idolatry as core liberal value

At Salon, Mary Elizabeth Williams had some thoughts on Generation Z reaching voting age. Even the title illustrates dishonest liberal wishy-washiness: “Generation X’s kids have no idols, and that’s a good thing: Generation Z suffers from TMI, but they’re making the best of it.”

The point of the article is that she wants them to have idols, laments the lack of idols. Instead of being informed and appropriately cynical, they’re “suffering from TMI.” Because liberalism is complicit with capitalism, it has to include willful blindness as a value.

“My generation will never have the Obama experience that you did,” my daughter recently remarked to me casually. “We’ll never be as excited about a guy as you were.” We were walking together on a sweltering New York City evening, shortly before she left for college. “Of course you will,” I’d replied reflexively. “No, we won’t,” she insisted. “We know too much.” She was right. She and her peers have grown up watching their parents’ and grandparents’ idealism be rewarded with a bottomless pile of dirty laundry on every front. And I’m sad for her generation and I’m also starting to realize that they’re on to something.

Implicitly, Williams is treating politics like a feel-good rite of passage instead of a life-or-death struggle for power. It’s amazing to me that she takes hero worship for granted, even as a birthright, and thinks of it as idealism. That idealism was expressed as neoliberal policies that hurt people.

We Generation Xers like to think we invented cynicism. The generations before us — especially those born with the additional privileges that their race, gender and belief systems might confer — could believe in the American dream of the steady job and the two-car garage. Then our Baby Boomer parents got the horrors of the Vietnam war and Watergate. Naturally, we then grew up with the knowledge that the system is rigged. We got out of school, often with mountainous student debt on our shoulders, and entered an unstable workforce. Now our Millennial friends and colleagues have been slapped back in many ways even harder than we ever were, with greater debt, higher unemployment and decades more evidence of how poorly the American experiment can go. And yet, scratch a slacker and you’ll almost always find a dreamer.

If you think you invented cynicism, you’re not familiar with Western intellectual history at all, even going back as far as Animal Farm. She thinks this is cute.

She basically says that, for her, “we” means white people. She uses shibboleths like “privilege” but she’s not woke. Liberals are conservatives whose self-image requires a lot of denial.

I will never shake the sincere pride I felt voting, twice, for a candidate who ran on the word “hope,” and of bringing my daughters into that booth with me as I turned the lever. My teens have been shaped by that moment, and the eight years that followed. But they have also seen beloved sitcom dad Bill Cosby revealed as an accused serial sex offender, and watched him step down in disgrace from the board of their mother’s alma mater. They’ve read the stories about other men, adored, “admired” and protected, who didn’t merely violate the trust of men and women around them but thwarted their careers and ambitions.

After all this time, her attitude about Obama is unshakeable pride. It would be more appropriate to reflect on the failures of blindly following someone who repeats the word “hope” as a political strategy, or the worship of celebrity.

They’ve learned of the horrific crimes perpetuated by the clergy of the Catholic faith in which they grew up — and the church’s ongoing, relentless efforts to shirk its moral responsibility to its own victims. They know Dr. Mehmet Oz as the surgeon who once saved their grandfather’s life and the personality largely debunked as a TV blowhard.

Their governor, Andrew Cuomo, reportedly delayed a state probe of Harvey Weinstein, a rich, famous, accused sex offender. They are living in a reality in which the president of the United States makes false and misleading statements several times a day, every day.

They don’t think leaders are going to protect them. They don’t believe bosses will not exploit them. They have active shooter drills in their schools. And while they will gladly sit back and enjoy a hit Netflix rom-com like “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” with you, they will also regale you with the racist Twitter history of its co-star Israel Broussard.

Back in olden times, Generation X could’ve easily read about history and become cynical just from that exercise. Just because all of this is new to Mary Elizabeth Williams doesn’t mean that it’s new.

This year I was excited as my firstborn registered for her first election. She begrudgingly admits she doesn’t know who to vote for. She understands that voting often comes down to choosing the the person who seems likely to do the least harm, because not voting or protest voting are exercises in foot-shooting. But she approaches her first election with the same enthusiasm with which she greets brushing her teeth: It’s necessary; it staves off decay, but don’t ask her to be stoked. The last time we talked about it, she said, “Cynthia Nixon hasn’t convinced me she can manage the finances of an entire state.”

As someone who can recall running out and dancing in the street the night Bill Clinton was elected, I am no stranger to disappointment. As a person who has written favorably about Louis CK, Aziz Ansari, Mario Batali and Junot Diaz, you can imagine. I used to think Aung San Suu Kyi was a hero. I enthusiastically rooted for Pope Francis and Hillary Clinton to succeed, even as I had my reservations. But in a culture in which embarrassment is the coin of the realm, I refuse to regret ever having the natural, hopeful impulse to trust. I choose hopey changey, still. Every time.

What a consistent record of being wrong about everyone!

Isn’t it fair to ask whether the last 20 years of liberals running the show has been an exercise in foot-shooting? They just lost to Donald Trump of all people. The public is a lot more sympathetic to socialism than they were when Ralph Nader ran in 2000, and the continuity of government policy since 9/11 has been obvious. It was in the news today that some Republican rep from Nebraska thinks of leaving his party morning. When do we stop trusting Democrats, exactly?

My daughters, in contrast, instinctively approach charismatic public figures with deep skepticism. They enjoy music and movies and fashion as much as any generation of teens ever have, but they also don’t put much stock in the human beings behind any of those things. (They might still believe in Lin-Manuel Miranda, conditionally.) Ask them about Obama and they’ll retort with his record on torture and deportation. Is a fave that’s not problematic even possible for them and their peers? What is there out there for them, if they can’t indulge in a little hero worship now and then?

How about a belief in principles that transcend individual, flawed human beings? It seems like such a thing could be a robust guide to political actions.