Returning from a lost decade

Originally published in the Rutland Herald and Rutland County Express on 9/15/11.

Over the years, I’ve often had doubts about my generation. Amid the unceasing intellectual debasement of our culture, which increasingly — almost gleefully — rejects substance for style, I feared that our potential would be squandered, lost in a malaise of self-absorbed apathy.

With the advent of social and technological phenomena like Facebook, Twitter, and the iPhone, I worried that we would only slip further into this solipsistic vacuum, egocasting ourselves into irrelevance as we became ever more acutely able to filter the information to which we are exposed.

Each generation has a defining moment — a time when a single event changes everything and requires us to act, to unite and change the world, one hopes, for the better. Our collective response will, for better or worse, leave an indelible mark on the wall of history. Our grandparents had Pearl Harbor. Our parents had JFK’s assassination.

Ten years ago on Sept. 11, my generation had its moment. As I sat outside in near silence with some friends on Manhattan’s Upper West Side that night, frightened and numb, I felt the time had come.

However, given the circumstances — namely, the incompetence of the news media, our leaders’ self-serving and ideological policies and rampant cultural and religious ignorance — I worried that it would be squandered.

And, to a large extent, it was.

Being American got co-opted, corrupted and distilled down into jingoistic country songs and flags conspicuously pinned on lapels. The terms of the game were “either you’re with us, or you’re against us,” with no room for nuance, dialogue or dissent. This was a game I could not and would not play.

But perhaps our moment was not squandered. Perhaps, it was only deferred.

My generation — the Millennials, as we are called — has spent this lost decade witnessing one failure after another: an economy built on sand, a government blatantly beholden to special interests and corporations, politicians who prefer being right to doing what is right, and a news media that holds none accountable.

Given that, it’s hard to fault people for choosing apathy.

But the apathy wanes. And given the opportunity, my generation is ready to act.

When Tropical Storm Irene tore through Vermont, leaving a path of destruction that few thought possible here in our safe, little state, the images appeared almost instantly across social media. Local Facebook and Twitter feeds, mine included, exploded. The simple act of clicking “like” or “share” disseminated vital information across networks in seconds.

Irene had flooded social media just as effectively as she had flooded our rivers. Like it or not, she was there, intruding on any feed with even a slight connection to our state.

By the evening of Aug. 28, Facebook and Twitter had shown me and others dozens of images of Irene’s assault while the traditional media were still scrambling to put together their packages for the 11 o’clock news or tomorrow’s edition. (To their credit, the traditional outlets have embraced social media as well, and the folks at WCAX and the Rutland Herald-Times Argus used it to great effect during and post-Irene.)

But beyond the passive act of sharing images of the devastation, social media allowed people to organize quickly. As we have seen elsewhere in the world, social media have played crucial roles in bringing people together around a cause and effecting change.

While people who were not as connected digitally were still processing Irene’s destruction, those of us who had been plugged in from the start, were already organizing. Within 24 hours of Irene, the web was buzzing with ways to get involved.

The blog VTResponse almost immediately became the statewide clearinghouse for Irene-related information.

Locally, Restoring Rutland (a group, which I helped to organize with several friends) leapt into action, coordinating with the Chittenden Fire Department and Casella to send food and supplies to stranded communities along Route 100.

In addition, we worked with the Rutland Department of Pubic Works and city government to send cleanup crews into affected neighborhoods as well as help raise awareness about water conservation.

The results have been nothing short of remarkable — not only for the tremendous outpouring of generosity, but also for how, within efforts at Restoring Rutland and I Am Vermont Strong, my generation has been leading the way.

While our volunteers’ ages have varied widely, the core group of leaders has been largely in their 20s and 30s.

The other day, more than a week into our volunteer effort at Restoring Rutland, one of these volunteers noted just that, saying, “It’s been so special to be a part of this, and to see it being led by people our age.” The comment was a mix of genuine pride with a slight amount of surprise — the subtext being, “who thought we could be so motivated and compassionate?”

Indeed, we threw ourselves headlong into this effort, spending any moment not at our real jobs holed up at 34 Strongs Ave. packing supplies for our drivers or planning the next day’s work.

Through it all, I’ve gained a new respect for my friends, who showed up without even being asked, to do what we all felt needed to be done. It was a demonstration of character that showed me definitively why they are my friends in the first place.

But more broadly, this experience has given me hope for my generation, which has come of age in a time of great uncertainty and divisiveness — the enduring the legacy of our parents’ generation.

Like us, their generation grew up in a time of unrest, however, their push for lasting change was ultimately squandered and co-opted. In my more cynical moments, I wonder if this my generation will follow suit.

But we have a choice: We can either feed into the acrimony and fear that have taken hold of our society in the past 10 years, or we can take this opportunity to lead, changing the narrative and our world for the better.

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