It's Always the Adults' Fault
Stupidity is supposed to expire
This week, Jesse Singal had an article on his Substack that resonated with me. Singal described how the attempts at social commentary on Arcade Fire’s new album made him feel cranky and old. He writes:
“I was surprised how annoyed I got at the band’s attempts at social commentary. Just this roaring jolt of curmudgeonliness.
My pique peaked while listening to “End of the Empire I–III,” which is one track, as well as the next one, “End of the Empire (Sagittarius A*).” In the first song, lead singer Win Butler sings that we are “standing at the end of the American empire” (in case you didn’t glean from the title which empire he was referring to). It’s incredibly deep stuff.
I’m 38 now and things just don’t generally feel as new or intense as they did when I was 22. Maybe there is a 22-year-old for whom [Arcade Fire’s latest album] captures the present moment perfectly, and listening to it causes them to delete TikTok or whatever (though I don’t know how many twentysomethings listen to Arcade Fire).”
First, let’s not kid ourselves: The only twentysomethings listening to Arcade Fire are suspected terrorists at black ops sites being subjected to sleep deprivation torture.
But more substantively: I’m a bit older than Jesse, so I’m a few Arcade Fire albums ahead of him. For me, The Suburbs was the album that made me roll my eyes and think “Jesus, it’s like Holden Caulfield started a band.” I do happen to really love Arcade Fire’s music (including the new album!), but I always ignore the lyrics. Because at the end of the day, Arcade Fire’s Win Butler — though a genius — is just some fucking moron.
I find it funny that I ever searched for meaning in lyrics. Musicians typically find fame in their 20s, when they’ve got audacity, drive, and six percent body fat. What they don’t have is any perspective that could fuel insight. If a 23 year-old barista handed you your coffee and said “Hey, by the way: We live in a wheel where everyone steals,” would you think “Whoa, who is this sage beverage purveyor?” You would not. So why the fuck did anyone have similar thoughts for even a second when Gavin Rossdale sang that line in the ‘90s? Why did I pore over Doors lyrics searching for meaning? Why did I listen to “Celebration of the Lizard” and think “What does it mean?” What does it mean? It means that in between doing enough drugs to kill a blue whale and serving as the base of some disgusting, sweaty, hairy hippie sex pile, Jim Morrison realized that he couldn’t just yell “Come on come on come on!” for an entire album and wrote some shit about lizards. That’s what it means, you idiot.
Of course, the right reaction to my youthful naivety — or musicians’ mid-20s lyrical misfires — is to laugh it off. Yes: I was doe-eyed little dupe. But that's how it goes at that age. Eventually, you grow older, and you slowly realize that most of what you held sacred was a plate of hot bullshit. And you try to approach new things with an open mind, but you know — statistically speaking — that most of what glitters isn’t gold, and that 90 percent of “good news” is actually just a scam to get your credit card number.
At least, that’s how it’s supposed to go. It seems1 like we’re in an era in which too many adults fail to develop world-weary skepticism. Too few grown-ups are taking on the role of the soft, tempering force that subdues youthful impulses. And, in the absolute saddest cases, some older people are embracing youthful nonsense in a desperate attempt to stay relevant. It’s bone-chillingly pathetic.
The most obvious place where adults give in to youthful nonsense is college. College students produce over-zealous silliness the way the Keebler elves make cookies; it seems to be their primary function. This will always be true, and one of the most valuable things that college provides is a low-stakes environment for people to do some of the dumbest things of their lives. That’s normal. What’s not normal is for college administrators to respond to garden variety flare-ups by fanning the flames. You’re not supposed to discipline a janitor based on unfounded charges of racism, or punish a professor for speaking Chinese while teaching about China, or be part of the seemingly endless parade of administrators indulging silly campus freak-outs until they become national news. When the Student Alliance for Immediate and Brutal Justice demands that French toast be removed from the cafeteria because it’s a symbol of colonialism, you’re supposed to thank them for concern, assure them you’ll investigate, and then do exactly nothing. You’re not supposed to start firing lunch ladies like an ancient priest chucking virgins into a volcano in a futile attempt to appease the gods.
Youth-led revolts at major companies have also been indulged by people who should know better. There were several such incidents, but the most high-profile one was probably the New York Times forcing out Editorial Page Editor James Bennett. Reports say that the revolt was led by young employees who were mostly on the business side of the Times (meaning: not reporters). That makes the case infinitely more fascinating to me, because it raises the question: What, exactly, was the Times afraid of? A bunch of 26 year-old Social Media Strategists saying “Hey, most prestigious news outlet in the country: Do what I say or else me, my eight months of experience, and my communications degree from USC are out the fucking door”? I honestly wonder if Times shareholders have grounds for a lawsuit based on the fact that management didn’t immediately issue a cake with “Goodbye!” written on it to anyone making that threat.
I also feel that entertainment is riddled with middle-aged sad sacks pandering to the perceived tastes of young people in a desperate attempt to stay relevant. One of the most pathetic things I’ve ever witnessed is Jon Stewart — who walked away a legend in 2015 — returning to make a hyper-woke, extremely ignored show that’s as dumb as a bag of hammers. Stewart — that au courant 59 year-old — has joined Twitter and Tik Tok, where you can find videos like this one:
Jesus: That video kneecaps my opinion of Jon Stewart and Levar Burton in 81 humiliating seconds. Got any other deeply-embarrassing videos of people I love? Maybe one of Barack Obama shitting his pants, or Big Bird arguing that 9/11 was an inside job? That video is torture to me; I would rather drop acid and watch all eight Saw movies in a row than watch that video twice.
Because, obviously: Slavery is not why people oppose raising the minimum wage. People oppose raising the minimum wage because past a certain point, a high minimum wage causes unemployment. We can debate exactly where that point occurs and how direct the cause-and-effect is — I happen to believe that the relationship is loose and generally support a higher wage — but that tradeoff is the source of the (informed) opposition. It’s not because “they’re used to getting the work for free”.
If you’re going to be an adult who talks about politics for a living, that’s the kind of shit you’re supposed to know. You need to know that, and when some wet-behind-the-ears 20-something writer who doesn’t know that pitches that premise, you’re supposed to say “That’s hilarious, I love it!” and then toss it into the bottomless pit that’s the final destination of most pitches. If you do anything other than that, I feel that you’re shirking your responsibilities as an adult.
I’ve written before about what I see as the symbiotic relationship between liberals and leftists. Roughly speaking, a leftist’s job is give liberals like me the cojones we need to attempt big things. In turn, a liberal’s job is to take the far left’s extremely stupid ideas and turn them into something workable. This relationship seems to be encoded in nature; we are the oxpecker and the wildebeest, perpetually coexisting for mutual advantage.
That interplay roughly tracks the relationship between young adults and older ones. Young people have the idealism, the verve, the drive, the looks, the charm, the energy, the initiative, the creativity, the fearlessness, the zazzle, the style, the grit, the zeal, and the ability to see themselves naked without getting depressed. But I have something that they don’t have: A bullshit detector. My bullshit detector is a finely tuned machine, and I’m in the garage every day cleaning the gaskets and adjusting the belts, so that fucker’s going to be purring like a kitten for many years to come.
As I get older, and look back on my younger self and contemplate fatherhood, I’m starting to understand my role. I used to fear getting older; I was afraid of becoming irrelevant. I don’t fear that anymore. I get it now: People don’t become irrelevant as they age — their role just changes. They stop being the player, but they become the coach; they’re in the background, not directly doing the thing but very much guiding the people who are doing the thing. It’s an evolution born of the fact that we start out with endless initiative but no wisdom, and as time goes by, we trade the former for the latter.
The system breaks down when older people fail to gently nudge young people away from nonsense. That can happen because of stunted development or cowardice, and I’m really not sure which is worse. If you never have the moment when you think “Wait, these lyrics that some ex-theatre kid wrote while high are a bunch of bullshit,” well, that’s a problem. Because it means that you’re not developing the nonsense-free view of the world that’s supposed to come with age. And if you do have that moment but pretend like you didn’t because you’re afraid that you’ll look old by admitting to being out-of-step with the zeitgeist, then I, for one, find you pathetic. You are Steve Buscemi with a backwards hat and a skateboard — I think you should ditch the act and embrace who you are. Because the world needs old people. And young people need old people most of all.
I’d like to emphasize the word “seems” here because — as is usually true when talking about societal trends — I can’t prove that this is happening. Of course, it’s equally impossible to prove that it’s not happening. Because the trend-line is impossible to discern, I’ll simply concede that I don’t know if fecklessness by adults is becoming more common and simply argue that when it does happen, it’s bad.