Saturday, 1 August 2015

YOUTH IN AMERICA, RUSSIA AND CHINA



This article is part of a 13-question interview about American society that Jaime Ortega, president of "The Daily Journalist" conducted with me by submitting questions in writing.

1.      Jaime Ortega, The Daily Journalist: The youth in the United States has become very anti-government and anti military. The youth in the past presented a lot more nationalist values which helped military enrolment. Is lack of military enrolment and patriotism a downfall of any world power in history?

JVK: America’s youth is a reflection of the diverse society and contemporary political trends. It is true that a segment of the youth is anti-government and anti-military but not nearly at levels America had seen during the last years of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal under Richard Nixon. One would need to go back to the Eisenhower administration when McCarthyism,“Communist witch hunts”, and the institutionalization of the Red Scare had driven the majority in society, including the youth, to nationalist conformity. The result of that intense sense of Cold War nationalism that transcended political affiliation in the 1950s and early 1960s was support for the US military in the early years of the Vietnam War. 

As the middle class suffered casualties and the news from the front was that the war was unwinnable, middle class youth turned against nationalism and militarism. This was evident during the 1968 presidential campaign with the candidacy of anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy that resulted in the loss of the Democrat party to Republican Richard Nixon. American youth was radicalized at the same time that there was a national movement for civil rights under Martin Luther King and a rising women’s rights movement, all involving young people mostly from the middle class. This convergence of protests movements by American youth as reflected also in cultural trends revealed dissatisfaction with Cold War conformity with domestic and foreign policy. There was also frustration because the kind of sweeping reforms on women, minorities, and foreign policy that the youth demanded never materialized. Although women and minorities achieved modest concessions within the political economy, this was limited to the upper middle class rather than cutting across class lines for all women and minorities. 

The political and financial elites reoriented America’s youth toward a conservative direction after the revolutions in Iran and Nicaragua in 1979 and the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. These developments accounted for a resurgence in nationalism and revisionist thinking on militarism not just by rural, religious Southerners, but a larger cross-section in American society that saw benefits to conformity during the decade of Glasnost and Perestroika under Gorbachev who laid the groundwork for the Soviet Union’s dissolution. In short, the youth saw tangible results in conformity to hawkish politics and identity with the nation-state because the US had won the East-West confrontation started under Truman. 

At the same time, there was the euphoria that capitalism enjoyed a monopoly in the world and the US was at the core of the world economy, bound to enjoy benefits that would filter down so that all people could finally enjoy the American Dream. This was the image politicians, media, businesses, and schools projected. Those who wanted a “piece of the American Dream” had to conform. America’s youth was slowly discovering that the endless and unwinnable war on terror institutionalized at home and abroad came at a price of downward socioeconomic mobility, college costs higher and high-paying jobs fewer meant that the American Dream was limited to fewer and fewer people, while the promising middle class as the backbone of American society was fading. This reality accounts for the cynicism even conspiracy theories on the part of a segment in America’s youth in our time. 

Some resorted to social media opposition to government and the military establishment as a way to have their voice matter in a world where only the voice of the political class and the socioeconomic elites it serves really matters. Another segment of America’s youth tried even harder to conform realizing there is no alternative. Others becoming nihilistic, gave up completely as public opinion polls indicate on the issue of political activism and participation in local and national elections. This was especially the case with America’s minority youth that have a different perspective regardless of social class.

Unlike white youth that has positive social identities in a society with a long history of institutionalized and cultural racism (institutional practices endeavoring to justify inequality based on race and ethnicity), the black and Hispanic youth experience a different “American reality”. Their social status is not only economically determined, but ethnically/racially determined as evidenced by the reality of police arrests, court cases and prison statistics of black and Latino youth. Despite the Civil Right movement of the 1960s, laws and law suits against public and private sector institutional discrimination, and America’s first black president in the age of political correctness, the phenomenon of racism is a constant in American history because it is deeply ingrained in the culture and it manifests itself institutionally. 

The dream of black and Hispanic youth transcending race and ethnicity through class – upward social mobility – is to a large extent real within the capitalist system, but young people know that the vast majority in their ethnic group will be left behind and suffer institutional discrimination just beneath the thin layer of political correctness at the workplace. They also realize that when coming up against the criminal justice system, and other interactions in both the public and private sectors, they are at a disadvantage. The nature of capitalism is such that it subordinates such institutional discrimination to the domain of competition,viewing everyone as a valued consumer/investor in the political economy; except that the less one has to consume/invest the less valued that individual is, especially when he is black or Hispanic where societal and institutional stereotypes of cultural racism/ethnocentric apply. 

Where does this leave minority youth, except dispirited because they realize equality of opportunity does not obviate social-cultural stereotypes, especially in the domain of the criminal justice system. That there are political groups as appendages of the Republican Party instigating xenophobia aimed at Hispanics, and right-wing media promoting underlying racist messages using code words such as “criminals” to refer to unarmed black youth shot in cold blood by white police officers only perpetuates cynicism about America refusing to abandon the culture and institutional structure of its apartheid past. When white police officers shoot black suspects on average twice a week, according to the FBI, and use excessive force against Hispanic and black youth 98.9% of the time, according to a University of Nebraska study, the problem is very serious because the politicians have done nothing to change the culture of racism. Meanwhile, Hollywood, TV, books and magazines glorify and commercialize this phenomenon and make profits as a resuilt of social ills they in turn perpetuate by the manner they project them.

Despite this reality, black and Hispanic youth remain the backbone of the US armed forces along with the poor whites, while the upper middle class white youth talks about patriotism as its domain but defers to minorities and the poor to serve America. Not surprisingly, the Department of Defense target minorities and poor whites for recruitment, According to studies, only 70 percent of new recruits have a high school diploma, whereas DoD goal is to raise it to 90%. This blatant hypocrisy on the part of the wealthy whites was true in the early 21st century as it was in the mid-20th century. 

The blatant hypocrisy here is that the political and financial elites have always projected the image of patriotism, when in fact such traits are actually much more prevalent among the poor and minority youth. This is largely because the marginalization from the institutional mainstream brings them even closer to embracing patriotism and service in the armed forces. The same does not hold true for the upper middle dominated by the white majority that has more realistic possibilities for upward social mobility within the mainstream of society.

Jaime Ortega, The Daily Journalist: On the flipside China and Russia’s youth have become very patriotic and nationalistic; will that help their countries rise faster to power to invigorate new superpowers? Will the US youth be ready for conflict if problems in the future arise with these emerging powers given the lack of nationalist values that once made the US a military superpower? Is that related to the fall of Rome? 

JVK: It is understandable why the youth in Russia and China would be more nationalistic than in the US for several reasons. First, there is a resurgence of Russian and Chinese nationalism for different reasons in the respective societies. In the case of Russia, nationalism has replaced Communism as an ideology that the state promotes not only in the domain of electoral politics, but economic nationalism and especially cultural nationalism as a catalyst to unity in society now that a class-based system divides people more than it unites them. Although nationalism was a force that Josef Stalin promoted as much as his successors under the banner of “Soviet collectivism” and faced with a hostile outside world, today’s Russia has the state-supported Orthodox Church as a major force promoting nationalism. 

In the mid-1990s, Russian nationalism among the youth was very high, partly because of political organizations under Barshakov and Zhirinovski trying to mobilize the masses into movements that would then be part of a party base to gain power. Although these 1990s movements faded, there are various ultra-nationalist youth groups, some using violence that are anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic, and xenophobic. Russian youth are generally organized from the top down, as is the case with “Nashi” political youth movement claiming to be democratic and anti-oligarchic, but in essence an NGO headed by Vladimir Putin’s supporters trying to create a broad popular political base. The catalyst to the youth in Russia is the “foreign enemy” trying to undermine Russia, on its surface appearing rather paranoid to the outsiders but in reality having an empirical basis.

Russophobia that exists in Ukraine, Baltic States, Poland, and in some of the former Soviet republics also accounts for Russian nationalism. Above all, the new containment policy of the US and Europe and Vladimir Putin’s nationalist politics are the strongest force that convince Russians across social classes, especially the youth, that people must come together behind their nationalist leaders, no matter the level of official corruption and private sector corruption linked to the state. Nevertheless, Russian nationalism among the young people is understandable also because the end of USSR that created neighboring nation-states and the realization of social and cultural freedoms that have shaped bourgeois values that did not exist under Communism. 

To a large degree, we find some catalysts of Russian nationalism just as true of Chinese youth. Considering the immense structural changes as much in China, as in Russia since 1990, the youth in these countries was born and grew up knowing nothing else but the promise of the new open globally-integrated economy along with consumerist cultural values. The realization that upward mobility is an achievable goal for a segment of Chinese youth accounts for greater optimism in comparison with the American youth knowing those same possibilities for upward mobility are becoming increasingly limited. 

Mao and the Cultural Revolution generation are a distant memory relegated to museums and history books never to become policy again. No matter how admirable the idealism of the 1960s generation that tried to create a utopian society under Chairman Mao, the youth of contemporary China looks to global integration as its future rather the autarchy isolation that Mao had imposed. The value system of Maoist collectivism gave way to that of a Western-based individual merit system under the market economy, with all this implies for a new social structure and economy in China. 

The youth in China is just a diverse if not more so than the American youth, given that class, gender, ethnicity, and geography plays a huge role in the social structure. The college educated youth in the largest cities – Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Dongguan, Chengdu, and  Hong Kong – constitutes the internet generation whose identity is much more influenced by cosmopolitan trends than the rural and less educated population suffering low incomes and low living standards. The urban-rural divide accounts for different perspectives, but the identification with a nation-state that has taken the country from isolation to global economic preeminence is in itself inspirational for Chinese youth that transcends class and ethnicity. 

The tradition of dissent in China has been both within the Communist system as well as outside of it with those embracing everything from Western values to freedom of religion. The spring 1989 student uprising in Tiananmen Square that resulted in tragic killings by the security forces represented a nascent youth bourgeois democracy protest movement that inspired pro-democracy protests in early 2011 and ethnic and religious protests that represented diverse groups. In the last ten years or so, an online protest movement, also bourgeois in its modalities and goals, emerged to represent another dimension of where China’s youth may be headed.

Fingshu Liu argues that the internet has shaped Chinese youth identity in what he calls “online nationalism”. To some degree, these young people are somewhat apathetic about politics as much as their Western counterparts that feel nothing ever changes and there is nothing they can do about it. In post-Mao China, these urban college educated youth, however, represent the new trend in nationalism as they realize their country will become the world's unquestioned economic power and this would have derivative benefits for them and future generations. In this respect, Chinese nationalism is driven by the optimistic scenarios of China as the new superpower overtaking the US. The Chinese “online nationalism” that Fingshu Liu refers is of course a universal phenomenon and hardly limited to China. 

One could easily argue that the Arab Spring revolts had as their catalyst the internet, as did the protest movements in Spain, and the “Occupy Wall Street” youth protest that started in September 2011 and eventually died out three years later. Unlike the American youth, the Chinese and Russia are first generation middle class nationalists and have a different perspective driven not just by their historical past but optimism about the potential of their respective nations to achieve new heights in the global arena. One could argue that in this respect Chinese youth culture looking foreard is similar to Japanese that has the future in its target, despite paying reverence to the past.

By contrast, American youth, broken down by class race and ethnicity, lacks the sense of Chinese optimism because they realize the 21st century at best is going to be of America not losing its status in the world, not suffering further erosion of the declining middle class, and not experiencing a greater gap between the top ten percent of income earners and the rest of the population. “The Fall of Rome” syndrome is already evident in American society and the young people sense it, despite the political 'srhetoric about the American Dream and the media’s attempts to demonize foreign enemies as a distraction of the domestic structural problems.  

Chinese American youth optimism about the future remained steady in the mid-50s but reached a peak in 2001 at 71 percent, before plummeting to 44% during the 2008-2011 recession, levels at which it remains today. Because in the US the mass psychology tends to place all fault with the individual when they become unemployed or do not make sufficient income, people have been indoctrinated to internalize what are otherwise external structural problems such as the political economy. By contrast, under Marxist ideology in Russia and China the emphasis was on the institutional structures that shape the individual’s life. Although Chinese and Russia youth have grown up on consumerist values, they come from traditions of collectivism and layers of tradition remain just below the surface of the currents trends – to borrow an old Chinese proverb.

While 93% of Chinese believe their country has a bright future, 67% believe they will become businesspeople. This level of optimism is the highest in the world, while Russia lags China in optimism but it is well ahead of the US with about 70% of Russian youth indicating they will be about the same or better off in the future. Whether for or against Putin youth organizations have a greater sense of shaping their future from within or outside the system. The Chinese are also optimistic about controlling their destiny within the new system. Similar trends are absent among American youth have yielded to resignation or conformity with only small groups defying the institutional structure at the root of injustice in society. Considering the US has a long tradition of believing it is in charge of its own destiny and that of the world, we see that trend in decline across the board and among America’s youth.


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