The End of Apathy

Generation O reveals its revolutionary potential.

Photo: Yosi Sergant (flickr)

There were supposed to be fireworks in Grant Park on November 4 but, at the last minute, Obama pulled the plug. His bid for the presidency could have culminated in an explosion of phosphor against the dark Chicago sky. Instead, he offered us these simple words: "Today we begin the earnest work of making sure that the world we leave our children is just a little bit better than the one we inhabit today."

It was a sober denouement to an ecstatic experiment in possibility. It was also a warning. With his restrained rhetoric and almost somber demeanor, Obama was sending a clear message to his emotive base – this whole thing is about to get seriously unsexy. Now that an inspired generation of voters has exuberantly elected Obama president, we are forever separated from him by the yawning expanse of legislative structure. The symbiotic relationship we have enjoyed with him is over. Obama is now the president-elect of the United States of America; he no longer feeds on our fervor. Instead, he will engage in the slow, tectonic grind of policy change. And we, having reached the apex of our democratic abilities, will have to sit on the sidelines. Our level of direct participation has officially peaked.

But that doesn't mean that we're done, only that our role has changed. Having pledged to tackle climate change, the economy, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and America's increasingly villainous role on the world stage, Obama represents the most realistic hope for change since Kennedy. But he is still a politician and, as such, Obama is operating within an immovable power structure infinitely stronger than any one man. As he begins the business of governing – a banal blend of appeasement, compromise and concession – Obama will be unable to maintain his status as a revolutionary figurehead. Sustaining the sense of hopeful rebellion that swept such an improbable candidate into the White House falls squarely on the shoulders of the people who put him there: "Generation O."

The question hanging in the air is this: does our generation have the revolutionary spirit to keep this thing going? Now that the election is over, the results of any collective efforts to bring about real change in America are going to be decidedly less tangible, quantifiable and visceral. Political shifts of such magnitude – building a green economy, instituting universal healthcare, reining in a capitalist system run amok – are going to require more than a willing president. If these changes are to manifest, they will be the result of a vigilant, engaged and youthful populace that never stops pushing. That means our generation, the one described in Adbusters' now infamous hipster article as a "lost generation, a defeated generation," representative of a culture that is "so detached and disconnected that it has stopped giving birth to anything new," will have to be the engine powering this revolution. That's why it's essential that we temper our post-election euphoria with a serious dose of realism. It's also why Obama canceled the fireworks.

This is the beginning of the battle, not the end. And if there's one critique of this generation to which I'm willing to lend credence, it's that we are seriously hooked on immediacy. If we fail to resign ourselves to the fact that change is a process, not an event, then I fear we'll be sent spiralling headlong into a dangerous new cynicism at the first disappointment dealt to us by Obama.

Disappointment is inevitable. We've elected a good man to office but we are years away from tearing down the broken system within which he must operate. So now you have to ask yourself, how much fight have you got in you?