October 30, 2010
THE RALLY TO RESTORE VANITY: GENERATION X CELEBRATES ITS HOMERIC STRUGGLE AGAINST LAMENESS
By Mark Ames
Maybe what’s happening in America today will seem funny to some other culture in some future time—how it happened that in the depths of America’s decline, Liberals, the great opposition to everything mean and ruthless in this culture, couldn’t muster up a get-together for anything better than a mock-in. Led by a clown.
I confess, I couldn’t hack it. I came to the rally–saw those two pastry chefs from the Mythbusters show get all the Liberal Elites to hold a post-modern human wave, an ironic human wave allowing all the self-conscious Liberal Elites to play like Real America, while salvaging their vanity because it was all ironic and post-modern… And to make sure that everyone knew they were not really human-waving but rather meta-human-waving, the Mythbusters duo deconstructed the human wave. And all the Liberal Elites smiled and laughed knowingly, because all 150,000 were in on the biggest inside-joke wankathon in American history. And that was it for me–I was outta there.
A century-old ideological movement, Liberalism: once devoted to impossible causes like ending racism and inequality, empowering the powerless, fighting against militarism, and all that silly hippie shit—now it’s been reduced to besting the other side at one-liners…and to the Liberals’ credit, they’re clearly on top. Sure there are a lot of problems out there, a lot of pressing needs—but the main thing is, the Liberals don’t look nearly as stupid as the other guys do. And if you don’t know how important that is to this generation, then you won’t understand what’s so wrong and so deeply depressing about the Jon Stewart Rally to Restore Sanity.
That’s what makes this rally so depressing and grotesque: It’s an anti-rally, a kind of mass concession speech without the speech–some kind of sick funeral party for Liberalism, in which Liberals are led, at last, by a clown. Not a figurative clown, but by a clown–and Liberals are sure that this somehow makes them smarter and less lame–and indeed, they are less lame, because they are not taking themselves too seriously, which is something they’re very, very proud of. All great political struggles and ideological advances, all great human rights achievements were won by clown-led crowds of people who don’t take themselves too seriously, duh! That’s why they’re following a clown like Stewart, whose entire political program comes down to this: not being stupid, the way the other guys are stupid–or when being stupid, only stupid in a self-consciously stupid way, which is to say, not stupid. That’s it, that’s all this is about: Not to protest wars or oligarchical theft or declining health care or crushing debt or a corrupt political system or imperial decay—nope, the only thing that motivates Liberals to gather in the their thousands is the chance to celebrate their own lack of stupidity! Woo-hoo!
It’s the final humiliating undoing of Enlightenment Idealism that made Liberalism possible–imagine if Jefferson, Diderot, Montesquieu, Madison et al reduced the entire Enlightenment’s struggle against the old feudal order to “I’m against the monarchy because the monarchy’s stupid…but then again, Rousseau makes a fool of himself with his Romanticism, and Tom Paine is so serious with his ‘Rights of Man’, the Revolutionaries are just as crazy as the Monarchists, so rather than join either side and risk opening myself to mockery, I’m just going to stand back and laugh at them all and say, ‘Really? Independence? Everyone is created equal and has the right to pursue happiness? Really, TJ? You sure you want to say that about Bluebeard? Really?” [LAUGH TRACK]…
It’s not Stewart’s or Colbert’s fault, let’s be clear on that—they’re the only ones doing their job here. They’re the only ones fighting this battle, and the only way they’re surviving is by elaborately pretending they’re not really fighting anyone’s battle over anything, they’re just having a laugh—it’s the same rationale that jesters used in medieval times, and Stewart and Colbert play the same role as the jesters did then…and we’re also playing our role as powerless peasants reduced to self-mockery and snickering at our Masters behind their backs. It’s not their fault that Liberalism today has as its highest priority not looking stupid—and that its premiere rally is framed in such a way that everyone who came to this rally is somehow indemnified from looking foolish precisely because it’s not really a political rally, it’s more like a mockery of a political rally—in a self-consciously smart sort of way. And the Daily Show Democrats who gathered celebrated themselves for this amazing achievement: that they didn’t make fools of themselves standing for something that some other guys could then use to mock them. That’s the biggest sin of the other side, the Tea Partiers especially, at least as the Daily Show fans see it: they look silly, and worse, they’re not shamed into suicide from looking silly, the way Liberals would be shamed into OD’ing on Ambien if they opened themselves up to that sort of mockery.
It was this same lack of ironic self-awareness (or rather, this absence of any sort of mockery-avoidance technology) that led my generation to pillory the hippies and progressives–that’s why we were South Park Republicans before we were Daily Show Democrats: because back then, standing for liberal values meant something, and that made you look lame. Only now, when Liberal ideals have vanished into mythology and all they stand for is “not as crazy or stupid as Republicans” is it safe to camp out with the Democrats. They put nothing on the line ideologically, which perfectly jibes with this generation’s highest value. And that makes it perfectly safe to go to something like a large political rally like Stewart’s—you side with a hollow movement stripped of ideology or purpose, and then you gather to celebrate your own hollowness at a rally whose one promise is “You won’t open yourself up to mockery if you attend this rally” and whose goal is to show how not-stupid “we” are compared to the mockable activists on both the right and the left–the Beckites and the Code Pinkers.
I’ve come to the conclusion that this has been the Great Dream of my generation: to position ourselves in such a way that we’re beyond mockery. To not look stupid. That’s the biggest crime of all–looking stupid. That’s why they’ve turned Stewart into a demigod, because he knows how to make the other guys look really stupid, and if you’re on the same team as Stewart, you’re on the safe side of the mockery, rather than dangerously vulnerable to mockery.
In fact, I think this is why so many Gen-X/Yers turned against Obama: because he made them look stupid. They made themselves vulnerable to looking stupid by believing in him–and he jilted them. That’s how they see it–not that politics is a long ugly process that has nothing to do with self-esteem and everything to do with money and brawling–it was more like an “indie” consumer choice: They bought into the Obama brand, wore it, and suddenly discovered that the label wasn’t as cool as it seemed at the time, especially after the sentimental high of electing a half-black president wore off to the hard slog of what came after… so they threw the Obama jeans away and went to work trying to salvage their coolness creds for having made that fashion mistake. It’s captured best in this Awl essay by Tom Hanks’ daughter–E. A. Hanks, of all people: “Dear The Left: A Breakup Letter” which begins with her reaction to the special Senate election that Scott Brown won:
Dear The Left,
It’s interesting that you couldn’t keep Kennedy’s Massachusetts Senate seat. I’m taking it for granted that you understand that I don’t mean “interesting” at all, but rather “detestable.”
So little Miss Hanks is not joking in her title for the essay–it really is written like a breakup letter. Leaving aside for now the question of “What the fuck is Tom Hanks’ daughter doing talking as if she and ‘The Left’ ever had a deal?”–or the other issue of “Why does your father make shitty Romantic comedy movies that turn decent people into anti-American suicide bombers?”–because we’ll get nowhere if we try answering those…anyway, leaving that aside…By framing her disillusionment as a breakup letter, she reduces the political struggle to a kind of frivolous private-school irony for 20-something Heathers, indemnifying her against Gen-X/Y reader suspicions that her break with Obama might mean she’s one of those Lefties who “have a cow.” She’s not–she’s cool and ironic and has a “Scott Brown? Really? You lost to Scott Brown? No, Really?” attitude, just like all the people who read her have.
Keep in mind that this E.A. Hanks “break-up letter” wound up becoming a hugely popular, heavily-e-forwarded article earlier this year among all the Daily Show Democrats, as embarrassment swept across the Liberal egosphere following Scott Brown’s surprise victory in the Senate race. She is the voice of the Rally today.
So now ask–who writes breakup letters? What’s the point of that? If you’re breaking up with a lover whom you just want to get away from, you won’t publish a breakup letter, you just want it to go away. But if you’re breaking up with a lover because s/he humiliated you, or you’re worried somehow how this will affect your reputation among the cool crowd (the obsession of Gen-Xers and –Yers), then you DO write a letter and publish it, so that you make HIM look like the fool, you transfer the mockery and humiliation out of your hurt little feelers and restore your public image as someone who is cool, who is self-aware, who never gets too excited about things but this one time you did and you got burned and that sucks dude….It’s an elaborate Gen-X/Y rhetorical strategy to abandon a movement or a trend that’s in serious danger of making its fans look stupid. And it’s even worse than that—there’s something very 1950s about her peevishness and selfishness, a kind of Ayn Rand cheerleader dumping the QB because he lost the Homecoming game—all the while she waited it out beneath the bleachers to see who’d win, but she’d foolishly placed her bets a bit too early with the new black QB…
What E. A. Hanks didn’t realize–what no one at the Rally today celebrating their coolness realizes– is that this isn’t about cheerleading for the sentimental favorite and getting rewarded for it by some kind of Liberal Hollywood God—she’s supposed to fight a long dreary battle that goes on and on, long after the credits roll. But that’s not what she signed up for: She saw it as Obama escorting her to the Prom after he made all those hard-hearted Randian cheerleaders weep into their pom-poms at how he overcame adversity and realized the American Dream…only it turned out he can’t win the Big Game, he’s got no Red Zone O. I mean, like, where’s my The Blind Side black man? If Christians can have their Blind Side, why can’t we have our Liberal Blind Side too? The idea that Ms Hanks and the Gen-X cheerleaders looking over her shoulder are supposed to help win the game by any means necessary is as far from her petulant thoughts as possible here.
Instead, as the wounded party, what’s first on her mind is making sure she’s the first to dump, the easiest way to restoring her cool credibility:
Which is to say, we’re over. Yep, sorry. We’re through.
It’s not even that I don’t agree with you, because I do, on all the big ones, at least: Teddy Kennedy’s legacy, gays, abortion, endless wars for the profit of private companies, drowning polar bears, the works. I’m not running off to declare nonsense as truth like, “Health Care Will Kill Us All!” or anything like that.
But, you know what? I don’t think you’re good for me. Or for America, for that matter.
Here’s where something much more sinister about what passes for “Liberal” in my generation is revealed: the totally-selfish Ayn Rand activist, the petulant Libertarian protagonist who has a brand manager’s understanding of what it means to be “Liberal” or “Left”. It is this brand manager’s disillusionment with the brand that is fuelling the Jon Stewart rally—by identifying herself so closely with something that turned out to be not nearly as cool as the buzz claimed, she made herself vulnerable, and mockable. Which may seem frivolous to you old folks out there, but for her and for Gen-X/Yers, exposing yourself like that is the equivalent of a decade of marching for Civil Rights and against the war, getting arrested, beaten, jailed, negotiating with authorities, teaching, etc….here is the Gen-X/Y equivalent of “laying it all on the line”:
There was a moment, after the inauguration of Barack Obama as our 44th President (the one you take credit for) when there was an in-coming wave of people singing.
As the noise got closer, those words made famous by Bananarama became clear and rang out, golden over the Mall: “Na Na Na / Na Na Na / Hey Hey Hey / Goodbye!”
Countless people were waving up at the sky, and when I craned my neck back I could see Marine One was taking the previous President away, forever. His time was done.
I started to wave and sing too, but before I could really give it my best, I burst into tears, The Left. You would have been proud.
When I looked up to try to chip off the frozen snot and salt water from my face, I noticed something: the 100 people in my immediate vicinity were also crying.
And I don’t mean quiet, private, attractive tears.
People were sobbing, really going for it. There was more choking and heaving than a seventh grade girl’s bathroom.
I caught an evanescent understanding of the meaning of catharsis.
It’s not a pleasant, tidy emotional process, wherein one gets closure by having neat conversations that make you feel okay-it’s the violent purging of the cancer that’s been pulsating wetly in your guts for eight years.
Now you might be thinking here, “Hey wait a minute, this sounds just like something Meg Ryan would say, straight out of Sleepless in Seattle or You’ve Got Mail!” Except that it’s worse: like so many disillusioned, spurned Daily Show Dems, she’s flustered that it didn’t all turn out the way a movie would—Obama got her all hot ‘n’ wet, and then somehow things got messy and ugly, it didn’t follow a 3-act dramatic plot. It just turned into work, with no credits ever rolling signifying the end, period. Work is supposed to be compressed into a 30-second montage because work is boring and lame—fuck this shit! It’s the purest expression of a profoundly hollow mindset, devoid of ideology, devoid of purpose beyond protecting her brand.
Why couldn’t Obama be more like him?
Hanks’ “break-up letter” wouldn’t matter here if it hadn’t been so popular, and such an early expression of the same mentality fueling the Jon Stewart rally. Somehow, far, far poorer Liberal Elites from the coasts identified with the far richer, privileged Hanks girl because everyone’s stuck in the same rhetorical rules and mindset that were formed in a more prosperous era, when being petulant and frivolous and ironic made a bit more sense, economically speaking. Now we’re fucked, and we’re incapable of adapting to our own desperate, declining circumstances with a more serious rhetorical style that matches our desperation and decline—we’re stuck rolling our eyes like we did in the good ol’ days, but rolling our eyes now is just plain bizarre for everyone but a privileged, selfish crypto-Randroid like Hanks. And not only have we learned to talk and act like celebrities, but we have absorbed the stupidity of their stock plots, in which a happy ending like the Obama Rally stays happy after the credits roll—nothing changes or gets complicated or ugly, it’s just over—over, goddamnit, like in the movies! That’s just not fair, you’re not supposed to cut to a new set of struggles after the happy ending—what kind of movie is that?
So even though we’re jobless and on food stamps, we’re afraid of coming off looking stupid complaining about it–whatever dire situation we’re in, the main thing is not to look stupid when complaining about it. the best way not to look stupid is to blame the guy who made you look stupid:
But I standing [sic] on the National Mall, crying in the arms of that stranger from Georgia, I realized that the anger I had for President Bush gave me was nothing in comparison with the rage I felt for The Left.
DailyKos and MoveOn and CodePink and yes, that other one, too. Grand-standing Congresspeople, bandana-ed prostesters and pontificating talking heads.
So much talking! So much feeling! And yet… nothing changed!
Yes, where’s that permanent change! It’s not supposed to be an ongoing struggle—change happens, it’s over, you get up and leave the movie theater. It’s not supposed to be like this! Fuck you, Code Pink!
Like Stewart, she hates on CodePink as much or more as the crazies on the right. That’s been misinterpreted by earnest Lefties as false equivalency–”How can you compare the war crimes and the tens of thousands of deaths caused by one side to shrill protests by CodePink on the other side?” they cry. But you see, that’s not what the Daily Show Democrats are talking about when they equate the two–what makes them equally bad is that they’re equally lame. And siding with either side makes you siding with lameness. That’s worse than any alleged war crime, by my generation’s standards.
You focused so much attention on beating Fox! All of your energy was spent on seeing who could win the spin war, and suddenly we were all shouting “You’re wrong! You’re wrong! You’re wrong!” together, to the point where we were just as hysterical and terrified as the other side! Probably even more!
In other words, “you” started to become effective. Not in the way a petulant Gen-Xer wanted it to be though, because one had to look lame to be effective. One had to be like CodePink–and CodePink isn’t cool. Gen-X/Y didn’t sign up for lame, they signed up for Obama, the sentimental favorite!
And then of course comes the requisite Gen-X self-awareness and self-mockery, preventative-mockery, the most popular rhetorical strategy of my Generation:
And yet here I go, changing everything between us. If I’m being honest, our relationship was all about placating my ego. All of it: the marches, the sit-ins, the phone trees, the whole shebang.
It was about glorifying my personal beliefs, and convincing myself that I was more against the war,more for gay rights, more serious about securing abortion rights, than anyone else.
If you think about it, it was pretty nifty thinking: It’ll look like I’m selflessly placing myself in harm’s way to make a point about how fucked up things are! Then everyone will know how serious I am, how serious I take things. Everyone will be super-impressed.
The only word I can think to describe it is masturbatory. My relationship with The Left was masturbatory.
The only purpose this part of the essay–and it’s the most important part of her argument–is that it serves to bolster what rhetoricians call her “ethos”: She’s establishing herself as self-aware and cool enough to mock herself in-advance, because only lame people or people who take things too seriously or weirdos are incapable of self-mockery. It’s a reverse-helix trick that answers the reader’s inevitable question: “Wait, is she just whining because she got dumped first? Because if she got dumped first, then someone’s a-gonna make fun of her…But no, she must be the one doing the dumping, because she’s showing that she can laugh at herself, and that means she’s not in any sort of emotionally-committed state. She’s not very mockable, which is exactly where I see myself.”
Then comes the ending of her essay, in which she winds up making the exact wrong choice that my generation made when it went “libertarian” as the fake-alternative to Democrat liberalism and Republican conservativism: going it alone.
And that’s why I’m taking this post-Kennedy moment to break up with you, The Left. I don’t want to talk about how I want America to change. I want the inevitable changes that mark American’s great march toward freedom for everyone to be manifested by my individual actions-by everyone’s individual actions.
What’s the point in being a voice in a crowd that’s screaming so loudly that no one has any idea what everyone’s saying? (Even if it’s a crowd I agree with!)
Like a petulant whiner, she wants things to happen without getting her ego dirty. Going it alone is the least-dangerous choice for someone whose politics are driven by vanity, but like the fashionable libertarianism of my generation, the most dangerous choice of all when you consider that politics is all about power struggles over how to order a particular civilization, what to prioritize, how to allocate, and so on. If the ruling class has enormous amounts of money and power and collectivizes in a variety of billionaires’ unions and special interests unions, and your answer is, “I’ll go it alone, at least I won’t look stupid” then you’re just fucking stupid.
It all becomes grotesquely clear with her zinger-conclusion, which equates the Left with “That Lame Guy” whom college wits would always make fun of:
Someone who comes to mind, The Left, is Bob Dylan. (See, I told you we’d still agree on things!)
You know what you’re like? You’re like the people who booed him when he went electric. You’re the pouting kid demanding more “protest songs,” when they’re all protest songs,
And who the hell boos Obam-I mean, Bob Dylan-anyway?
At this point, the Gen-X/Gen-Y stance becomes downright depressing. This is how far we’ve declined: a Gen-Y privileged hipster can’t even muster a zinger from her own era, so she reaches back to some barely-talented rat-cunning jerk from the 60s as her idea of a real cultural hero, if only because he’s managed to avoid being savagely mocked—and then she pulls her zinger from that generation’s “moment,” which was mocked by the next generation, and recycled by her generation…Cultural stagnation is the underlying theme of this whole mess, and that’s what leads back to the Rally to Restore Sanity. America and Liberalism have stagnated and decayed so much that they have to pull their zinger references from 40-year-old put downs that predate E. A. Hanks’ birth. And it still works–because the people who booed Dylan for going electric–their biggest sin is that they “took Dylan too seriously” and made fools of themselves for decades to come. That is her devastating evaluation of how the Obama movie went bad. That’s the lesson–bail out of anything that threatens to make you look lame. The big zinger is borrowed from a hipster put-down so old it predates Ms. Hanks birth—citing an old mockery-favorite like this. But everyone got it. And everyone agreed with her.
You see, this is why so many cool Gen-Xers and Gen-Yers were so jazzed up about going to the Stewart rally–by definition, they were guaranteed not to look stupid by going to it, because it’s not really a rally. They’re not putting anything on the line. They’re just going to chant the equivalent of that annoying Saturday Night Live Update skit “Really?” No generation ever looked so cool so late in their lives as my generation. We did it! We achieved our dream! We don’t look as stupid as the hippies did when they were in their 40s! Woo-hoo! We still mock ourselves and we’re still self-aware, but best of all, we don’t look stupid by devoting ourselves to ideas or movements that other people might one day laugh at. We won! We won the least-stupid-looking-generation competition! Let’s gather together in an ironic, self-aware way, and celebrate how we’re not really rallying or laying anything on the line–not even now, not even when the whole fucking country is collapsing. What’s our prize, Don?
Meanwhile, behind Door Number 1, the country is in two losing wars and the worst economic crisis in 80 years, behind Door Number 2, over 40 million Americans are on fucking food stamps, behind Door Number 3, millions are being land-transfered out of their property like landless peasants in a banana republic–yeah, it’s bad, whatever dude, it’s always been bad, nothing ever changes much, don’t have a cow, deal with it…
I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say a few things that might sound stupid, but bear with me:
1. Collective action is the only possible way to change shit. Large numbers of collectivized nobodies rallying to demand what they want–a better cut of the pie, and a better world to live in. It’s the only thing that power-elites fear and the only way to get them to negotiate. There must be thousands of billionaires’ unions—whether the Chamber of Commerce or the gazillions of libertarian networks—and the only thing they hope and dream about and invest their effort into is planting a seed into your vain Gen-X brain that makes you think it’s lame to collectivize. That’s it, that’s the only thing they care about while they’re plundering away. You’ll have to stomach being around people who are lame, and who say lame things, and you’ll feel lame—so you’ll have to decide which is lamer: the fear of being lame, or forming an alliance with people lamer than you in order to struggle against people far meaner, far more greedy and destructive than the lame people you hate—people who have no qualms about being lame when they collectivize, so long as they destroy you and grab everything they want. Tough choice, I know.
2. The problem with the Left wasn’t that they were too fixated on proving they were right, or that they didn’t make enough noise before the war about the lies that led us into that war…the problem is that the Left doesn’t stand for anything Big because it’s not guided by a vision or an Ideal. What does the Left stand for? Let me suggest a few things in people’s own personal interests in these decaying times that the Left should stand for: first, people need money. Then if they have money, they need Life. Then they might be interested in “ideals” set out in the contract that this country is founded on. Ever read the preamble to the Constitution? There’s nothing about private property there and self-interest. Nothing at all about that. It’s a contract whose purpose is clearly spelled out, and it’s a purpose that’s the very opposite of the purpose driving Stewart’s rally, or the purpose driving the libertarian ideology so dominant over the past few generations. This country, by contract, was founded in order to strive for a “more Perfect Union”—that’s “union,” as in the pairing of the words “perfect” and “union”—not sovereign, not states, not local, not selfish, but “union.” And that other purpose at the end of the Constitution’s contractual obligations: promote the “General Welfare.” That means “welfare.” Not “everyone for himself” but “General Welfare.” That’s what it is to be American: to strive to form the most perfect union with each other, and to promote everyone’s general betterment. That’s it. The definition of an American patriot is anyone promoting the General Welfare of every single American, and anyone helping to form the most perfect Union—that’s “union”, repeat, “Union” you dumb fucks. Now, our problem is that there are a lot of people in this country who have dedicated their entire lives to subverting the stated purpose of this country. We must be prepared to identify those who disrupt and sabotage our national purpose of creating this “more perfect union” identifying those who sabotage our national goal of “promoting the General Welfare”—and calling them by their name: traitors. You who strive to form this Perfect Union and promote General Welfare—You are Patriots.
3. Anytime anyone says anything libertarian, spit on them. Libertarians are by definition enemies of the state: they are against promoting American citizens’ general welfare and against policies that create a perfect union. Like Communists before them, they are actively subverting the Constitution and the American Dream, and replacing it with a Kleptocratic Nightmare.
4. A slogan, a line from Blade Runner: “Then we’re stupid, and we’ll die.”
Mark Ames is the author of Going Postal: Rage, Murder and Rebellion from Reagan’s Workplaces to Clinton’s Columbine.