This summer I had an intern researcher drone named “Lyle.” But I tended to call him things like “meat sack,” “you,” and “the kid-whose-head-someone-used-as-a-toilet-but-forgot-to-flush.” It pained me to call him these things because he was generally a very sharp kid and I was glad to have him skulking around, eating my old pizza crusts and rifling through my garbage when he wasn’t “working.” Anyway, if you want to put a face to him, here he is.
The reason I bring up young Lyle is that he was the one who started to make me feel old. One time while we were sitting around and he was thirstily watching me drink beer, the subject of Animal House came up. He commented that he knew I was a big fan of Animal House and, yes, it’s a good movie and all. But Old School really spoke more to him and his generation. Since then, I’ve talked to lots of college kids and this seems to be the emerging consensus. Now, it’s fine to say that you like Old School–I did–and even to say that you dislike Animal House, but to say that the former eclipses the latter in quality is akin to saying Caddyshack II was a better sequel than Godfather II.
Okay…not quite. But you get the point.
I don’t want to compare the two films, though it is interesting that a movie about dudes my age trying to relive their college days is more popular with young’ns than a movie about people their age having a good time in college. Nevertheless, what hit me hard was the idea that Animal House was no longer part of the conversation the way it once was. Contrary to what some readers may think, the movie isn’t holy writ to me and Animal House, the Simpsons, Star Trek, Star Wars, and Stripes are not my Pentateuch. But these and a few other staples of pop culture were the lingua franca of my generation.
Kids going to college this fall were born the year I graduated from high school. Which means that I was going to bars three years before they were born. It also means that they have no real memory of the Soviet Union’s existence. It means the scar on my left thumb from the old “Defender” video game is older than they are. It means the first president they were conscious of was Bill Clinton. They don’t remember apartheid. They don’t remember when Jesse Jackson wasn’t a joke. Or when China took Marxism even remotely seriously. Star Wars was an old movie by the time they saw it and they can’t remember when Pat Buchanan was a loyal Republican. Big Brother refers to a TV show first and a book by some dead guy second. Most of them have never used a typewriter, never been in a world where the broadcast-news anchors weren’t hemorrhaging viewers to cable, never really did school work without the aid of the Internet, and never knew a time when people didn’t have cell phones.
I could go on and on, particularly since there are countless lists that detail this sort of thing all over the web. But one of the things I do find pretty interesting is how technology changes vocabulary–and by extension the way we view the world. We don’t appreciate how many of our phrases are driven by outdated technology. I was always taught that “Mind your Ps and Qs” was an old admonition for printers, though apparently that’s open for debate. We refer to “civil” engineering because until fairly recently all engineering was military. A hot shot was something you fired from a cannon. And for my entire life–and probably yours–I’ve said “dial” a phone number even though kids today don’t necessarily know why. The phrase from old TV shows “don’t touch that dial!” would sound like an admonition not to touch a brand of soap. Also, if they were watching an old episode of Outer Limits they’d have no clue why the aliens were talking about controlling the “vertical” and “horizontal” on the TV. They also might furl their foreheads when told they sound like a broken record.
During the Republican Convention I was walking through the media area and I saw a sign for the “digital darkroom.” It occurred to me that some of the interns milling about might not be sure why you even called it a “darkroom.” After all, digital cameras don’t need the dark. We can play this game all day as there are countless other examples of this sort of thing. Many of which I’m sure I’ll get from readers.
Christopher Caldwell offers a related game in a recent issue of The Weekly Standard. He notes, for example, that Bill Clinton’s election in 1992 is closer to the 1970s than it is to the present. Jimmy Carter’s inauguration day is as close to Harry Truman’s in 1949 as it is the one this week. FDR’s time in Washington is about equidistant to Lincoln’s and Barack Obama’s.
I have no great profundity to offer (“as if you ever do, jack**s”–quoth the Couch). But I think this is a particularly important perspective for conservatives to keep in mind, if not necessarily to obsess about. As the party that believes human nature has no history and the holder that certain truths remain immutable, it’s useful to realize how fast the world is changing before our eyes. This is a very old theme of mine–that technological changes pose a constant threat to the conservative project even as conservatives shouldn’t be ideologically anti-technology. Cars, the birth control pill, the Internet, and television have all done more to dissolve the iron chains of community and tradition than most of the acidic ideas of dangerous philosophers.
What can conservatives do about this? Well, a lot and nothing. We cannot and should not adopt some sort of anti-change platform. This isn’t to say I’m always pro-change, but conservatives are also realists and we should know that change can’t be stopped. And spare me references to the Buckleyite proposition that conservatives must stand athwart history yelling “Stop!” I agree with that, but the context of that statement was narrow and historically contingent on the proposition that the Soviets were eating our lunch. After all, William F. Buckley has spent his entire life yelling stop so he could change things, not so that he could freeze them. What we can do is what we’ve always done. Recognize and point out that change and progress are not synonymous, that materialistic advances are often merely a changing of the garb of humanity and not a change of humanity itself and, of course, that anyone who thinks Old School is superior to Animal House needs his head flushed.