September 12, 2011

Generation Smirk

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The last time I shared a car ride with my mother, I got to talking very romantically about the hippies of the 1960s. These heroes of my guilty white mythology came up in contrast to hipsters, a term my mother hadn’t heard since Allen Ginsberg & Co. called themselves “angelheaded hipsters” (that’s right, before it was cool).

“Well,” I explained, with all the certitude of a freshman with his head on the seventh floor of the Olin stacks, “A hipster defines himself by what he is not stupid enough to buy into, while a hippie defines himself by what he is stupid enough to buy into.” As far as I could tell, hippies were civil rights activists and environmentalists with a garnish of free love and a healthy disrespect for fascists. Today’s counterculture, of which “The Hipster” is a caricature, has held onto the disrespect but diluted it into a chuckling contempt for most things.

At Cornell, I am pretty well engulfed by this sort of counterculture, all of us steeped in satire and irony but totally allergic to activism and sincerity. I’m not only a witness to Generation Smirk, but an active participant. I’m not just talking about the Hipster Smirk, either, because, let’s be fair — hipsters are a relatively small and largely imaginary subculture of American youth. I’m talking about a ubiquitous mechanism for coping with a fractured and intimidating world by pretending to understand its hypocrisy and pretending that laughing at it is enough.

The insufficiency of satire first struck me when Jon Stewart held his “Rally to Restore Sanity” in D.C. back in October of last year. For those of you who didn’t follow it, the rally was a parody of Glenn Beck’s “Rally to Restore Honor,” and its purpose was ostensibly to decry hyperbole and extremism and celebrate passionate moderatism. It drew some 200,000 attendees, more than double the crowd at Beck’s rally.

When I heard about the rally, my first thought was, “That’s hilarious, how can I get there?” And it’s true: Jon Stewart is a really, really funny guy, and I derive endless pleasure from laughing along with him. The problem is, Jon Stewart portrays world events as essentially farcical, and his reaction to the farce is laughter and surrender.

Nothing’s wrong with laughter, but as more and more of my friends and relatives made plans to drop everything to get to D.C. for Stewart’s rally, I couldn’t help but suspect that my generation laughs as an alternative to activism. Of all my friends who made the trip to celebrate an inside joke with a comedian, I don’t think a single one would have taken to the streets to protest against the war in Afghanistan or march for gay rights. We’re all just too busy laughing, which, while often justified, isn’t tremendously helpful.

Don’t take this as a rant against hipsters, because this is much bigger than whatever caricature you have stored away of those vinyl-loving bohemians. The obsession with irony and satire is pandemic to our generation, and however clever a joke is, at the end of the day it does nothing more than trivialize dire world events and sedate the very people who could be doing something about them.

Activism died not the coughing, spluttering death of a passionate crowd submerged in tear gas, but rather the uncomfortable, throat-clearing death of the wrong joke at the wrong cocktail party. The problems haven’t gone away: Drug prohibition still cripples the entire world, the human race still hasn’t learned to stop poisoning its own food, water and air, and America is still on the other side of the globe destabilizing sovereign nations and shooting foreigners. The only difference is that now, we’ve all agreed we can laugh about it and get on with our lives. It’s a perfectly understandable coping mechanism, but it’s robbing the world of the young, intelligent people who used to get off their asses and try to change things.

The terrible secret behind every smug smile and ironic t-shirt is that world events are not essentially farcical. They are tragic. They are tragic not just in the “Children are starving in Africa” sort of way, but also in the “Big tribes of essentially non-malicious but deeply apathetic humans (with highly refined senses of humor) end up doing terrible, terrible things to other less-powerful tribes” sort of way. The world needs fixing, and all we do is tweet.

To which my mother replied, “Tom, the hippies were just a bunch of kids on drugs who didn’t want to get drafted.”

And what, I wonder with a totally impotent chuckle, does that make us?

Tom Moore is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at [email protected]. What Even Is All This? appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.

Original Author: Tom Moore