My first salient memory of the news or current events is the impeachment of Bill Clinton. I was too young to understand specifics but I could already pick up that it was just a lazy, cynical exercise. All the eye-rolling and bloviating and posturing, carried out by senators and pundits who obviously didn’t believe in any of the words coming out of their mouths, and also constantly twisting themselves in knots to keep polite language standards on television. I couldn’t tell what it all actually meant, but I could definitely tell that I was being condescended to.
Around this time was the bombing of Kosovo in 1999. I remember seeing the footage of schools and homes completely destroyed. I remember wondering why we were doing that: we were the good guys, right? Were they bad? Were we at war? Of course, the answer was no. They weren’t “evil” or whatever. We just wanted to control what they would do. And the bombing of other countries was our way of doing that. It’s just a thing that was done.
Just like with the impeachment, it all felt artificial. Wasn’t this important and major? Something pressingly urgent like our country carrying out attack operations against another country felt like that’s what war was going to be like. I had heard about war. But my head was patted and I was assured that I had nothing to worry about.
Next was Columbine. It seems almost minor now compared to how the next twenty years would shake out. Always lurking in the back of the mind. Shortly after that was the 2000 election. My first time encountering the actual structure of American government, but what I remember more than anything is the recount. All the disagreement about what or who to count. More artifice: if we were a democracy, why did we need to count and recount and recount? Why did deals need to be made and judges consulted? Just count the votes.
So by the time I turned eleven years old, nearly a full third of my young life had been swirling in these kinds of questions. Is it any wonder that in the aftermath of 9/11 — and all the rampant xenophobic propaganda that justified two wars that are still going on — that I was skeptical? Now I knew what war was. But Afghanistan didn’t honestly feel any different from Kosovo just three years earlier. Iraq did, but even at the time the artifice was slipping. WMDs? There was the Patriot Act and freedom fries and “God Bless the USA” and a military-funded propaganda channel funneled into our schools and a Mission Accomplished banner and Katrina and Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo and CIA torture and a massive, nebulous “War on Terror”, and if you even hinted at dissent you were a dirty traitor helping the terrorists win because they hate our freedoms, so that’s why it was important for us to give up our freedoms and shut up and be silent.
Anyway, then the market crashed. I was barely figuring out a way in the world. I vaguely supported Ron Paul for about two months in the summer of 2008, mostly because of what we’d now call “memes” but also because of his opposition to the war. But I got suckered into the hope Obama wrought. I’m still glad to have voted for him twice, but even then I couldn’t afford to look away as he ramped up drone warfare and deportations in an effort to reach an olive branch to conservatives. They rewarded him with the Tea Party and a quest that continues to this day to destroy the ACA. People went homeless. Worked three or four jobs just to survive. And even in “recovery” it was always still shaky.
2016, you know the rest.
I find lifestyle consumption politics increasingly irritating. Epic SNL skits and big clapbacks to the president. Ha haha covfefe ha ha president cheeto. Doing a dab on TV or dancing on TikTok. Nudge nudge wink wink jokes about Putin or whatever. None of that shit matters. People are rationing insulin. Nazis are marching the streets. A whole lot of people are about to die not from the symptoms of the current pandemic illness but from the specific inadequacy of our healthcare system to actually help people. Children are in cages. A new mass shooting every week. The clock is ticking on climate change and there are still people fretting about marginal tax rates for multi millionaires. The market plunging yet again despite the Fed injecting trillions.
We come to the present moment with unmatched urgency. There is quick, progressive, decisive action to be taken, and every moment wasted by our leaders is another moment in despair. This is not to say that joy and levity aren’t welcome; they are necessary to any movement. But sitting around chortling while wealthy actors make elementary-school-grade insults on Twitter solves nothing.
There’s an election going on, too. The Democratic frontrunner, just weeks away from clinching the nomination, has promised to make sure things go “back to normal” once he’s elected. What’s that supposed to mean exactly? Back to ramping up forever wars and deportations and mass incarceration? Back to more recessions? Back to doing nothing about climate change?
For an entire generation, this is our “normal”. We don’t have the luxury of positive fuzzy memories of some America that we thought existed and want to return to. We don’t have some imagined era in which America was great or normal, and we don’t want to go backwards.
Even the structure of it is all blown apart these days: from the chaos of the Iowa caucus to the 5-hour-plus lines in multiple states to the closure of hundreds of polling sites to malfunctioning machines to concerns about the spread of the virus to a completely unresponsive and irresponsible party apparatus that is chronically two steps behind what they should be doing.
But this is not really a post about the election. It’s about how we rise to the urgency of crises, and right now there are dozens of crises at once. I’ll vote for Joe Biden this fall, if only out of obligation so that I cannot be personally blamed when he loses. And if he somehow pulls out a win, I’ll be glad a fascist is out of office but it doesn’t suddenly mean we should just think “back to normal” and continue our daily lives as if the last five years didn’t happen.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the ways society adapts to subversion. How whole generations grow up with wildly different perspectives on what is considered “normal” in society. A subversion of expectations, in a joke or a moral of a story or even in a philosophical worldview can only make any sense of it has an expectation of “normal” to subvert. Can subversion mean anything anymore to generations so thoroughly raised on it?
Let’s start at the beginning: in the ideal American story, the President is an upstanding man who loves and cherishes his nation. Yet my very first political memory is the very litigation of whether that image was real. Millions of children now are going through the same. So that story is turned on its head. And years or decades from now, that image will be impossible to recover. The genie cannot be put back into the bottle.
It’s also no coincidence that young generations have flocked nearly entirely away from organized religion. What was to previous generations a bastion of stability and comfort, has become to us a institution of greed, intolerance, and abuse. The expectations are subverted. That image is never coming back.
It repeats in smaller ways too: punk music was once the excitable rebellious and dangerous art form of a new generation, but now society has adapted it. It’s practically high society music now, and people pretend like loud aggressive music is subversion of cultural norms. (it’s not, kids these days listen to chopped and screwed easy-listening elevator music. Talk about subversion!)
The rebellion has come and gone, we are all affected by it, but it no longer is able to subvert any societal expectations. We carry on, fundamentally changed, and any attempt to return society “back to normal” is impossible because society has adapted to this subversion. And we subvert the subversion on and on and on until nothing means anything, spiraling out into growth and decay.
And now that the subversion is complete we can look back at things with a clearer eye. We can see the patterns in the past. Those institutions and expectations deserved to be subverted because they were all cruel and fake and horrible, and we cannot willfully put our heads in the sand and pretend like they weren’t. The old rules that governed society were completely broken and cruel, and they led to the moment we’re in now. And even then, they were a lie from the beginning! Those rules never governed society in the first place, they were always convenient fictions out in place by the powerful to ensure their continued success.
We cannot go back to normal. There never was such a thing as normal, and even the temporary stability fondly remembered by people old enough to know better was always just as harmful as now. The “normal” way led us directly here. The problems are deeper and older than Trump; simply removing him would do nothing to solve them. And when Trump leaves office: now, or in five years, or after a third term, or if his nakedly racist, fascist spirit carries on in the future presidential runs of Tom Cotton, we will have to fight and keep fighting for people to be able to live. Our work will never be done. And until that is taken seriously, and not just dismissed as the apocalyptic panic of young people, it will never get better.
Exit poll after exit poll in this Democratic primary has shown the biggest dividing line in the Democratic party is by age. Millennials and Zoomers support the democratic socialism of Bernie Sanders, expanding healthcare benefits the older generations enjoy to all. Older generations overwhelmingly back Joe Biden, not necessarily out of any fealty to his policy positions or his grand vision, but because they are convinced he has the best ability to beat Trump, policy or ideology be damned. Even if he cuts Social Security and Medicare, even if he sits around doing nothing but coasting on vague Obama-era goodwill.
Imagine how things could have gone. The explosive passion of young people could have been harnessed, worked with, and made for a future generation of progressive leadership. But from AOC all the way down to your average Zoomer at the polls, young people have been mocked, derided, and actively worked against by the party that was supposed to have us in their interests.
Yes, young people don’t turn out much to vote. Shouldn’t we be working on solving that, instead of smugly jeering about it? Shouldn’t we make it easier for college students to register to vote, or for the young people working unpredictable retail and foodservice jobs to get time off they need to go vote? Shouldn’t we embrace policies that will actually entice them? Shouldn’t we work on reversing the decimation of polling places that has led to lines as long as 6 to 7 hours on college campuses? Far easier to mock and deride them, instead. We are foolish, capricious children obsessed with avocados and lattes; not in our 30s, some with children of our own, trying to rebuild a society that was broken.
But isn’t that a microcosm of American society? Young people are passionate advocates for policies that disproportionately benefit the elderly. And for themselves, all they ask for is the security that the older generations enjoyed. All they ask for is a basic standard of decency. Meanwhile, millions of Boomers, secure and satisfied that they got theirs, laugh us off, say they have “no empathy” for us, and then wonder why we don’t buy into the system? Why we don’t just accept it all as good and normal?
A generation so poised to take it all in stride, wistfully remembering the tiny brief period when they thought things were “normal”, is woefully unprepared for the depths to which this society will fall. Because just like before: the genie cannot go back into the bottle. The next time society falls apart, it will be worse. Don’t try to say we didn’t warn you.
Or maybe the impossible will happen. President Joe Biden could command a sweeping grassroots movement of the youth to ride into office with a mandate. He could rise to the moment, convince Republicans to work with him, and pass sweeping major legislation including Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, healing the soul of the nation and steering us on the right path to face the challenges of the twenty-first century with grace and decorum. He could be a truly transformational administration in ways even Obama was unable to be, and his stirring rhetoric and inspiring speeches will give the nation a much-needed reassurance and comfort in the darkest of times, and the artifice of the American Dream will be revived but made real, and those old rules will actually work out this time around and make a better world for everyone.
Yeah, I’m not holding my breath either.