Obama’s stump speeches, those moving oratories about what is and what can be, could not be more different from my generation’s nihilistic pop voices (be it Morrissey, James Hetfield, or Kurt Cobain). They are patterned after the words and tones of JFK and MLK, leaders who moved the Boomers — and, by extension, their children.
My generation doesn’t talk like that. In fact, to me, a typical Obama speech works best if viewed as satire. (Pull one up on YouTube and try imagining it as, say, Eddie Izzard playing a politician.)
My generation speaks in irony — appreciating only those who mock and subvert. Our favorite entertainment is anti-entertainment. Deliberate stupidity is our highest form of artistic expression. I am confident that I am not alone in believing the greatest entertainment I have ever witnessed was Dave Letterman trampolining onto a wall of Velcro.
Obama means to inspire us with his words. But asking my ultra-cynical generation to do something is the absolute worst tactic for getting us to do it — a conundrum that marketing professionals have spent years puzzling over. (To sell to us, those marketers replaced traditional, straightforward pitches with inanities meant to convince us that they, too, see the idiocy of advertising; think of Budweiser’s talking frogs.)
Obama is not inane. He is not ironic. He appears dignified, serious, and earnest in calling us to action. But my generation equates activism with idealism, and we are really, really wary of idealism.
Perhaps it is a moral failing on our part — those of us who did not experience Jim Crow or have our birthdays pulled in a conscription lottery — not to stand firm on either side of great issues.
But the Boomers’ admirably idealistic plans left practical problems that we had to slog through. Their efforts to end racial division in America, for example, resulted in policies that many of my friends believe were responsible for their being bussed out of their neighborhood, or not getting into their preferred college, or losing out on a job or promotion. Petty and unfair, perhaps, but not an unsurprising response in a country where working- and middle-class wages and opportunities have stagnated.
Few women my age follow either the idealistic models of Gloria Steinem or Phyllis Schlafly. They have long since learned that, at least for them, they could gain much but couldn’t really have it all — a lesson taught by expensive day care, cruel corporate maternity policies, and, for many, many of them, fertility treatments draining them physically, psychologically, and financially as they sought the children they had postponed in exchange for a career.
Conservative idealism has done us no better turn — thank you so much for supply-side economics, free trade, and deregulation. And it is the Straussian Boomers who believed that they could make a better Arab world by invading it.
And what of Obama? A clue can be found in his reform of the Illinois death-penalty system, when he was a state senator. He did not try to abolish capital punishment, nor did he side with the law-and-order hard-liners. Instead, he forged and passed legislation that vastly improved the fairness of the system, which allowed the state’s freeze on executions to be lifted.