Are young people calm, or numb?

As our kids march off to school or college in the coming days, a nagging question presents itself: Why are they so goddamn calm? Or are they numb?

I realize they occupy their own little world, but here’s a reality check: Confronting them is a stalled economy and a stalemated government. That translates into big college loans and no job prospects.

Even more confounding, the young people throughout the rest of the world are far from calm — in fact, they’re in a state of revolt. There have been riots in London, Israel and Spain and violent demands for change across the long-languid Arab world.

In the U.S., by contrast, the only protests last week involved foreign students, not Americans. Visiting students from Turkey, China, Romania and other countries rallied against a State Dept. program that was supposed to provide them with travel and education, and instead locked them into jobs in a factory assembly line with long hours and skimpy pay. The foreign kids were angry and let everyone hear about it. Their American friends looked on in silent awe.

There’s one intriguing footnote: The passivity of our young people seems to mirror the traits of the characters featured in Hollywood’s recent movies — the disoriented stoners in “The Hangover” sequel or the losers in “Horrible Bosses” or the passive-nonaggressives like Steve Carell in “Crazy Stupid Love.” Even some superheroes seem self-doubting — witness Ryan Reynolds in “Green Lantern.” Are our young people emulating the traits of the characters they see in the movies or on TV, or is it the other way around?

For perspective, consider the cast of characters who inhabited our pop culture in the ’60s and ’70s. The protagonists of “Easy Rider” or “Coming Home” would be totally out of synch in today’s society. Even “The Godfather” was about characters building a new parallel power structure, not easing into the established one.

None of this is to suggest that taking to the streets is the only effective means to register dissent. Those of us who lived through the waves of violence and the assassinations of the ’60s fully understand the price paid for these actions. As a newsman, I personally covered my share of riots and ducked fusillades of bullets.

On the other hand, most of us learned to revere the courage displayed during the civil rights movement and even during the protests over Vietnam. The country’s mood was energized by protest, not passivity.

So where does this leave us today? As parents, perhaps it’s time to kick ass, to remind our kids that it takes tough people to survive tough times.

And as far as Hollywood is concerned, it would be useful to make an occasional movie about characters who actually affect other people’s lives. Who would have thought that a little film called “The King’s Speech” would hit $417 million in worldwide gross? And then there’s the anomaly of “The Help,” which is a big hit despite the disdain of prominent critics. The film touches audiences; to get it made, DreamWorks and its first-time filmmaker had to lock in funding representing India, Abu Dhabi and a techie billionaire. This would suggest that the major studios are as wimpy as the characters in their films.

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