Last Saturday, readers of this newspaper, including myself, were surprised to find out that Justin Trudeau, the eldest son of arguably the most important and beloved Canadian prime minister of the last century, doesn't pay much attention to politics. "I don't read the newspapers, I don't watch the news," he confessed with apparent pride. "I figure, if something important happens, someone will tell me."
Given who he is, along with on-going private and public gushing over his abundant "leadership qualities," Trudeau's admission of deliberate ignorance may seem astonishing. But considering his age, 29, it shouldn't be. Trudeau is merely typical of his generation.
Most people I know who are in their 20s don't read a paper or watch the news with any regularity. Many don't vote, either. This despite the fact that virtually all these young people are well-educated, and employed in (more or less) their chosen field -- young software designers, lawyers and academics, who don't follow the news.
Yet many devoutly ill-informed members of this same generation conduct their day-to-day lives in a highly politicized manner. For instance, many of my non-paper-reading, non-voting contemporaries are also strict vegetarians ("meat is murder") who wouldn't be caught dead in a pair of Nike trainers ("they use sweatshop labour to make their overpriced products and, besides, vegetarians who wear leather are hypocrites").
So where does that leave Justin Trudeau and the millions of Canadians like him? Is it possible to promote civic engagement while deliberately tuning out the political process?
"I want to see more people voting," he writes. "I want to see more people feeling they have an engagement and a relationship and a responsibility for the society in which they live."
What simply doesn't come up is how he or any one else knows who to vote for, without maintaining even a cursory relationship with mainstream current events. Presumably someone will whisper the preferred candidate's name in Trudeau's ear on his way to the polling station.
It's no secret that low voter turnout is directly related to how many of us don't pay attention to the news. In the U.S., the number of people in their 20s who make it to the polls has been dropping steadily for 30 years. Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, recently told The Globe that these numbers are directly related to the fact that so few young people are reading newspapers.
With voter turnout in the last election hitting an all-time low -- 62.8 per cent -- Canadian politics is suffering a similar problem, he said.
As for being engaged in the communities we live in, civic duty isn't particularly big among the young. A recent national study showed that the "civic core" of Canadian society tends to be older, religious and lives outside of major urban centres.
Justin Trudeau's conflicted vision of uninformed engagement brings to broad public light the curious, if not outright troubling paradoxes that so many young Canadians embody today. Like many members of his generation, he considers himself "almost a subversive" who operates inside and outside the system at the same time -- a radical individualist who believes in community involvement, a promoter of political awareness who at once writes for newspapers and ignores the news, a self-described "cultural-resistance worker" who is the product of cultural privilege.
If you see all of these positions as incompatible, you're probably of an age that voted for Justin's dad.
But it is not necessarily inconsistent to be full of political emotion and a desire for change, and at the same time to be scornful of mainstream debate because it comes across as hollow and dry.
Young people are yearning for a politics of values, and are instead being served a steady diet of self-interested, sleep-inducing economic-policy wonking. We were brought up on slick advertising, and can see through puffed-up rhetoric and tough question avoidance from a mile away. We're not impressed by a vision of the future that is limited to passing out flags and a handful of tax cuts.
Justin Trudeau may be confused in his naive recommendations for achieving a new and engaged civic society, but he does offer a valuable map of this generation's political paradoxes.
And those paradoxes might eventually lead to real change -- whether we read newspapers or not.