Essay contests are usually the domain of every witty, articulate person you’ve never met, but wish you could.
If only I could muster the same excitement for the winning essay from a contest sponsored by MTV’s college channel, MTVU, and published in the July 17 issue of Newsweek. Now that it’s election week, I thought I’d read it again. The brain trust at MTVU wanted to know what makes the heart of a young American voter tick, and why so many don’t vote. As winner, they chose “I Cannot Be Charted,” written by Michigan State University senior Traci E. Carpenter, a college journalist.
The stereotype of young people as mysterious, infinitely hip beings who disdain almost every assumption known to humanity, and who hate being talked down to, has been rote so long we should just get used to it. Young people are definitely privy to lots of things those of us locked into the working world and the daily grind of conventional responsibilities are not. They “get it.” We, on the other hand, don’t. I can accept that.
What’s more difficult to entertain, let alone accept, is the groovy nonchalance with which so many university-age people are prepared to express their views. I realize that MTVU’s parent station is the unchallenged purveyor of most things vapid and trivial. But I was completely unprepared for the level of vapidity and light-as-cotton-candy excuses that laced Carpenter’s sedate manifesto on why she couldn’t be bothered to vote.
Now, I’m sure Carpenter is a nice person. But even by her own admission, ensconced in her essay repeatedly, she is “confused and frustrated.” She’s also “worn out,” and tired of being condescended to. So what if she’s more interested in The Sopranos than Headline News? Hey, she says, “I live the Headline News.” She knows about “poverty and crime.” She also has “other things on [her] mind,” such as what she’s going to do Friday night.
Poor Carpenter. If only some politician would “reach out” to her and recognize “the power I hold,” her cynicism might melt. She would show that candidate “overwhelming support.”
In a nutshell, Carpenter is the kind of person still waiting for others to act before she’ll lift a finger. Funny, isn’t it, how she’s willing to while away the time, waiting for someone to recognize “the power” of her vote. That someone she’s waiting for is, of course, herself.
Essays like these are laughed off. But after reading Carpenter’s screed the third time, scratching my head at how she managed first place, scratching my head as to how—of all people!—a journalism student could produce such drivel, my blood pressure rose like a force of nature. Never mind the times when women marched for suffrage, or black people with the audacity to register to vote endured harassment, violence and even, in the case of Medgar Evers, murder. Carpenter is “confused and frustrated.” (!) She has “other things” (!) on her mind. I felt the urge to place her essay in the nearest urinal.
Then again, Carpenter would accuse me of disrespecting her. She’s “tired of being preached at,” she wrote. Surely she jests. Any politician would tell Carpenter that non-voters aren’t worth so much as a conversation, even if MTV thinks they write great essays.