The question Whether one generation of men has a right to bind another, seems never to have been started either on this or our side of the water. — Thomas Jefferson to James Madison
Every generation believes that it will successfully pass on its beliefs.
In 2018, however, the body is rejecting the transplant. In a dozen small ways, tomorrow is pushing back against yesterday. If the last two weeks were a study in the old model falling apart, this week is a class in how the new world will be built. Everywhere I look, I see younger folk pushing back against received wisdom. And winning the fight.
Begin with the most obvious example. Of all the Republican presidents in living memory, Bush I was the most palatable. So the media told us. But Twitter and the larger half of social media disagreed. They spent the hours after his death listing his crimes. The hushing-up of the deceased’s felonies is a habit for statesmen in our country. But not now. Every single day since Bush escaped the moral coil, you could jump on social media and find someone correctly calling the Old Man out for Willie Horton or a dozen other crimes. Very Serious Twitter was outraged. It was not allowed, they said, as they huddled together in threads, making terrible screeching noises. But why?
Or take Beto O’Rourke. The center-left is eager for another Obama. They’re trying to weld the party onto this goodly knight from El Paso. But in the past two weeks, significant spokespersons for millennial opinion came to the conclusion that Beto was not as progressive as advertised. O’Rourke was afraid to embrace the Green New Deal or Medicare for All. The Internet noticed, and was quick to call him out.
Liz Bruenig did so in the Washington Post. She wrote: “I think the times both call for and allow for a left-populist candidate with uncompromising progressive principles. I don’t see that in O’Rourke.” As Slate noted, this triggered a horrified pushback from centrists:
Tanden and company are right to be worried. The new progressives refuse to blindly accept the commands of party honchos. The age of triangulation is over. These days, votes have to be earned. Just like Bush was theoretically entitled to our unquestioning respect, Beto was presumably owed our approval. But that’s not the way any of this goes.
The establishment is having trouble with the lesson. Consider the worst editorial of the whole week: Ross Douthat’s deeply racist fairy tale in the New York Times about how great White Anglo-Saxon Protestants were for America. Boss Ross’ hankering for the bygone era of white supremacy was both utterly weird and psychologically queasy:
Put simply, Americans miss Bush because we miss the WASPs — because we feel, at some level, that their more meritocratic and diverse and secular successors rule us neither as wisely nor as well.
Who does Douthat mean by “We?” Name them, Ross. Who are the “Americans” you’re talking about? The people under thirty? African-American voters? Latinx voters? Do the Cherokee and the Sioux miss the Pilgrims, I wonder? Do generations of poor rural Midwesterners long for the days of J.P. Morgan?
Of course, as soon as the question is asked, it is answered. By “we,” Ross meant people like him: presumably white, male, well-graduated, and professional. Nobody else may apply for relevance. Douthat’s sweeping claim to speak for a diverse America is bizarre.
But he’s not alone—even if he is the worst example. Pretty much everyone who got upset on Bush’s or Beto’s behalf made the same mistake that Douthat did. They assumed the rest of us would just go along, blindly accepting what does not have to be accepted.
In so many ways, the Establishment has cheated younger people of a future. And still, they expect that generation to follow the official guidelines. Imagine a man who sells you a busted car and then demands you only drive it on Homecoming nights. Across the country, people are waking up.
Look around. We see this pattern repeated across politics, across media, across entertainment. An Important Person commands the crowd to respect another Important Person. The command doesn’t take.
Behold Milo Yiannopoulos, yesterday’s beloved soft-focus fascist superstar. As a fast-rising entitled fraud, he was given the blessing kiss by the Pope of Guaranteed Applause, Bill Maher. Maher, America’s designated So Brave speaker since 1994, supported Milo. After Milo’s media machine was dismantled, Maher and every other conventional pundit scolded us. They told us that we had made Milo stronger by deplatforming him.
In other words, they told us Milo was entitled to our attention—just like they had been entitled to our attention. But wouldn’t you know it? People had the good sense not to take Maher seriously. We stayed away from Milo, and as it turns out, deplatforming is great. In reality, we didn’t owe Milo anything. By comparison, according to documents leaked this week, Milo owes $2 million to various creditors.
On the other side of the scale, behold Tumblr. The long-running microblogging platform is owned by Oath, Inc. This week, the company handed down a blanket decision to ban sexual posts from the site. Outrage mounted. Tumblr only exists because of its userbase. Now, why would Oath decide to alienate the people keeping them afloat? Perhaps Tumblr thinks they are entitled to their userbase. But they aren’t; the Net said they were ready to be done with Tumblr. Oath didn’t count on Tumblr’s userbase to have their own ideas … anymore than Maher counted on Americans to refuse Milo.
We are not bound by the questionable deals that others make on our behalf. We are not obligated to give people and platforms respect, simply because our betters command us to. We don’t owe Louis CK a listen, no matter how many times he sleazes onstage at the Comedy Cellar. We don’t owe Lena Dunham our trust, especially given what we’ve learned about her this past week. We don’t owe the Saudis our support as they bomb Yemen and kill journalists. We don’t owe Michael Bloomberg a run at the presidency.
So what, then, do we owe? We owe ourselves (and our neighbors, and our government) the chance to actively forget and forego bad notions, bad faith, bad candidates, bad actors, bad jokes, bad policies, and bad habits. We owe ourselves the opportunity to decide for ourselves. The whole point of the present is this: it’s always a time for choosing. And the choice is ours.