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Do Youth Count on the Left?

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Message Tolu Olorunda

"We live at a time when social bonds are crumbling and institutions that provide collective help are disappearing. Reclaiming these social bonds and the protections of the social state means, in part, developing a new mode of politics and pedagogy in which young people are as central to this struggle as the future of the democratic society they once symbolized."

--Henry Giroux, Youth in a Suspect Society[1]

Very few issues today should command the attention of progressives more than the future awaiting young people--a future dictated by the ethics of neoliberalism; a future hostile to the humanities of low-income and minority youth; a future devoid of all public and democratic possibilities. And even fewer issues should elicit greater address than the current reality under which young people--from all walks of life--live.

Youth constitute the most uninsured of all demographics in the U.S., with more than 13 million between the ages of 19 and 29 lacking coverage, while, according to Youth advocacy groups, also least likely to benefit from employer-based coverage. Never mind that 24% of Americans ages 18 to 29 spent some time at an emergency department in 2008. [2]

Yet, far too few in progressive circles highlighted this concern as debates raged on for months about healthcare coverage and insurance reform.

But every now and then a courageous soul rises from amongst the rubble of rhetoric to speak candidly about the hypocritical shamelessness of a society which claims to value children as its future but abandons them to fend for, and defend, themselves in a world they themselves--the adults, that is--could never dream of living in. Cultural critics like Henry Giroux, Jonathan Kozol, and Shirley Steinberg have been remarkable exceptions, publishing book after book condemning those too callous to take issues afflicting Youth seriously, and offering hope for a future free from exploitation and biopolitical dominance.

But even after laborious research and painstaking writing, many see their works relegated to university libraries and conference halls, isolated from any meaningful public consumption or interrogation.

Such has been the case with Youth in a Suspect Society, written by Henry Giroux (published September 2009). While a few progressive publications have honorably featured reviews, published excerpts, or conducted interviews with the author, and even fewer radio programs have invited him on for in-depth discourse, most have held it at arm's length, refusing to even mention that a book on this topic--with the timeliness of a ticking time bomb--was at all written.

This shunning has happened, I contend, for two primary reasons:

  1. Many believe, considering the author's academic reputation, it's too "scholarly" or "complex" to engage average readers--you know, the 50 million who read at fourth or fifth-grade levels, or the 42 percent of college graduates who never read a book post-graduation, or the 80% of families who never bothered buying a book the previous year. [3] The language might be indecipherable or incomprehensible, they worry. So, to shield readers from migraines, and protect their fragile dignities, it's key to keep them dumbed down by providing sound bites of reality--which don't force folks to think for more than 5 seconds, before pursuing the next facile interest.

Unfortunately, most editors at these esteemed publications are flat-wrong about the intellectual inabilities of readers to grasp content operating on a visceral level. As if often said of visual and musical art, but is also true of texts, work which emanates from the heart communicates to the heart. So, even if a reader or receiver might lack the technical mastery required to decipher every word or definition, meaning is never lost. This is why most--without the skill and accreditation of a music critic--are moved deeply by a Beethoven concerto or a Nina Simone chorus. It also explains why many foreigners, even when unable to translate their languages, are mesmerized by Miriam Makeba or Fela Kuti or Celia Cruz. To assume readers are too dull to engage "scholarly work" is to make assumptions that are often misplaced.

Educator Donaldo Macedo took note of this trend in his introduction to the 30th anniversary reissue of Paulo Freire's classic work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Recounting an experience in which a "functionally illiterate" woman approached Henry Giroux following a talk to thank him for providing the "language" of theoretical analysis she lacked, and another in which a sixteen-year-old boy read a chapter of Pedagogy of the Oppressed in one night and exclaimed to his mother, "I want to meet the man who wrote this. He is talking about me," he asked the "highly-literate" scholars who decry non-simplistic work as jargonistic: "Why is it that a sixteen-year-old boy and a poor, "semiliterate' woman could so easily understand and connect with the complexity of both Freire and Giroux's language and ideas, and the academics, who should be the most literate, find the language incomprehensible?" Macedo argued that "the answer has little to do with language and everything to do with ideology."[4]

  1. Their "ideology," unfortunately, isn't built to stomach critiques of neoliberalism that unapologetically swing Right and Left. Read carefully what the editor of some venerated and very popular magazine provided as reasonable rejoinder to a reader why Youth in a Suspect Society cannot be reviewed in its pages: "Thank you for thinking of [Redacted]. Although this topic is compelling, its focus is a bit too political for our Books and the Arts section, and we don't run reviews in our political section. A Catch-22. Good luck finding a home for it elsewhere."

Now, read it again: meditate slowly upon the implications of a political magazine which condemns a book on the disastrous future awaiting youth, and the current realities to which young people are ruthlessly subjected, as "a bit too political."

And it's not just the adult "political" magazines. Many publications dedicated to Youth causes have also refused to touch Youth in a Suspect Society even with a 10-foot-pole of critique. The issue might be "compelling," but it evokes too much pressure on the "political." Of course Huey P. Newton--who understood clearly "everything is political"--is tumbling in his grave.

An editor I wrote to right before the book came out admitted the topic looked "very interesting," and promised to "give it strong consideration." Four months later, it's clear how "strong" a consideration it was given--for a magazine dedicated to documenting the struggles of "a new generation."

These are but examples--tell-tales--of the "hypocrisies and mendacities" Cornel West wrote strongly about in Democracy Matters:

Like every younger generation, our kids today see clearly the hypocrisies and mendacities of our society, and as they grow up they begin to question in a fundamental way some of the lies that they've received from society. " This often leads to an ardent disappointment, and even anger, about the failures of our society to consistently uphold the democratic and humanitarian values that can be born in youths in this phase of their life. [5]

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Tolu Olorunda is a cultural critic whose work regularly appears in various online journals including BlackCommentator.com, TruthOut.org, CounterPunch.org, DissidentVoice.org, including others. He can be reached at: Tolu.Olorunda (at) gmail.com.
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Do Youth Count on the Left?

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