Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Old Turks & Young Jerks

Squeezed in between the sweaty folds of the terminally obese Ottoman Empire, the Young Turks - a cadre of secular, progressive younglings in the imperial administration - set about the work of reform from within.  They were a last-ditch stem cell injection for the “sick old man of Europe.”  To these jaundiced, Wikipedia-informed eyes, their notoriety is undeserved – the sick old man died and Turkey has yet to re-attain even the nadir of its former imperial glory.  Yet the term survived, resurfacing periodically as a label for any group of plucky upstarts trying to take on the establishment.
Working from the definitive characteristics “young,” “secular” and “progressive,” it would appear that the Baby Boomers are America's Young Turks.  Unfortunately, the target for their destructive reform was nothing resembling a sick old man but rather the world’s reigning superpower as it approached the height of its material wealth and global influence.    Regardless, their success in effecting (or at least cheerleading) change – the sexual revolution, the Vietnam war protests, women’s lib, the civil rights drama, etc. – puts the original Young Turks to shame.  But being a successful revolutionary (i.e., not a martyr) comes with a price: after 50 years of social dominance, the American Young Turks have become Old Turks, in full control of their own version of the “establishment.”  
Unique in so many ways, the Boomers have deviated from the familiar narrative of young revolutionaries settling into paternal conservatism after raising families and/or ascending into power.  After weathering a mild conservative counter-revolution, the Old Turks have pressed their progressive agenda into the new millennium with renewed enthusiasm.  Never having relinquished the revolutionary high ground, the Boomers have thus ceded no political or cultural territory to a younger class of revolutionaries.  Indeed, by constantly re-animating the ghosts of the past establishment through their mouthpieces in academia and the media, they have largely co-opted a gullible and feeble-minded generation of younger crusaders and directed them onto quixotic quests to eradicate liberal Boomer bogey-men (racists, polluters, sexists, Christian bigots, etc.).
That’s not to say that the Boomers have completely outmaneuvered the inevitable uprising of youthful rebellion.  A new wave of anti-establishment feeling is bubbling to the surface across the pop culture landscape.  The tenor of this rebellious movement is distinct from the self-righteous brashness of the Boomers in the 60’s – it reverberates in the impudent sneer of the stand-up comic, the unabashed cruelty of anonymous internet commenters, the snort of the heckler drowning out the shrill soprano of a Boomer castrati shrieking about white privilege.  It’s becoming clear that the counter-revolution to the Old Turks is comprised not from younger versions of themselves, but from a newer upstart breed of Young Jerks.  I count amongst their core Adam Carolla, Mike Judge and Daniel Tosh, with something akin to fellow travelers in Louis CK, Bill Simmons, Joel McHale, Matt Stone, Trey Parker and the Jackass diaspora (the Jackasspora?), among other lesser known entertainers.
The battle lines of this counter-revolution are still hazy – the most prominent Young Jerks are nominally aligned with the most cherished progressive ethics (some Young Jerk offshoots like Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino ground their Gen X rudeness in Boomer doctrine).  Nor is the movement cohesive or self-aware enough to fire anything that would be recognizable as a shot across the bow.   Nevertheless, their assorted pot-shots constitute a barrage of sorts against the Old Turks’ edifice of political correctness.  Hard-edged racial jokes at the expense of minorities, cheerful misogyny, the vulgarization of free love and drug use (as opposed to self-serious, romanticized hippie antics),  the trivialization of violence and rape, proud indulgence in crass commercialism, defiant political apathy and anti-intellectualism – these regressive characteristics stand out in stark opposition to progressive orthodoxy.  Though it’s impossible to discern a clear shout of “The Emperor has no clothes!” from the rabble rabble of the Young Jerks, you can at least make out a few jokes about the size of his penis.
Many Boomers of the progressive establishment are generally tolerant or at least unaware of this understated rebellion.  After all, vulgarity is part and parcel of the progressive package and a valuable weapon in the fight against lingering Judeo-Christian dominionism.  So long as the Young Jerks are not collaborators in the vast right-wing conspiracy, their improprieties can be chalked up to immaturity.  If they ever get really out of line, a la old fogey Don Imus, there are ample Inquisitors on hand to put them to the question.  Better yet, if they are pliant enough to apply their coarse means to progressive ends, the establishment will fete them – witness the accolades heaped on Quentin Tarantino for packaging his nihilistic orgies of excess with minority revenge fantasy narratives in Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained.  
Still, some of the more zealous Old Turks are seeing the profane writing on the wall and taking a harder line with the Young Jerks.  Prominent among these is neo-Boomer Aaron “Ignatius” Sorkin, self-appointed Defender of the Progressive Faith, who has responded to the staggered barrage of the Young Jerks with a series of thunderous broadsides.  In the pilot episode of HBO’s The Newsroom, Sorkin’s crusty sock-puppet Will McAvoy (played by Jeff Daniels) lets loose on the underachieving younger generation – “the worst generation ever” – for slouching so apathetically into decadence.  Having declared war via proxy, Sorkin used his 2012 commencement address at Syracuse to rally the gullible young to his banner, preaching: "Don't ever forget that you're a citizen of this world, and there are things you can do to lift the human spirit, things that are easy, things that are free, things that you can do every day. Civility, respect, kindness, character. You're too good for schadenfreude, you're too good for gossip and snark, you're too good for intolerance."

Sorkin’s optimism aside, if schadenfreude and snark are the battle lines in the pop culture cold war, then the Young Jerks have already seized the high ground.  To be sure, Sorkin’s brand of earnest liberal idealism still has a firm foothold in the marketplace – the didactic 90’s tradition of Philadelphia, Dances with Wolves and Field of Dreams lives on with the likes of Brokeback Mountain, Avatar and Life of Pi.  But the undercurrents of schadenfreude and snark that surfaced in the marketplace with Beavis and Butthead and The Simpsons have swelled, with unsightly whiteheads like The Man Show, Tosh.0 and South Park giving a new, visceral meaning to pop culture.   These are not so easily dismissed as low-brow groundling fodder in the vein of Saturday morning cartoons, The Three Stooges and America’s Funniest Home Videos.  Beneath the immature vulgarity is a hard-edged adult cynicism and, in some cases, nihilism that strikes at the core of Boomer utopianism.  And their influence extends far beyond the mainstream outlets: their jeers echo in millions of Youtube videos, blogs and hit-and-run internet comments.
Scarce few of the Young Jerks have met Sorkin on the field of explicit ideological warfare, and even their guerrilla combat is more catch-and-release than take-no-prisoners.  Parker and Stone – gleeful sacred cow-punchers – noticeably reserve their most straightforward attacks for distant (Islam) or marginal foes (Mormons), engaging in evasive maneuvers whenever they take on higher-profile targets.  The acrobatic displays of submission put on by South Park and Louis CK to justify their frequent use of “fag” are illustrative examples of most Young Jerks’ cautious but still subversive approach to engagement with the more powerful aspects of the establishment.   Even the most daring and shameless of the high-profile Young Jerks, Daniel Tosh, takes cover behind an omnipresent cherubic smile.
Yet as much as the Young Jerks avoid direct confrontation, their passive-aggression is a form of attack, and one that is setting the stage for a bloodier conflict in the future.  The Young Jerks have stoked a market with a growing demand for schadenfreude and a short supply of politically acceptable victims (there are only so many ways to skewer a redneck).  Further, they have implanted a younger caste of intellectuals with a foundation of reasonable apathy and an appetite for destruction.  Consider the explosive implications of a growing class of hungry, amoral cultural predators descending on the Boomers’ asylum for militant victims (or, alternately, a hungry coalition of militant victims descending on a group of apathetic underachievers with no interest in propping up the redistribution system).  Given the Boomers’ record of inverting historical antecedents – revolutionizing an ascending society into decline, getting more progressive with age – we can anticipate that the nature of their eventual downfall will also turn the established wisdom on its head. To reconfigure T.S. Eliot, this is how their world will end, not with a whimper, but a bang.