from my generation on the podiums and the stages that are usually reserved for celebrities.

    Lastly, I never said the crowd was stupid. I just told a story about a crowd cheering climate change awareness speeches and how they might respond to a debate. It’s intriguing that they came off as stupid.



  4. Joy

    WJ Briggs,
    This was fun, I can hear the likeness!
    On the generation thing I would say that every generation has similar ailments they just manifest differently. (of course I think you’ve got the climate changers to a T.
    However, you’ve heard the saying,
    “If you can keep your head whilst all around you are losing theirs, you don’t understand the situation!”

  5. Kevin

    A description of a perfectly awful evening, in my humble opinion. The young people I know, and I know quite a few because I teach two-times a full load of college courses, are currently figuring out how to manhandle our Board of Trustees into listening to them, and considering their needs, versus listening to our college administration and bending to theirs. These youth may still be idealists, but they have a concrete cause and they are pragmatists. Climate change is too abstract and speculative to rouse them.

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