Could American Youth Change America the Way Egyptian Youth Changed Egypt?

Let me preface this by saying that I am absolutely grateful to be living in a democracy and by no means does this post imply that I want a revolution in America. But I’m curious . . .

The April 6 Youth Movement is credited with being the force behind the events we’ve watched unfold in Egypt. They had been meeting for months with Nobel prizewinner Mohamed ElBarade to study the works of Gandhi, MLK and Gene Sharp; learning the philosophy and practices of non-violent resistance and civil disobedience. The youth movement’s vibrancy and success has led Egyptian scholar Emad Shahin to say, “The [Muslim] Brotherhood is no longer the most effective player in the political arena [in Egypt]”. This is a BIG deal.

Their organization, their tenacity, their technological savviness, their hope, their love for their country – I find all of this truly inspiring. So, I’m curious . . .

Is a youth-led movement like this possible in the USA? I realize we aren’t in need of the same type of uprising, but think about it. . . Are young people in the USA too apathetic, too self-centered to work this hard to make change happen at this level? OR Are we (adults in power and leadership) too unwilling to take our young people seriously enough to ever allow their passions to go this far?

What are your thoughts? Do we really care about the voice of our young people in this country? Do they even have anything worth listening to?

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About jeremypmyers

Jeremy Myers teaches youth and family ministry at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, MN. His current academic interests include articulating a vocational understanding of youth and a public understanding of church. He lives with his wife and two children in St. Paul, MN. Bluegrass music, strong coffee and huge pancakes are a few of his favorite things.
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22 Responses to Could American Youth Change America the Way Egyptian Youth Changed Egypt?

  1. tbuegler says:

    As I’m sitting here thinking about your post and contemplating a response, I have the Grammy Awards in the background. It causes me to ask “to what extent have we been in the midst of a youth movement for the past what: 2? 3? 4 decades? How much of our society is shaped by our youth culture? Watch TV…flip on the radio…look at technology…at some level isn’t the “youth culture” (can that really be defined?) got its hand on the rudder of much of our culture?

    But of course, that’s the myth that is perpetuated by business. It really feels like a symbiotic relationship between young people and those businesses that provide media/tech/communications…

    The question then for me is can our youth culture ever rise up and become more than the marketers think it can/should be? I really don’t know. I’ve seen young people assert their voice on micro levels, but never on a macro level.

    That reasserts for me the importance of the local congregational expression. Isn’t that where change for the sake of the mission of God in the world becomes tangible?

    Just wondering.

    • jeremypmyers says:

      Hi Todd,

      Thanks for your comment. Your question (“can youth rise up and become more”) is my question. Can they? Have we lulled them to sleep? Or do they even WANT more? This is what I’m wondering – and could it happen at the macro level?

  2. Jeremy- Great questions! The youthful technological knife cuts both ways. I fear that here in the US those technologies are so taken for granted by young people that they serves less as catalysts for change and more as a the new ‘opiate of the masses.’ When people feel like they have ‘done something’ by watching a tv show, or posting something on Facebook or Twitter, they may not feel any sense of urgency to actually do anything– in real life, that is. Mubarak would never have been ousted with emails to legsilators and links to blogposts. It required real action. And real action emerged in Egypt from 40% unemployment and real suffering…. I can’t wait to see what other people think. Thanks for starting this conversation.

    • jeremypmyers says:

      Hi Paul,

      Thanks for the comment. Social media = opiate of the people. That is interesting. I would agree to some extent. I think documentaries have fueled this fire as well. We seem to be more informed but simultaneously less educated and less involved than we need to be. We can muster up the energy and time to watch a 90 minute biased documentary and “like” it on Facebook but we can’t seem to delve into the nuances and ambiguities of the issue, nor rise up and change anything.

  3. jeremypmyers says:

    Just found someone else writing about this and thought I’d post it here. The irony (given some of the comments above) is that she is from Punch Media Group.

    What the Egyptian Uprising Means To Young African-Americans
    http://tinyurl.com/4bdp42t

  4. tbuegler says:

    So my short answer to the question that both of us have is “no.” Not in our current culture…not in our current climate. I think young people are being held in place by this symbiotic relationship that speaks of social relevance but really just creates a sense of narcissism.

  5. Kirsten Mebust says:

    Could, yes. About to, no. In consonance with Jeremy and Paul’s comments, I find college students I am working with idealistic and convinced of their giftedness; and woefully ignorant of the real state of injustice in their society. I hear statements like “I want to work on real, global poverty, not American ‘poverty’,” and convictions that climate change is an opinion, not an event that’s happening. Even those sympathetic to the visible injustices around race, economics, and ecology seem convinced that individual efforts to do the right thing are all that is necessary– social, political efforts are inherently corrupt in the views of many. Of course, the students I have are mostly from the elites of our society. Some of my students were in Egypt on a band tour in Egypt at the beginning of the revolution. A few of those remain fascinated by the turn of events and it undoubtedly opened up new options for them. But we have such a long way to go to help youth understand the ways in which social conditions and social actions actually work. I see social media as potentially helpful here, but to mistake the media for the things necessary for change is to commit the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.

    • jeremypmyers says:

      Kirsten,

      Thanks for your reply. Your statement, “but to mistake the media for the things necessary for change is to commit the fallacy of misplaced concreteness”, is quite profound and I’ve been thinking about this a great deal lately. It is similar to Paul’s caution of social media as potential opiate.

      But I wonder if this is really true of those who have grown up with it. Our is it somehow more “authentic” and less “virtual” for them? What if is really is becoming concrete? Then the question becomes where this is the type of concreteness that can sustain a democracy or if it will simply convert democracy into Amazon.com and us into political consumers.

  6. Chester O'Gorman says:

    Is it a possibility, that is, could we do it if we wanted to? Yes. We will? Maybe, but I doubt it — at least not until conditions here in the US worsen. On the other hand, if America could see just how its lifestyle and the capitalist economic system is bad for most of the world (and for itself, really), I think serious change is a real possibility.

    I disagree with the comment you made: “I realize we aren’t in need of the same type of uprising….” Being THE empire, no country on earth needs one more, not only is there no true left represented in our political system, capitalist economic logic and reason runs politics and is largely responsible for some of the worst problems we face today.

    I don’t think the problem is mostly that the youth are apathetic: the last presidential election suggests otherwise. That imputation (not to suggest you are doing so) I think is a way of scapegoating the younger generation, which conceals a more fundamental problem: a feeling of ineptitude in relation to the political process that is directly related to the hegemonic role capitalism plays in US life. Not everyone might articulate this, but I don’t think real change is possible unless we are willing to consider how much capitalist economic logic dictates policy — trumping even human rights, Egypt being a prime example, which is something to which Senator Kerry admitted — and are willing to at least consider thinking about life under a different economic system. Recent legislation to allow corporations to give as much as they wish to political parties not only proves the direct (corrupting) relationship between economics and politics in this country; it only makes the problem worse. In short, youth “apathy” is (not entirely I think) largely due to the lack of real political options and expression. A serious socialist/communist party at least needs a voice in our context.

    In the case of those privileged youth who really do appear apathetic, I don’t think they are in fact apathetic: Their apathy is more an expression of their desire to sustain the status quo more than anything else. It’s been good to them.

    Though I will not continue, I want to acknowledge that there are more facets to this apathy question than I have raised — related and unrelated to the economic issue.

    • jeremypmyers says:

      Chester,

      Thanks for your comment. I was convicted by what you said (“Being THE empire, no country on earth needs one more, not only is there no true left represented in our political system, capitalist economic logic and reason runs politics and is largely responsible for some of the worst problems we face today.”) and it makes me realize that I am a victim of the same apathy I mention in the post – everything is good in America, Right? Isn’t it?

      This is my concern. What if the one thing our youth truly need to be freed from is this apathy? How can we do this? Can the church do it? My opinion is that we simply exacerbate the situation and continue to view our youth primarily as consumers – even of religion, even of the gospel.

      I recommend Henry Giroux’s “Youth In a Suspect Society: Democracy or Disposability”, though it sounds like he might be preaching to the choir.

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

      • Chester O'Gorman says:

        Welcome. Again, the apathy is, I think, by and large not with the youth themselves foremost; it is structural first. Opening up the political system for other parties and placing extremely strict laws to keep money and government separate would help. When I say this, I think that today’s dilemma has nothing to do with church and state, but economics and state.

        Can the church do it? Yes. What is required, however, is for the church to take a strong stance on “middle class values”, which are largely values of the capitalist economic structure. Christ, more than ever, needs to be against culture here. If not, he (again) and the majority of humankind are crucified.

  7. thobie1 says:

    I think the youth need first and foremost a cause that could energize them. You can’t manufacture this sort of thing, it just has to come from what’s going on around them. We may have some things that we think youth should care about, but it has to be something that captures their imagination as a large group. I think usually that’s something pretty big, like democracy in Egypt, or the civil rights movement or the Vietnam War in this country. Without a large, compelling cause, youth are free to spend, consume, watch TV, and play video games as usual.

    • jeremypmyers says:

      Hi, Todd. Good point. I would say adolescence (and our low expectations associated with it) in and of itself is a cause worth fighting against. This is what I am wondering, Are our youth even capable of caring about a cause enough? Have we completely numbed them from really matters? And if they find a cause to believe in is our society structured in a way that they would be able to organize and have a collective voice? And if so, would we take them seriously?

  8. Chester and Jeremy- I just heard the statistic that income/wealth disparity is far greater in the US than in Egypt. That doesn’t seem to be the trigger quite yet… What does the Gospel have to offer to conscientize young people to the reality of their situation, and their capacity to be a part of improving the world in which they live?

    • Chester O'Gorman says:

      There is plenty, I think. Sin could be stressed more, which is a problem at least with the liberal church. I think it is true that, in terms of economics, the church either promotes middle class values or does not speak strongly enough against them, if at all. There are plenty of texts and theological interpretations that could be uplifted that could either directly or indirectly promote/sustain certain attitudes, duties, and affections (e.g., to care for creation) that are opposed to capitalism.

      In terms of the larger social context, the problem is that fewer and fewer care about church.

      • jeremypmyers says:

        I find myself caring less and less about church because church seems to care less and less about life. It seems to be concerned only for its own survival. So we have to find ways to preach an alternative to “middle class values” that also clearly articulates and offers life. I believe are youth are bored with and numbed by “middle class values” and are just waiting for a good reason to break free. We haven’t given them one. Adolescent consumerism is a prison and the church is a warden without a key.

  9. Kirsten Mebust says:

    I do believe that a sense of competence is the issue. But there are a lot of organizations working to help young people with that. I think worldview– hermeneutics, in religious language– is a much larger part of the problem than we acknowledge. In general, most Americans, including the young, define freedom not as the power to work together for a goal but as freedom from responsibility for anyone other than self. It’s not so much that we’re unwilling to work with others on matters of our choice, it’s that we believe it’s not necessary. That’s not a conservative-liberal split either, although each side tries to accuse the other of it; it shows up in political ideologies throughout the spectrum. I suspect nothing less than a major shift in family and community dynamics is going to change that.
    We embrace new technologies even before they work very well, because they give us new powers. I suppose the problem is, how do we get the new powers of activism into the hands of people in such a way that they make us feel more powerful before we feel frustrated by them?

    • jeremypmyers says:

      Great question, Kirsten. And how do we always keep the neighbor (and not the powers of activism) as the the subject. My fear is that many folks get wrapped up in activism without giving a thought to the neighbor, or without even KNOWING the neighbor – the one who is suffering.

      Glad you mention hermeneutics. This is the subject of my most recent post.

  10. jeremypmyers says:

    Can’t help but “refresh” this conversation after the happenings in Wisconsin. Its been good to see so many “youth” coming out to support the Unions in Madison. I’m finding that I am becoming less and less patient with the church. All we seem to do (and I will do plenty of this on this blog) is talk about how we can do church better. All the while the world seems to be concerned with more important things. So, what does the gospel (not the law) and ministry have to do with the events in Madison? Egypt? Iran? Bahrain?

    I want to be a part of a church that preaches the gospel so clearly that those who experience it can’t help but have their hearts ache whenever they hear of oppression anywhere and can’t help but have their hearts leap for joy (and righteous anger!) when people anywhere stand up for what it means to be human.

    If this gospel message does not exist in our church today, then I’m not sure I’m interested in church anymore.

  11. kenzgrondahl says:

    Take heart, Jeremy! Christ has already written our ultimate future, and, thankfully, salvation does not depend on our own action, but on His grace and mercy.

    That being said, I am just as frustrated as you are. I think we know what we are called to do, but are so scared of ticking people off with the changes that we won’t do anything. I’ve seen it over and over again. I’m ashamed to say that I have capitulated to it as well.

    If our youth are seeing young adults like me (32) who are passionate outwardly about Christ give up because we can’t get anything to change, why would they be interested? I don’t know what to do next, but to pray and hope for an opening that the Holy Spirit is willing to strong arm into doing what we need to do.

    I just hold on to the power of the story, and that the Spirit works where it will. I will keep telling Christ’s story to whoever will listen, and pray that it is enough.

    • jeremypmyers says:

      Thanks for your comment and your remember to trust in Christ’s story and the movement of the Spirit. We lose sight of this biblical sense of hope very easily, or at least I do.

      Our Works might mean nothing in heaven, but they mean an awful lot here. The Spirit and the Story can move us to action. But, I just worry that we are creating a life for our young people (and maybe for everyone) that leaves them numb, indifferent, or unaware to/of the story and too busy and distracted to follow the Spirit. The church seems to be perpetuating this.

      Water Brueggemann has a thoughtful piece entitled “Counterscript” which expresses this better than I can. You can read it here.

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