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Putting the I in Icon

With no heroes left, young folks look within.

July 15, 2002|DAN SCHNUR | Dan Schnur, a Sacramento political consultant, is a visiting instructor at the Institute of Government Studies at UC Berkeley.

Last Tuesday, we booed our baseball heroes. We jeered and threw empty bottles at the All-Star players because they were ordered to leave the field before the game was decided.

But our own public displays of disgust should no longer surprise us, whether at a sporting event or in a voting booth. We've become accustomed to disillusionment, not just from our steroid-enhanced athletes but from almost every civic and cultural icon to whom we once turned for inspiration.

So what that now our home-run sluggers get tossed onto the trash heap. They can take their place next to the business executives with their document shredders, next to the priests with their lust for children and, of course, next to the seemingly endless string of politicians with their scandals, self-aggrandizement and soul-destroying search for campaign dollars.

The question for us is no longer whether to boo but whether there is anyone or anything left to cheer. For most of us, it's almost too depressing to answer. But, thankfully, a younger generation appears to have begun to answer that question, finding direction and inspiration at a place we have not looked into for a very long time: from each other and from within.

For those of us who've been around awhile, our disdain for politicians is nothing new. We have become so accustomed to the disregard that most voters feel toward their political leaders that we no longer think it unusual that we uniformly distrust those we elect to run our government. The candidates and their advisors take voter ennui for granted, running campaigns with the built-in assumption that their words are much less likely to draw admiration and inspiration than to be ignored, belittled and dismissed. So, in November, we Californians will drag ourselves to the polls for yet another in a continuing series of lesser-of-two-evils election campaigns.

Baseball and other sports, religion and the stock market used to be our refuge from the political process. But the inflated egos of too many sports figures, the self- indulging appetites of too many priests and the astonishingly self-enriching habits of too many business executives have turned us into well-rounded cynics.

When we have such little sympathy or admiration for our sports celebrities, when we place such little faith in our religious leaders, when we have such little trust in our business leaders, we find it increasingly difficult to find anyone to believe in. We lose civic confidence, and our sense of community becomes that much more fragile.

For too many Americans, guidance comes from professional pundits who dominate the radio and cable television networks. When all else fails, James Carville and Rush Limbaugh will tell us what we want to hear. They will howl at the moon for us, casting blame back and forth across an expanding partisan divide. The only place their sirens lead us is in retreat, back into our own ideological warrens, where we seek reassurance and comfort and scapegoats from anyone willing to tell us what we want to hear.

So where do we turn? Who can we follow when there's no one to lead?

For many young Americans, the formal political process has made those questions irrelevant. They don't trust politicians and they show up at the polls in smaller numbers than any other generation in recent American history. But those same young people run neighborhood watch and park cleanup programs, deliver meals to shut-ins and tutor at-risk youth. A Pew Foundation study done during the last presidential campaign indicates that the same young people who won't take 15 minutes every two years to vote volunteer more than any other generation in recent American history. In short, they are learning to provide their own leadership. Rather than searching for a hero to show them the way to greatness, they are taking on the role of hero for themselves.

For the rest of us, and for the politicians whom young people ignore, it's a lesson worth learning.

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