This is the season of generational twaddle. At graduation ceremonies across the country, politicians, authors, actors, and businessmen take to the stage to tell young people they are fantastic simply because they are young. This year, the ritual is more pathetic than usual because there’s a presidential election in the offing. And because the current occupant of the White House won in 2008 in no small part due to his success with the “youth vote,” he is desperate for them to repeat their blunder.
At the all-women’s school Barnard College, President Obama spoke to the audience as if they were an undifferentiated mob of “Julias.” I’m referring to the banally creepy, imaginary everywoman the Obama campaign has conjured on its website to show that Uncle Sam is now both sugar daddy and husband to the women of America. “Now more than ever — now more than ever,” the president repeated, “America needs what you, the class of 2012, has to offer.” By which he meant their votes for him, of course. But he couched it in all sorts of familiar platitudes.
But in terms of naked pandering, few can match Vice President Joe Biden. Last week, he told a group of college students visiting the White House: “You’re an incredible generation. And that’s not hyperbole either. Your generation and the 9/11 generation before you are the most incredible group of Americans we have ever, ever, ever produced.”
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The conventional response to this sort of thing is to claim that Biden is giving short shrift to some previous generation. What about the “Greatest Generation” of the World War II era? What about the self-proclaimed baby-boomer secular saints of the ’60s?
But such arguments are part of the problem. Sure, we can talk about age cohorts and make generalizations about them. But in a very important sense, there really is no such thing as “great generations.”
I was born the same year as Brett Favre, one of the most successful quarterbacks in football history. I take no more pride in his record than I feel shame for being born the same year as Divine Brown, the porn star and former prostitute who was arrested for her work with Hugh Grant. Cult murderer psychopath Charles Manson, Utah senator Orrin Hatch, “Brady Bunch” mom Florence Henderson, and that guy from NPR, Carl Kassel, were all born the same year (1934). What does one person’s birth tell us about the life of another? Absolutely nothing.
Seriously, if your self-esteem is remotely dependent on the year you were born, or on the accomplishments of people who happen to be the same age as you, then you don’t have a lot going for you. If you spend your days on your parents’ couch, working through cases of Cheetos like they were so many equine feedbags, if bong maintenance marks the outer boundary of your personal responsibilities, then I’m sorry to say your inadequacies aren’t mitigated one bit by the fact you were born the same year, never mind decade, as Mark Zuckerberg.
And yet that’s the point behind so much generational piffle. Youth politics are the cheapest form of identity politics. At least black people are black their whole lives (Michael Jackson being the exception that proves the rule). Barring surgery, women stay women. But young people don’t stay young. Moreover, we treat them as if they’re geniuses precisely because they don’t know much and have little life experience. Of course there are incredibly bright and knowledgeable young people. But as a rule we’re all born stupid and ignorant, and that condition improves only as we become less young.
That politicians pander to anything that moves is hardly a shocking revelation. Nor is it stunning to see the White House treat young people as a homogenized blob they hope to flatter and bribe to the polls come November. To paraphrase H. L. Mencken, if there were a huge bloc of cannibals in this country, the Democrats would promise them tasty missionaries fattened at the taxpayers’ expense.
What’s dismaying is how much this sort of thing seems to work. Part of what’s exciting about being young is the discovery that you are your own person, the captain of yourself. Cheering at the idea that you are a drone, expected to simply “act your age,” is a sad declaration of your own self-worth.
— Jonah Goldberg is the author of the new book The Tyranny of Clichés. You can reach him by e-mail at JonahsColumn@aol.com, or via Twitter @JonahNRO. © Tribune Media Services.