My General Theory of Blackout goes something like this:
You know how some people are genetically predisposed to addiction? Millennials are predisposed to all benefits and detriments of holding the community above all else. A kind of mob rule. The most structured generation in history was taught to disassociate self-esteem with performance. And self-esteem decoupled from performance wants for something to be justified. What Millennials then seek is Purpose from down high, something that dictates action, resolves ambiguity, decides the decisions. Blackout is reduction—there’s a certain inflection point of drunkenness, at which the extraneous falls away, and the mind hums towards an end. The group—Millennials were taught group work would be important, guided by a teacher, a parent, or a schedule—holds a special allure.
Why do people feel lost? Because the hallmarks of this era—joblessness and underemployment for young people, student debt, credit card debt—defer the decisions that require individual choice. There’s no ownership. You just…drift until you hit a Purpose.
This has its moments. The wild popularity of Teach for America is a good thing, for instance. That’s a Purpose. Mission trips, social enterprise, volunteerism—these are good things. There is a lot of good being done because people are so hungry for human connection and purpose.
But pareto improvements are rare. There are downsides to this generational eagerness to be subsumed into a moving community, especially when social media and mobile technology allow it to warp quickly.
The Trayvon Martin case has the potential to get uglier. And the reverberations could accentuate tensions that already exist. Last summer, Walter Russell Mead talked at length about the flash mob, and racial tensions in the country:
Should this phenomenon grow and should the media continue to downplay both the extent and the racial nature of the violence, look for a deep and angry response. Many American whites are young, angry, poorly educated and male. So are many Spanish speaking immigrants. These guys also know how to organize a mob on Facebook. […]
The races are very far apart today; many whites believe that by electing a Black president the country has demonstrated its commitment to post racial politics and they expect Blacks to stop complaining about the past and start thriving in the glorious, racism-free paradise of America today. Many whites look at this Black success, and they think it is time to take down the affirmative action scaffolding that assisted the Black rise. Why, they ask, should the children of presidents and cabinet officers — to say nothing of celebrity offspring — benefit from racial preference in hiring and admissions?
For Blacks, especially those who haven’t made it into the elite, unemployment and the staggering losses in Black wealth during the Great Recession are far more consequential than the success of the Black upper crust. Much of White America thinks it has done all anyone could reasonably expect by opening the White House doors to a Black politician; much of Black America thinks little has changed. Many whites think Blacks have effectively used politics to win themselves jobs and preferences; many Blacks think that Black poverty in the age of Obama reveals how pitiful the results of political action really are.
I can’t speak to most of that, but: Those comments seem more relevant than ever, perhaps because the Martin-Zimmerman case and all that surrounds it has clarified something that already existed.
Things can get away from you in a social media era, though, and we are not all so careful with words. When you take the one-in-four youth unemployment and douse it in hot weather and $5 gas, then introduce the variable of off-handed comments amplified by Twitter, Facebook, and text messages—you have the right conditions for a big hurricane season this summer. It doesn’t have to be racial tensions. It could be lay-offs, for example. Or it could just be stupidity. Look what students at UK did to Lexington after the basketball game; that was after a good thing.
The problem is this: The technology allows things to blow up fast. This can be good (the Million Hoodie March to bring attention to the Martin case), or it can be bad (the London riots). I didn’t link it up, but Mead’s essay colored my 9/11-adjacent post last fall:
But maybe I’m engaging in the game of optimism and renewed expectations. […]
Or perhaps the true abyss is this: the flash mob.
The culmination of this would be the London riots, in Philadelphia or Chicago or Atlanta. A combustion of people warping and twisting that impulse for cohesion and purpose, people who just want to watch the society that failed them burn.
Is it in our future? I don’t think so. Then again, we’re special. We can be anything we want to be.
Here’s hoping it’s a just a tropical storm and I’m wrong.