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Weekly Alibi Crashing the Party

Michele Mitchell's A New Kind of Party Animal

By Angie Drobnic

JULY 6, 1998:  You're probably sick of books about Generation X, even when the author's intent is to rescue the reputation of the misbegotten group. But a new book in defense of slackers brings up some salient points, about who came before them and who will follow them, that should challenge those intent on generational warfare.

In A New Kind of Party Animal: How the Young are Tearing Up the American Political Landscape, Michele Mitchell makes a compelling case that the group she terms the "18-35s" have been radically misunderstood by the older political mainstream. Her arguments are as much an attack on the wrongheadedness of the older establishment as they are a defense of Gen X. She criticizes the power structure that thrives on the status quo--from its preference for low turn-out elections to its ignorance of the media's ways, such as its worship of spin and one-upmanship, and its new forms, like the Internet.

Chapter by chapter, Mitchell focuses on individual twentysomethings who have bypassed the mainstream to run for public office, set up voting guides on the Internet or run volunteer programs for at-risk youth. Her thesis is that Gen X political activity has simply flown beneath the radar of traditional politics, that the generation is more interested in local, grassroots politics that the bigwigs simply don't get.

But Mitchell also wisely points out that intergenerational conflict is nothing new. She jokes that in 1776, when young patriots marched through the streets for American independence, "no doubt their parents pressed thin hands to wan faces and sighed, 'Kids today!'" At the same time, she points out that Gen X is the first generation that in all likelihood won't do better than their parents, and that their parents and grandparents don't seem to care too much. Medicare, social security and other entitlements to the elderly are killing the national budget, while children get booted off the welfare rolls. "Welfare was only 3 percent of all entitlements, and the only part that didn't wholly affect the elderly," states Mitchell of the budget--and this was before welfare reform. And her chapter on youth crime and the resultant crackdown on juvenile offenders is simply chilling: "There was the fifteen-year-old girl in Ohio who ran away from home for one night and returned voluntarily, only to have a judge put her in jail to 'teach her a lesson.' The girl had never been in trouble before. Her fourth night behind bars, she was sexually assaulted by a guard. ... Or there was the sixteen-year-old Texas boy who was sentenced to eight years for an arson fire that did $500 worth of damage to a fence. Within two weeks, he was raped and then attacked repeatedly until he hanged himself."

As compelling as its facts are, though, Party Animal falls down when it comes to telling its story. In each chapter, Mitchell focuses on young individuals invested in the political process, whether they be Internet whizzes, Capitol Hill staffers, candidates for office or volunteer workers. But the book doesn't stick strictly to their stories; it hopscotches between all of them. Characters seem to be thrown in, then mentioned later (or not), so that no clear picture emerges of what these people are really like. The chatty style of the book, replete with "well," "so" and many italicized words for emphasis comes off as huffily indignant, rather than conversational and easy to follow. What's worse, it's unclear just what audience Mitchell is targeting. Is she preaching to the choir of her peers or aiming for their parents? It's supremely difficult to write about Gen X and do both, and Mitchell joins the legions of writers who don't quite make it.

A gifted editorialist uses style, logic and evidence to persuade an audience as to the rightness of her claims. It's a tough juggling act. Lose one element and your argument becomes dull, incoherent or boorish. Mitchell's book sometimes becomes muddled and confused when the elements of it don't quite gel together. Nevertheless, her command of the facts is persuasive, and she has a sensitivity to the complexity of generational relations that is commendable. In the final chapter, Mitchell mentions a quote by Thomas Jefferson: "It is incumbent on every generation to pay its own debt as it goes." Mitchell shows that the 18-35s possess the quality of self-reliance in abundance and that maybe older Americans still have a few things to learn from them. (Simon & Schuster, cloth, $23)

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