Web Exclusives: Tooke's Take
a PAW web exclusive column by Wes Tooke '98 (email: cwtooke@princeton.edu)

January 24, 2001:
Reinventing a cynic
Our young columnist finds a new mission and many hugs

by Wes Tooke '98

Ever since high school I've reveled in my carefully cultivated cynicism. I've never joined a singing group, I root for the Boston Red Sox, and I never watch anything on CBS. For me, cynicism presented a clearly easier route through life - rather than allowing myself to join my more idealistic contemporaries in chasing dreams, I could instead just smirk and try to coin a perfectly cutting phrase whenever they fell especially hard.

My experiences in college only reinforced my cynical tendencies. Princeton's politics and economics departments gave me the tools to explain with academic precision why the world will always be broken; why we can never hope to really change anything for the better. As I watched this latest American presidential campaign, I found it very easy just to shrug and reach for another beer. I was slowly damning myself to a lifetime of infinitesimal expectations.

And then a few weeks ago an old friend of mine invited me to a conference for youth leaders that he was helping to host. He said that the ostensible goal of the meeting was to promote peace. The rational part of my mind recoiled in horror - I don't like hugs, I don't enjoy burning incense, I don't wear tie-dyed anything. But the deeper part of me, the part that hates my ironic detachment, said what the hell and bought a ticket to Malibu, California.

I nevertheless arrived at the conference a thorough skeptic. And sometimes during the weekend I felt as if my suspicions were being confirmed - there was more hugging and singing and candles than at an Indigo Girls concert. But mostly I felt myself being transformed by the energy of the people around me. I met a 19-year-old guy who founded a company, sold it to Microsoft for two million dollars, and is now trying to connect young people on the Internet. I met a 24-year-old woman who ran across Bosnia for peace and is now a youth coordinator for a major international organization. And I kept hearing stories that touched me: A Thai girl who sold everything she owned to go to a peace conference; an African teenager who has started his own school, an American organization that forces Palestinian and Israeli kids to spend time together.

As those stories began to overwhelm me, I stopped smirking at the notion of being a peace activist and instead began to question my own life. Did I really want to spend my time on this planet smugly criticizing other people from the Throne of the Detached Writer? What kind of person would I be in 20 years? As I spent more time with the group, the answers to those questions only became more and more confusing.

But just as I began to feel overwhelmed, several of us had an idea so compelling that I found myself almost immediately willing to devote years of my life to it. We realized that the various organizations serving young people desperately need an uniting voice - a voice that can attract both donors and young men and women who don't already identify themselves as youth activists. These organizations need to find a way to get exposure outside the realm of traditional media, which seems content to largely ignore them. In short, they need a general interest magazine dedicated to telling their stories.

So we're starting a new online nonprofit magazine with the ambitious mission of helping these young people change their world. The new magazine already has three things that every successful Internet venture requires: an enormous and interested audience, a means to attract that audience to the site, and a bottomless well of fascinating stories. And as we've worked over the last month to write the business plan, we've also added a goal that is close to my own heart. The editorial staff of the magazine will consist entirely of young writers, and part of the magazine's mission will be to develop those young writers into the kind of ethical and inspired reporters the world so desperately needs.

If this basic idea interests you, the business plan has many more hooks that I guarantee you will find at least as compelling. Many youth organizations are already doing fascinating things on the Internet, and the magazine already has the partnerships to build on that foundation. So if you're interested in what some remarkable young people are doing to change their world; if you're interested in the idea of training the next generation of serious reporters; if you're interested in helping people help people; then please e-mail me (cwtooke@princeton.edu) for more information. We desperately need both advice and funding.

Otherwise, please come to the site in six months. I promise that these kids will knock your socks off. As I contemplate the next few years of my life, I find myself as scared as I've ever been. I know we have a lot of work to do before this idea becomes a reality. And maybe I'll get exhausted or burn out. Maybe I'll give up after a couple of years. But I've seen the other side of life - the cynical side. And I don't want to do that anymore.


Wes Tooke is a regular contributor to PAW Online. You can reach him at cwtooke@princeton.edu