In our mind's eye, we Americans see ourselves as the young Elvis, a slim-hipped rock-and-roll revolutionary shaking things up around the world. But how do we answer critics who see us as the old Elvis? Enormously rich, yes, but sick, miserable, and bloated from excess?
That's how Canadian activist Kalle Lasn, author of "Culture Jam: The Uncooling of America," and growing legions of mostly young people around the world see us. To them, the American dream has become a nightmare that threatens the planet.
The fast car means environmental destruction. The luscious, slim blonde symbolizes the self-hate of eating disorders and Caucasian tyranny. Our monster malls illustrate an insatiable selfishness. And the jangle of our ceaseless entertainment symbolizes the death of authentic community and human values. The culture wars have erupted again, and this time the battlefield is global.
From the streets of Seattle to web pages to books and magazines, there are signs that a new counterculture is fermenting, particularly among the young. The next big showdown: Washington, D.C., on April 16 and 17, when environmental and human rights groups opposed to globalization are planning the Mobilization for Global Justice. Their aim: to disrupt the annual spring meetings of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, which protesters say harm the environment and destroy local industries and culture.
"Bubbling beneath the surface is this huge new movement...that is looking for a new direction outside the mainstream," says Gerald Celente, director of the Trends Research Institute. These are the young people from around the world who marched in Seattle in December to protest the World Trade Organization, Celente says. Yes, the majority of American kids want to wear clothes from Old Navy and crave SUVs, but another group is growing.
"My parents' generation was really able to mobilize around the Vietnam War. There was also the civil rights movement and the women's movement," says Sara Pipher, 23, a human rights activist. "This generation is turning our eyes outward and looking at the effects of corporate culture on the rest of the world. We need to examine the exportation of our American dream and its ramifications for human rights and the environment."
Carol Holst, the founder and program director of Seeds of Simplicity, a national voluntary simplicity group based in Los Angeles, calls the movement "a groundswell." Rather than one issue, she says, young people are focusing on a range: "environmental concerns, labor issues, human rights, gender equity issues."
While she estimates that no more than 15 to 20 percent of people entering their 20s are rejecting "possession obsession," Holst believes that "this type of social conscience is growing among the young."
Beka Economopoulos, 25, is a field organizer for Ecopledge, which also is known as the Dirty Jobs Boycott campaign. The group encourages young people not to work for corporations that harm the environment. Jailed for five days during the Seattle WTO protests, she is organizing students for this month's protests of the World Bank and the IMF.
"There's a new climate, socially and politically," Economopoulos says. Her generation's path to activism looks something like this: First, you focus on recycling projects and cleaning up rivers and beaches. But you realize you're coming back to the same place every Earth Day. Then you move on to legislative campaigns and eventually decide that transnational corporations are the problem.
Celente says this generation possesses an unprecedented economic weapon: computer skills and savvy. "These kids don't have to pay their dues," she says. "They speak [Microsoft] Word as their first language."
One of the values Economopoulos's generation embraces is diversity, and she sees that threatened. "By exporting the American dream, you are squashing indigenous cultures," she says. "In Jerusalem, you can eat at McDonald's." Lasn believes that young people, stewed from birth in an unprecedented marinade of advertising, are waking up to form a "culture-jamming movement."
The founder of Adbusters magazine, which satirizes commercials, Lasn believes that in the past 30 years the world of Americans has shifted from an authentic environment to one in which artificial desires and destructive insecurities are ceaselessly stoked by psychologically sophisticated marketing aimed at getting people to buy. "Our emotions, personalities, and core values are under siege from media and cultural forces too complex to decode," Lasn writes. "A continuous product message has woven itself into the very fabric of our existence." And that product message--from the Marlboro Man to Coke--has gone global, thanks to TV and corporations. "American culture threatens to become the first global culture," Lasn says.
Or as Douglas Rushkoff, the author of "Coercion: Why We Listen to What 'They' Say," puts it, "We paved over the world once with cement, and now we're going to pave over our psyches with advertising." An early and passionate advocate of the Internet and its possibilities, Rushkoff observes that although the Internet was a vibrant ecology of ideas and individuals, now it is an economy in which everything leads to the buy button. "There's this amphetamine push toward greater and greater consumption," says Rushkoff, a professor of virtual culture at New York University.
"A backlash is coming," says Naomi Klein, the author of "No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies." Her book explores how corporations hunt down whatever is cool, from grunge to rap to ironic asides, and market it worldwide. (One of the book's major targets, Nike, posted a rebuttal, calling it an "often misinformed, unbalanced evaluation.")
Many young people, Klein says, feel a growing resistance to "the corporate homogenization of global culture" and yearn for unmarked, uncommercialized space in their lives. She interviewed students who are protesting the sweatshop conditions in factories in developing nations as well as the activists at Reclaim the Streets, who foment raves and global street festivals.
Klein's book was in part an answer to her own cynicism. As a university student, she was active in issues dealing with the politics of personal identity. At 23, she had her own column in a Toronto newspaper and was considered a spokeswoman for the young. "I was in this Gen X feeding frenzy," she says, "and it was making me really cynical." But she was drawn to the sincerity and hope of young protesters.
Economopoulos denies that this new activism is affluent, naive kids criticizing economic issues and institutions they don't understand. "The time is right for change," she says. "The turn of the century is always a revolutionary time."