Archive | June, 2019

The Life of a Not-So-Angry Millennial

30 Jun

This past week, I had the pleasure of attending a meeting of the Rural Economic Development (RED) Group in Minneapolis that focused on my much-maligned generation. (Or, rather, one of my millennial colleagues and I saw that we were on the agenda and invited ourselves, entitled millennials that we are.) Media narratives about millennials are dominated by discussions of highly educated urbanites who made social media over-sharing, excessive student debt, and avocado toast go mainstream. That life isn’t reality for most of the millennials we talk about in a forum on rural economic development, and any discussion of this age groups usually involves the objects of study griping about how they’ve been painted with an absurdly broad brush. Even so, it’s certainly true that generations, formed by certain common experiences and changing demographics, and many millennials have developed a righteous sense of anger over our inheritance from past generations.

Unlike some panel discussions in which people talk about issues faced by certain groups of people without inviting said people into the room, this room featured real life rural millennials as the main focus. We listened as nine of our colleagues, including several whom I work with regularly, shared their life experiences to date. Almost all operate somewhere in the community development world or are otherwise very active in public service, so they aren’t a representative cross-section of a generation either, but there was enough variety to give the enterprise some weight. Some of these rural millennials are rooted in communities they’ve never left, others left for a spell but found their way home, and others came as immigrants and have looked to build a new life. Their stories were compelling, and the subsequent report-out session was cathartic, as participants reveled in a forum where they could speak freely.

In broad terms, the panel revealed a generation in search of places to put down roots but struggling to do so. Financial anxiety underlined many of their considerations, and they were often willing to make sudden job leaps or commute long distances in search of something that worked. Housing and job markets pulled them in different directions. People of color struggled to resist both loneliness and tokenism. And most fundamentally, the millennials were frustrated when they found themselves shut out of certain situations, their youthful ambition to join community groups at best a curious novelty and at worst a play to steal their elders’ positions. With the 30-year career path at a single employer largely dead, there need to be new ways up and forward, and millennials therefore require conscious engagement in a way their predecessors perhaps did not.

The torrent of millennial passion at the forum had the effect making me feel ridiculously well-off, unable to say much as others spoke eloquently about their travails. I am the rare millennial for whom the system more or less worked. I’m a white, straight, able-bodied dude. By and large, my rewards in life have followed my effort. I’ve taken a few odd turns, perhaps, but my wandering journey of self-discovery was very much an inward, self-inflicted thing for which I hold no grudge against broader society. The pay sacrifices I’ve made in my career path are the consequences of conscious choices, and I’m fortunate to have a light enough debt load to be able to do that.

While my path more or less worked for me and can for other people, I also recognize that I can’t project it too far. I had a lot going for me, and was lucky enough to have the freedom to dabble along a few different paths before diving in to my current course. Some of our most powerful motivators are the bad things that happen in life, and I also have some more unique experiences to draw from there as well. The worst characteristic of any generational analysis is the belief that one person’s success is somehow a model for everyone else, when instead it was often the product of particular circumstances that made it possible.

This isn’t to say I don’t have my laments about millennial life. We’re right to have serious economic and ecological concerns, and our troubles run the risk of lapsing into despair. I’m something of a tech skeptic. I have a bit of student debt, and if I were in a particularly self-pitying mood, I’m sure I could muster up some woe-is-me tale about modern love. (Note to fellow millennials: acknowledgement of challenges is valuable, but wallowing in such places is not attractive.) I think critics who have characterized my generation as drowning in freedom are on to something, and many millennials live out a tension between wanting to be given direction by some outside force and also not wanting anyone to tell us how they think the world works. An old David Brooks column captures this paradox as it attacks the stupidity of the “follow your dreams” advice that proliferated when we millennials were graduating from college (the 35-40 percent of us who did graduate from college, anyway): our lives were often very structured until they suddenly weren’t, and we came out ill-prepared for a world that is far more competitive and unpredictable than the one our parents inhabited.

The need to resolve this millennial paradox is the reason I’m a fierce defender of the liberal arts and a holistic education, and shuffle my feet uncomfortably when economic development panels start bashing the utility of four-year degrees in favor the trades, as they often do. The value that comes from learning how to think instead of just learning to perform tasks has myriad benefits both in career and in life, and while there are high-demand trades that pay well and bachelor’s programs that are questionable paths to gainful employment, the statistics on the lifetime earnings gap between the two are still stark. Viewing education as an accumulation of skills is a bankrupt idea of what it means to be a human moving through life. The fact that many people may not have the means to pursue knowledge and virtue through education does not invalidate that path as a worthy goal.

We’re probably nearing the end of the millennial thinkpiece era, as Generation Z is starting to render us as old news. If you believe the broad-brush pictures, Gen Z has learned from some millennial flailing and takes a more practical, stability-focused approach to career and life decisions, and has lower rates of drug abuse and teen pregnancy. (Some of this is probably generational: we millennials are the children of Boomers formed by 60s tumult and radicalism, while Gen Z members are the kids of allegedly apathetic Gen Xers.) We millennials have some memory of a rosy world before tech seemed ubiquitous and before the late 00s recession, while both loom large in Gen Z members’ lives. Their world is also even more hyper-competitive, more fraught by winner-take-all competition, more economically uncertain. Rising teenage anxiety and suicide rates are symptoms of these extremes, and point to a malaise that public policy alone cannot solve.

The consistent response to the troubles of contemporary life, both from my millennial peers and our Gen Z successors, has been one of anger. Anger has value as a motivator, clearly, and we certainly have a right to lash out at commentators who trade in cheap, context-free generalizations. But anger alone can lead people to blame vague past others, and too often today, even many practitioners of the humanities are more interested in judging the past by contemporary standards than learning from the mess of past successes and failures. If those of us who have come out of the millennial coming-of-age travails with few scars have something to offer, it might be some stability here: in place of anger, we can offer a steadfast commitment to gauging the emotion around us and putting it to productive use. We can isolate root causes amid all of the noise and go to work. And we can live in ways that make sure we model lives that aspire toward knowledge, toward decency, and toward constructive ends for more and more people.

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21 Years

20 Jun

As I so often do on this day, I share an Octavio Paz Poem.

Coda

Perhaps to love is to learn
to walk through this world.
To learn to be silent
like the oak and the linden of the fable.
To learn to see.
Your glance scattered seeds.
It planted a tree.
        I talk
because you shake its leaves.

Happy 21st, bro. Your first one is on me, though I’m probably already complicit in your corruption.

The Not-So-Quiet American

9 Jun

Holbrooke wanted more. He wasn’t a grand strategist, but his frenetic public presence made him the embodiment of certain ideas in action. He believed that power brought responsibilities, and if we failed to face them the world’s suffering would worsen, and eventually other people’s problems would be ours, and if we didn’t act no one else would. Not necessarily with force, but with the full weight of American influence. This was the Holbrooke doctrine, vindicated at Dayton. But it didn’t come out of government experience, much less analytical rigor. His views, like everyone’s, emerged from his nervous system, his amygdala, the core of his character, where America stood for something more than just its own power. He was that rare American in the treetops who actually gave a shit about the dark places of the earth.

At no time in recent memory has a book consumed me as much as the one I read over the past week. On its surface, George Packer’s Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century doesn’t seem like the sort of book that will pack an overwhelming punch. It’s a biography of a diplomat who garnered respect in certain circles, but never became a household name or rose to the highest positions he craved. I expect Holbrooke will be lost to history in a generation or two, and his flaws were glaring enough that he doesn’t deserve any posthumous sainthood. But as an analogy for the apogee and decline of American power, his story is too perfect, and Packer, a master craftsman, the grand elegist of the broken American Dream, is our man to tell the tale.

Holbrooke served every Democratic president from Kennedy to Obama. He joined the Foreign Service in 1962 as an acolyte of the builders of the post-World War II order, and went straight to Vietnam, where he vainly struggled to expand the vision of what it would take to win. Holbrooke and his fellow rising stars in the Foreign Service all read Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, and, instead of seeing themselves in Greene’s blindly optimistic American agent Alden Pyle, earnestly believed they could do better. But that was only the start of a long and industrious career that barreled along at breakneck pace right up until his aorta burst in a meeting with Hillary Clinton in 2010. He was, Packer argues, the ultimate symbol of American global ambitions in the twilight of the nation’s hegemony.

Foreign policy is a particularly Hobbesian realm of endless war between large egos measured against blurry standards. It’s rarely an issue that drives the polls, and one observer’s great act of diplomacy is another’s unconscionable sellout. The realists and idealists collide, and in his early years, Holbrooke’s ideals often left him on the losing side of arguments. The military shunted aside the nation-builders in Vietnam, and in the Carter years, Zbigniew Brzezinski’s Cold War realism had little time for humanitarian concerns in southeast Asia. Defenders of diplomacy were at their peak after World War II but found increasingly less room to operate, especially when the military, whether in Vietnam or Afghanistan, gave presidents—particularly Democrats scared of coming across as weak on national security—instant credibility and concrete body counts that can generate good headlines.

Diplomacy is the trickiest form of politics, more art than science and yet insistent upon clear results. Statements almost always come with subtext and hidden agendas, and even the greatest can fail to find the real meaning, the real goals, the real sources of power. A sympathetic Pakistani ambassador likened the drama in central Asia to “a theater in which everyone understood their part, except for the Americans,” and Holbrooke saw it as his job to understand that part. At his best, he was a master of complexity, never more so than in Bosnia. He traveled there on his own before Bill Clinton’s inauguration and spent a chaotic New Year in besieged Sarajevo, took that passion into an administration with no foreign policy direction to speak of, and somehow got a bunch of squabbling warlords to accept the Dayton Accords. Another high point was his tenure as ambassador to the United Nations, as he was able to show even isolationist conservatives the value in propping up an international system favorable to U.S. interests and ideals. He could disarm large egos that others thought lost causes.

Perhaps his comfort with this complexity is why Holbrooke clashed horribly with the Obama administration in the final phase of his career. The law professor of a president wanted crisp arguments and decisive rhetoric, not murky maneuvers and dealings with questionable characters. For a president whose story was to be a revival of the American Dream, there was no room for Holbrooke’s lessons from Vietnam, an analogy Obama rejected out of hand. “By the end he was living each chapter of his life simultaneously—Kennedy and Obama, Vietnam and Bosnia and Afghanistan…All that accumulated experience—we Americans don’t want it,” writes Packer. “We’re almost embarrassed by it, except when we’re burying it. So we forget our mistakes or recoil from them, we swing wildly between superhuman exertion and sullen withdrawal, always looking for answers in our own goodness and wisdom instead of where they lie, out in the world, and in history.”

Holbrooke knew he faced long odds in Afghanistan, but it didn’t stop him. Despite his ego and bluster, he built an idiosyncratic team of the best people he could find, from prolific academics to a woman who tried to lecture him on an airport shuttle. Their role, he told his team, was to break through the turf battles, process over substance. He loved them like his own children (whom he neglected until later in their lives, though there is a superb sequence in which his prep school reject teenage son moves into his New York bachelor pad and leaves him notes like “I suppose leaving half the Grape-fruit Juice out to Spoil is your way of Leading by Example”), and tracked his way all over south and central Asia in search of some way to stop the region’s entropy. But none of it mattered, because Hillary Clinton was the only person in the administration who didn’t think he was a pompous windbag from another era, and even she could only expend so much political capital on one lonely diplomat working a long-shot battle to open dialogue with the Taliban and end a war the military could not win. It still hasn’t.

Our Man is a lament for the decline of American international influence, and Packer’s turning point is the late 90s. He demolishes the American hubris of that era in a few pages that I could quote in full. At the unquestioned peak of American power, there was no serious strategy, just Holbrooke and a few colleagues using the lessons of a lifetime of experience to bring peace. The U.S., terrible imperialists, looked for quick solutions instead of managing chaos. Al-Qaeda’s bombings of two American embassies in Africa elicited only a perfunctory volley of cruise missiles in response, and Washington spent a full year, in Packer’s elegant phrasing, on “Oval Office cocksucking.” (That year, 1998, was also the year the Yankees won 114 games and the World Series and Duluth East last won a state hockey title. It really has been all downhill since.) “Our leaders believed they had the luxury to start tearing one another apart, and they’ve never stopped,” Packer pontificates. “Did any country ever combine so much power with so little responsibility? And slowly, imperceptibly at first, we lost that essential faith in ourselves.”

Holbrooke, somehow, never lost that faith. His ambition pushed him along in dogged pursuit of glory. It also killed two marriages and left a third on life support, cost him many of his friends, and shameless lobbying ruined his chances at being Secretary of State or winning a Nobel prize. He was a vainglorious to the end, though it was a complex egotism. In the words of Tony Lake, his Vietnam era best friend and later-stage mortal enemy, “‘What Holbrooke wants attention for is what he’s doing, not what he is…That’s a very serious quality and his saving grace.’” As I’ve long believed, ambition is both the source of human greatness and the root of human demise. “And if, while following him, you ever feel a disapproving cluck rising inside your palate, as I sometimes do, don’t forget that inside most people you read about in history books in a child who fiercely resisted toilet training,” Packer writes. “Suppose the mess they leave is inseparable from their reach and grasp?”

* * *

Why did Our Man hit me so personally? Probably because, for a healthy chunk of my life, I wanted to become Richard Holbrooke. I wanted to be the globetrotting diplomat who could dive in and end age-old wars through sheer power of will. I wanted to believe in an open and democratic world order, and I wanted to believe my country could learn from its past sins and use its power as a force for decency. I went to Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, where I brushed shoulders with Holbrooke’s two great rivals (Lake and Madeleine Albright, both on the faculty at the time) with the express purpose of following this path.

And yet I didn’t, and found myself tunneling into old journals to remind myself why. Did I lack the killer instinct that drove Holbrooke both to glory and the grave? Was I doomed from the start by a lack of WASPy cred, a wishful believer in a dream I never could achieve? Was my reaction to life in DC too visceral, too uncompromising and unwilling to make sacrifices? Was I too consumed with other events in my life that turned me inward and homeward? All of the above, I think, to varying degrees.

And so, around the exact time Holbrooke died, my belief in his project also died. I’d prepared myself for a world that was already halfway gone by the time I graduated from college. I’m at peace, or so I tell myself: most people learn to leave behind childhood dreams, and I have a new vision of a good life that I’m pursuing. Our Man is not a flattering window into American government, and a career in that world seems to break down so many who do undertake it: petty infighting, endless politicking, 20-hour days that ruin families. Even Lake, ever Holbrooke’s foil, ever the more noble and cautious and thoughtful counterpart, succumbed to the same miseries.

As a child of a different era, I’m more skeptical of the liberal internationalist order than Packer is and Holbrooke was. But after a decade of Obama-led “managed decline” (Packer’s words) and the incoherent bluster of its America First successor, the virtues of that belief in American goodness, for all its flaws, also undergirds so many of the steps the world has taken in a saner direction since the end of World War II. And while it makes for brilliant writing, Packer’s requiem for a superpower may be premature as well. If future diplomats can harness both that spirit and apply some hard-earned lessons from the past, the U.S. could yet arrive at a foreign policy befitting of this moment in history. The ambition lurks within, repressed but still very much alive.