The final part in my three-part series on the awesome power of Nerdfighteria and its benevolent "rulers," John and Hank Green (who aren't rulers, really, since it's more of a collective community, but they are a central magnetic force drawing in the nerds). I'm sure the world has been waiting eagerly for this long-delayed final post; it's a long one, so make yourself comfy.
First, a tiny update: a few days ago, John Green tweeted that the Nerdfighter group on kiva.org has now loaned over $150,000 in microloans. I'm not sure exactly when the numbers here started to boom, but it's been in the last six months or so. Again, a reminder that the majority of Nerdfighteria are young people - say, under 21 years old.
On to the Problem: When I was in high school, in my senior year I got interested in students' rights as a result of an amazing history teacher and the appallingly thwarted efforts of some friends to form a public Gay-Straight Alliance. For a long while thereafter, I seriously considered attending law school, with an eye on either civil rights or student/young person-related law. Obviously, law school went by the wayside, but for any number of reasons - including the fact that I specialize in children's and youth culture - I'm still quite interested in the plight of young people.
In some ways, this is a First World Problem: the disenfranchisement of under-21s (or even under-25s) is not quite on par with sub-saharan starvation crises, with southeast Asian political fighting, with South American paramilitary activity. At the same time, if we judged every cause by its relation to more dire causes, we'd be stalled out with inertia. Just because something is a First World Problem doesn't make it not a problem. Perfectability of society is a thing that should belong to all people, regardless of where they live.
Young people ARE disenfranchised. They are experiencing unemployment at higher rates than the general population, sometimes by as many as 3 or 4 times .
Young people under the age of 18 pay taxes - sales tax, and if they DO have jobs, in the form of payroll taxes for Medicare and Social Security. I started working at a Hallmark shop in a mall when I was 16 - I worked there for more than two years. In that time, I paid in hundreds, if not thousands, to Medicare and Social Security, yet I had absolutely NO voice in how that money was regulated, disbursed, etc. Then, as now, there was a fair amount of political chatter about making changes to both programs; chatter I followed, because I was and am a nerd, but which I was not able to participate in, despite being an American worker paying taxes. This - taxation without representation - is one of the biggest forms of disenfranchisement that under-18s face, and I think it's a significant one. After all, Taxation Without Representation was one of the central causes of the American Revolution, was it not? [debatable, but in popular mythology, still important]
Then we get to other issues: the drinking age, which weirdly supercedes the age at which one is a legal citizen. The arguments for lowering the drinking age to the age of legal citizenship (i.e., age 18) are various, but one I find especially compelling is that it could creation an altered culture around drinking, reducing things like alcohol poisoning and alcohol abuse among teenagers and college students.
The linkage of college financial aid to male enrollment in Selective Service (which is, frankly, creepy and a kind of forced enscription).
The very large, and increasingly more troubling, problems of student loan debt - partially highlighted through the work of the Occupy protesters - is another area of disenfranchisement for young people.
Then there's the fact that the United States, alone with Somalia, refused to sign the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Amnesty International includes this very telling explanation of Somalia's failure to sign: "Somalia currently does not have the governmental capacity to ratify an international treaty at this time."
Primary objections include fears that the Convention would reduce parental authority, lead to lots of abortions, and result in children making their own (!) choices about religion. Two other issues loom in the background of the Convention: child soldiers (yes, weirdly enough: evidently, American 17-year-olds, who are legally children in the view of the convention, can join the US military) and capital punishment for juveniles.
This leads directly to the next item on the disenfranchised list: trial, imprisonment, and sentencing of minors as adults. This is an issue I feel very, very, very strongly about; regardless of crime, I do not feel any child (even a 17-year-old) should be tried as an adult. I would completely support altering penal codes to deal with juvenile offenders; at the moment, it's an all-or-nothing system, which frees teenage criminals when they reach majority, or which treats 12-year-olds like 45-year-olds in the eyes of the law. Neither is satisfactory.
A much smaller issue, but one I think is representative in some important ways of the way the issues of younger people are simply ignored, is the Car-Rental Dilemma. Even if you're the safest driver on earth, if you're under 25, you must pay a premium (usually a very high premium) if you want to rent a car. I have never been able to understand how this isn't illegal discrimination (and I've researched it at some length, but still my brain refuses to process it).
So what is the solution? What's the Proposal?
A powerful advocacy group. A lobbying and activist group on par with the AARP - the American Association of Retired Persons. Membership in that group is essentially automatic. I would model my group broadly after the AARP. I might even borrow their acronymic principle: Why not the American Association of Young People, the AAYP?
One of the criticisms of Kids These Days is their political apathy. I don't see this; most of the younger people I come in contact with do have at least a thin thread of interest or passion about some aspect of political and social life. They're just so thoroughly disenfranchised that they don't exert themselves. In the parlance of one of my favorite podcasters (Merlin Mann), young people have no skin in the game. In fact, they're excluded from the game almost entirely. They want to play, but no one's giving them a leg up.
I dislike, very strongly, the way lobbying operates in American government. I'd love to see that changed dramatically. I don't think this will happen any time soon. Until such a time when powerful lobbies aren't needed, I think it's vital that young people have one. The AARP is strong. It is one potent group of voters. There may not be as many young people voting - I'll limit my group to, say, ages 25 and under - but there are still a lot of them.
And no one speaks for them.
No one in any position of real political efficacy gives one shake of a dead rat's tail about the needs and wants of that age group. And I think that needs to change. The way to make it change is to form a group so numerous and vocal - and let's face it, financially strong - that the media, then the politicians, must pay attention to it.
This is where John and Hank Green come in. They have a large and broad platform from which to speak. John has over a million followers on Twitter. The two have repeatedly been able to marshal the forces of Nerdfighteria to undertake any number of causes, including lending and giving literally hundreds of thousands of dollars. Yes, this is small potatoes in the context of larger political contributions, but I would argue that it represents a much larger "sacrifice" or percentage of income given than one sees in the population at large.
I've been daydreaming about my AAYP for years - ever since high school, when our GSA was reduced to dust, when I learned about PACs, when my folks explained to me how much power the AARP had. One of my huge stumbling blocks, when I try to think how such an organization would be formed, is the need for strongly magnetic, charismatic leadership that would draw in young people. A kind of celebrity spokesperson(or persons), but ones genuinely and truly committed to the cause of increasing the power and influence and respect for young people in this country. There aren't many of these sorts of people in the pages of People magazine.
But John and Hank Green are precisely the kind of people who would work beautifully as loci for a young people's movement. Both are intelligent and very articulate; they manage to be serious and funny simultaneously. They're able to compress information into tidy short packets or nuggets; they can do soundbites and catchphrases like nobody's business. They've clearly mastered the use of the Internet for social networking, charitable work, and general community-building. Both have connections in other fields: John, of course, in the world of books - teachers, librarians, publishing, and Hank in science and entrepreneurship. Those teachers and librarians are an invaluable resource, because they're working with a good portion of the young people in question, and a great many are committed to the welfare and well-being of young people. Yes, they're nerds, but they are also able to speak across a range of nerd-groups: readers, artists, scientists, musicians, computer geeks, video-game-enthusiasts, lego nerds, sports fans (yes. John Green maintains a twitter account for his commentary on sports - @sportswithjohn). They already stage an annual con.
I don't think for one moment that they should be the driving force behind this - essentially, I would pick them as the networking hub. Young people ought to run the show - there's plenty of unemployed, or underemployed, college graduates out there who could do a great job of branding, marketing, coordinating, doing whatever it is one needs to do to set up an advocacy organization. Clearly, older people - especially those with experience in such things - would be needed as well, but I would want the heart of the organization to be younger people. The core board and directorate would be largely under term limits - say four years. Then new folks would come in. You'd have to have some unchanging people, of course, for continuity, but keeping the main players both fresh and young would ensure new ideas and relevance - if you continually recruit young people into the organization, you'll always have people on hand who are totally up-to-date with the current state of the younger world.
I just love the idea of young people being represented more thoroughly in the halls of power. Can you imagine a group tasked with advocating for young people taking on issues relating to education? or student loans? I am pretty sure there was no one at the table looking out for 22-year-old recent graduates when any and all student loan regulation was put in place.
It would be a lovely thing to give power to the young people. AAYP - or whatever you want to call it - for and by the young people of America - it would be a glorious revolution.