Generational Essentialism

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Is there anything sadder than Beto O'Rourke?  The Democratic party is desperately trying to win over young voters through him, touting his credentials: he skateboards.  He was in a band with Cedric Bixler-Zavala who later went on to form the famous post-punk group At the Drive-In and, later, The Mars Volta- and he played bass wearing a dress, with long hair and a goatee.  He touts something called "Fugazi politics".  As a teenager, he was in the early hacker collective, The Cult of the Dead Cow, where his hacker name was "Psychedelic Warlord" and he wrote about achieving a "money-less society" and that "this is where the anti-money group and the disciples of Anarchy meet".  He also wrote a short story about a mass murderer that runs over chidren.  He was a "cyber-hacktivist" that started a digital bulletin board called TacoLand that was influenced by the zine, Maximum Rock'n'Roll.  He's a gamer.  His real name is Robert but he calls himself Beto to seem more vaguely Latinx.
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To the Extreme!

But no one's falling for it.  He's the Jeb of the left: on paper, he seems like the perfect candidate, but no one's buying it.  It all just seems cringey to most people.  Older people find all of this unbecoming and silly, and young people don't know what any of this stuff is, and are certainly not impressed by any of it.  It only appeals to one small sliver of people, the only people who would think that it was cool that anyone was ever in the Cult of the Dead Cow: my people, Generation X.

And that's why all of this is so sad to me.  In this pathetic spectacle of utter worthlessness, I can't help seeing a little of myself.  More than that: I can't help feeling partly responsible for this.  I participated in the culture that made this monstrosity happen.  I wasted so much time and energy obtaining cultural signifiers that confer membership in an imagined community of cool people - signifiers that, it turns out, are utterly irrelevant to everyone else.  Why did I collect all these records?  What am I doing with my life?

Gen X's defining moment was when Krist Novaselic of Nirvana, in the song "Territorial Pissings" squawked out, in a voice dripping with scorn, bile, and sarcasm: "C'mon people now / Smile on your brother / Everybody get together / Try to love one another right now" - the chorus to 60s psychedelic folk band The Youngbloods' song, "Get Together" (written by Dino Valenti and previously recorded by the Kingston Trio and David Crosby, among others).  In other words, Generation X said nothing new.  Gen X said exactly what the Boomers said, but they said it with more sass.

(Some people were and are too young to remember the Youngbloods song - I speak from personal experience.  Being born at the young end of Generation X, I had never heard the Youngbloods song when I first heard the Nirvana song.  My Dad had to explain Nirvana's joke to me.)

(Now, of course, some people are too young to remember the Nirvana song, either.)

Gen X saw themselves as raging against the machine, but they mark a low point in political activism.  Gen X had an aesthetic of rebellion, but without organization, without a program, without any particular position on any issue (except that Ticketmaster rates were too damn high), without any real content.  (Yes, we had our moment, in the "anti-globalization" protests of the late 90s, and yes, I was there... I'll write more about that some other time.)

Ultimately, the Boomer values and Gen X values were very similar - at least among middle-class whites in America - because their economic circumstances were similar.  They are both parts of a larger backlash against the large-scale left-wing political organization of the 1880s-1930s, towards a more atomized, personal, individualistic "rebel without a cause" set of beliefs that began to flower in the peak of the Cold War, in the 40s and 50s - spurred on by a very committed and organized intelligence community (the C.I.A. bankrolling Abstract Expressionism, etc., etc.).  The Boomers took this lifestyle rebellion, the liberation of flows and desires, and rode it all the way until it undermined and destroyed the welfare state that had made it possible, climaxing in the neoliberal devolution of all government programs in the 80s and 90s, crashing the ship of state.  By that time, the "Overton Window" of acceptable political discourse had moved so far to the right, that FDR's New Deal Keynesian style of liberalism (now represented by Bernie), which had once been the consensus accepted by both major parties, was now (laughably enough) regarded as socialism, when it was in fact the most effective set of programs to combat and destroy socialism.

Gen X and the Millennials both gave off the appearance of nihilistic irony, but there's an aesthetic difference: two different aesthetics of nihilism.  Gen X nihilistic irony is angry, destructive, angst-ridden, head-banging, smashing things, disgusted, withdrawn, pierced, bitter, dark, super-saturated, over-the-top, distorted, loud, in combat boots, with a slight, wry smirk.  Millennial nihilistic irony is blissful, sad, pastel, rainbow-colored, digital, on anxiety meds, in their pajamas, in bed, alone, glazed, with a blank expression, scrolling, despairing, smiling.  They're floating through a fog of cats and cartoon animals.

Gen X hated the Millennials because to us the Millennials seemed like "the happy generation": positive, upbeat, hard working, productive, whereas we would just glare at everyone else and roll our eyes.  But the Millennials actually channeled that can-do attitude into real organization against injustice (Occupy, Black Lives Matter, the Bernie Sanders campaign, the growth of DSA, etc., etc.)  Gen X whined that the Millennials were too focused on "identity politics," but the Millennials actually went out and did stuff, while Gen X just made snarky remarks.  The college activism of the Millennials was actually much more broad-based, widespread, and radical than that of the 60s generation, of which the radicals were always a tiny minority.  The Millennials eventually hit the wall and gave up like everyone else, but they had actually accomplished something first.

Gen X had total derision for the Boomers, whom they saw as the idealistic "peace and love" generation, idiotically believing in pretty fairy tales for which Gen X saw itself as too sophisticated.  But Gen X's sarcasm and cynicism was outflanked when suddenly it turned out that the Boomers were WAY more cynical than our generation ever was - first by metastasizing into Clintonite neoliberals, and then by electing Donald Trump.  Suddenly Generation X realized that they believed in the 60s values way more deeply than the Boomers ever did.  It's an unpleasant shock to find out that you're not a nihilist.  What do I do with all this cynicism now?

Both Gen X and the Millennials have a weird combination of self-hatred and self-possession, but they're almost opposites: Gen X threw its temper tantrum, smashing all of its instruments, rioting, etc., but it was only able to because it was privileged enough to do so - it was the last, slightly upwardly mobile generation in America.  The Millennials, on the other hand, were in a much more precarious position from the start, and after the Boomers destroyed the economy, they were caught in a downward spiral from which there was no return, and they knew it.  Gen X could afford to be slackers; Millenials, knowing they are doomed, have to get their hustle on 100% of the time.  We chose nihilism; Millenials, who would otherwise be self-starting and industrious, had despair thrust upon them.  But even though they have no rational hope, they still speak from an inner certitude and profound confidence that Gen X literally cannot understand.  Millennials are sure that their values (concerning gender, race, disability, etc., etc.) are correct.  Gen X has no idea what's going on.  We spent all of our time and energy trying to be cool and now we have to catch up on what everyone else is talking about.  And yet, perversely, Gen X is weirdly proud of not knowing what's going on.  That's part of our identity.  We think that our ignorance is smarter than their woke conscientiousness.  And we'll keep on acting like smart-alec know-it-alls, criticizing all movements for their internal contradictions, rather than get involved.

(Meanwhile, the Boomers are still completely convinced that they are great.  They still narcissistically reminisce about the 60s, they're still sure that their ideals and principles are the best and that everyone who came after them is terrible.  They don't even seem to realize that they've utterly reversed themselves and sold out.  They think they still have the same values they always did.  And the really terrifying thing is, maybe it's true.  Maybe the values of the Woodstock generation really do culminate in Trump.)

Neither the glassy-eyed true believers of the Millennial generation, nor the contemptible sell-outs of the Boomers, Gen X with its characteristic bitter sarcasm and empty, meaningless hatred of authority slowly painted itself into a corner of utter irrelevance.  But it's not to late for you, my fellow Gen Xers!  Our story is not over!  Can we redeem this character arc?  How?


  1. I should preemptively explain that I'm writing from the perspective of someone likely between these two generations, so I don't know if I have a particular allegiance to either...but I do have some doubts about Millennials as the great saviors of humankind. I suspect you do too, but it seems like an important point above is that picking apart the current youth movement isn't really as beneficial as Xers might think it is.

    ..but I think the portrayal of Gen X as a purely ironic, content-free Boomer-ism is a myth. Picking up from previous generation's "grassroots efforts", there were still envelopes to stuff. Bands barnstormed, cooperatives formalized, alternative channels of communication flourished. It's easy to write it off because in retrospect, nothing quite "worked" and things seem exponentially worse now - but I think there is a danger in marginalizing the lives people lived, 15-20 years ago. Just like "real America" was disenfranchised and mocked, maybe "Portlandia" is responsible for Trump's election, too.

    As you point out, though, the economy did *allow* for things that Millennials are not privileged enough to experience. I certainly veer towards nostalgia for a time where printed matter and basement shows were badges of commitment. So much so, in fact, that a younger person once chided me for my happy recollections: "Not all of us had access to basements." Part of that is true, for sure - I was lucky to be in a position where I could lose $500 on my first tour without losing my apartment - but conversely, there are still basements.

    This is all to say that there are reasons to be skeptical of the glossy press-kits of Self that flood the internet now. There are reasons why "doing something" isn't always better than doing nothing. I'm not sure what the great Second Act of Gen X is, either - but I do hope it's not "inner certitude and profound confidence" because, for my money, that attitude veers much closer to the Boomer trajectory than the Xers ever did.


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