Why the Jon Stewart Rally is my generation's Woodstock
We don't go to rallies.
Drag races? Men in heels.
Once we were in a protest, but only because we had to walk through it to get to a Lady Gaga concert.
Sign petitions? Please. March for a cause? Only if by "march" you mean "walk in a determined fashion" and by "cause" you mean "to buy that new frozen yogurt that is so popular these days."
Call us Generation I. I for irony, iPhones, and the Internet. I for instant gratification. I for idiosyncratic, inventive, impertinent. We're all these things.
Recently, Charles Murray accused us of being a "New Elite." This might be overstating our case a bit. What binds us is not a common experience or similar eugenetic stock, as he claims. It's our mindset -- a staunch and unstinting refusal to take anything seriously.
It's not that we don't believe some things are serious. We'll make It Gets Better videos or perform comedy for jazz relief, or whatever the occasion is. But sum up our lives in a phrase? The Importance Of Never Being Too Earnest.
We know what happens to people who take themselves seriously. They become bent and broken with care and develop arterial plaques. Sometimes they're elected to political office. "In America, any boy may become president," Adlai Stevenson once noted. "And I suppose it's just one of the risks he takes." We don't like the sound of that.
Forget the 1950s, which we picture as an entire era of people in conservative sweater-sets earnestly pushing towards the front of the class. These days, the whole class wants to sit in the back row and lob spitballs. Our icons are the class clowns, not the overachievers in near the blackboard. Raise our hands? Make a statement? Please. What is this, a Norman Rockwell painting?
After someone discovered the mystical secret of doing things ironically, we felt a great weight lift from our shoulders. Now, we dwell in thickets of inverted commas. Commit to fashions, opinions, favorite beverages? Why bother, when you can take someone to prom ironically as a commentary on beauty, or move to Tibet and spend three years living ironically in a monastery?
Someone more cynical than I might say that our salient characteristic can be reduced to an overwhelming desire to avoid looking silly. But there's more to it than that.
As a millennial, my greatest fear is that someday I might accidentally say something that offends someone. I am so aware of this that the only group I feel safe writing vaguely offensive generalizations about is illiterate people. If you are reading this aloud to an illiterate friend, please, stop two sentences ago! I'm sorry! Read them this instead: Illiterate people are the salt of the earth! Most of my best friends are illiterate! I voted for an illiterate write-in candidate!
That's the one unforgivable sin in our book. Affairs? Addictions? We'll cope. But say something earnestly racist, homophobic, or misogynistic, and just watch everyone's affection evaporate. "I'm just quoting Mel Gibson," you scream. But it's too late.
But throw quotations around it, and everyone heaves a sigh of relief.
That's why comedy -- specifically, satire -- has risen to the top of the food chain.
Sure, we'll watch the news, read the newspaper or the Huffington Post. But millennials reserve idolization for the Onion, the Colbert Report, the Daily Show. We give comics the kind of adulation prior generations reserved for their musicians. We respect Lady Gaga. But millennials travel hundreds of miles to touch the hem of Jon Stewart's robe.
That's why the whole demographic is showing up for the Stewart/Colbert rally. More than 200,000 have already RSVP'ed on Facebook. That's almost as many as have registered to vote! And I'm not sure there's much overlap. The rally exists in a parallel universe in which millennials are politically active. Have you ever heard a millennial say, "Ah, I'm not voting this year." Sure. But have you ever heard one say, "That Jon Stewart guy is not funny at all"? Never! The earth might explode!
Woodstock didn't define a generation because everyone showed up (some people had to run for political office in subsequent years) or because the people who did were a perfectly representative sample. It defined a generation because, for a few days, it bottled its peculiar zeitgeist -- passion for music, free love, an aggressive hatred for bras, hallucinatory experimentation. That's what the Stewart rally does for us.
Millennials are Generation I, for whom life exists so we can put as many things as possible in quotes. And this "rally" is the closest millennials will ever get to a love-in. It's a "like-in." Millennials going to get together and wear properly supportive bras, which they will not burn, and carry reasonable signs! It's the ultimate anti-protest. It's a Facebook group in the flesh.
And it's millennials' Woodstock. Or, rather, "Woodstock."
But there's a nervous frisson of truthiness behind all this. "Give a man a mask, and he'll tell you the truth," Oscar Wilde once wrote. But what's behind the mask?
A recent article in the Style section quoted a media professor who said of Stewart, "He's a progressive, but his bias is towards reasonableness." When it comes to opinions, that's about as far as any of us can go. One step farther, and someone might call us angrily from Sweden! We're clinging to our satire as we've heard some people cling to their guns and religion.
But the problem is that great ages of satire are seldom great ages of, well, anything else. As Ogden Nash once asked: "How can anyone accomplish anything immortal/When they realize they look pretty funny doing it and have to stop to chortle?" So far, we haven't quite figured that out.
Maybe, at the rally, Stewart will explain! I'll be there covering it. And you'll be there too. Ironically, of course.
| October 26, 2010; 4:34 PM ET
Categories: Petri | Tags: Rally To Restore Sanity And/Or Fear, Stewart Rally, woodstock
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