Young and Younger
As a child, on every birthday morning, I was meant to touch the feet of each of my parents to show my gratitude and respect. This simple and brief act would overwhelm me with its nakedness, its confession of my own powerlessness, its reference to an Indian culture to which I never quite measured up. It would be hard not to choke up. The same act was required whenever I visited India and met with my older family members--each addressed with a specific honorific, even if only a few years older than myself.
This respect for age for age's sake is something I've had to overcome in order to function appropriately here at home in the States. At work, I struggle to dissent from older colleagues' opinions or to alter longstanding legacies. Have some respect for god's sake! is a common refrain running through my head. Sometimes I act on it, sometimes not.
But it appears that many of my youthful compatriots suffer no such problem. I would be deeply embarrassed by the arrogance of writing a book of my own partially digested, ill formed "opinions." (OK, I'll do a few ephemeral columns on the internet, if pushed). But that is exactly what whippersnapper Jed Purdy (24-years-old) has done, with the media establishment in full obeisance. Knopf has doubtless spent hundreds of thousands on the book, and the NYT has not only reviewed it (twice!) but has also profiled the author in its Sunday magazine. Purdy joins Wendy Shalit and others in a publishing boomlet of youthful mouthings-off.
As a relative youngie myself, I find it embarassing enough that such young writers are so narrowly educated and arrogant to think they are saying new and worthwhile things that haven't been said before by others with more experience. What's more bothersome are the publishers and editors who don't push them to develop their ideas or perform some research. Ultimately the results are what I call anti-books. Anti-books, unlike real books, which are printed on sturdy paper with strong bindings and covered with cloth and board so they will last for generations, are not meant to live on shelves longer than a few months.
While this seems a tremendous waste of paper, among other things, what surprises me is that a similar phenomenon is occurring among progressives-namely feminists. Spun off the focus on young girls' perilous journey to womanhood, as described by Carol Gilligan and others, are efforts by women in their 20s and 30s to establish their feminism as a departure from established feminism so radical as to form a "third wave," or at least something in need of its own name, usually "young feminism." I first encountered it in 1995 as a contributor to a collection called Listen Up! Voices from the Next Feminist Generation. For the release of the book, the editor and friends had arranged to bring all the contributors to NYC for a weekend of shmoozing and PR. The political highlights were an 8-hour session with about 20 "young feminists" around a conference table with no agenda, no discussion rules, and no facilitation. As the more confident of the white women continually interrupted others and everyone shared personal anecdotes about nasty men and bad dates, I longed terribly for one of those old feminists who knew how to organize a meeting to come save us. Afterward, we young ones met with Gloria Steinem and other ancients to attempt to bridge the generation gap. Gloria asked us--a bunch of careerist writers, primarily--to describe ourselves. After our pathetic display of organizing skills--we couldn't even run a political meeting, for god's sake--each and every one announced smugly that she was first and foremost an "activist." This was the new feminism? I thought. What a joke.
Rebecca Walker, daughter of writer and activist Alice Walker, spearheaded the idea of young feminists as a radical new "third wave" with a fantastically poorly developed collection called To Be Real: Telling the Truth and Changing the Face of Feminism and the NYC-based Third Wave Foundation, run by people under 35. While the foundation seems solidly in the mainstream liberal feminist tradition--with reprints of Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and Mother Jones featured on its website--it reserves its funds for projects by and for women between the ages of 15 and 30, because "young women's lives are affected in unique ways by trends of inequality, poverty, discrimination, and violence." I wouldn't ever gripe about people giving money away to social justice campaigns but the ideology that runs behind this outfit seems somewhat suspicious. What exactly is it implying about old and middle-aged women? They have too much money? Enough privileges? Please. They're too dismissive of young people? As compared to who--older men??
The feminist publisher, Seal Press, has since followed up on the successful Listen Up! with several books by young feminists, most rooted in the idea that we youngies have something in common based on our age and it is different or oppositional to what the oldies have in common. New feminist magazines such as Bitch and Bust are premised, at least implicitly, on the same assumption. What it is, precisely, that we have in common is either that we are more racially diverse, or less elitist, or more sexual, or more straight, or more feminine, or more radical.
Could it be true? Only if one believes the backlash view of feminists as man-hating, elitist, uptight, etc. Only if the feminism that I have came to know--the feminism of Simone de Beauvoir, bell hooks, Charlotte Bunch, Vandana Shiva, Barbara Ehrenreich, and other disparate women--that is, the diverse, international, radical, multi-faceted feminism didn't really happen, and only the malicious simplified narrative formulated by Time magazine did.
Could Seal and Ms. Magazine and all the other parts of the feminist establishment that have given platform and voice to the "young feminists" be capitalizing on the mouthings-off, youth-indulging culture of today? In part, I'm sure they are. The idea of a catfight between young sexies and old prudes is too good for the mainstream media--which unfortunately most progressive media still depend on for publicity--to pass up. Young feminism is sellable.
So while the young feminists are in reality carrying on established feminist traditions--radical, liberal, reactionary, anti-racist, etc-we're all meant to pretend they are on to something really new. That is, they are different and better than the old feminists. Not only does this idea capitalize on a perverted feminist history. It also supports the particular meanness our society reserves for older women and maternal figures.
Call me an old fart, but count me out.