Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
It is by now a cliche that, since January 2017, parody in American life has died. That may be an exaggeration, but it certainly is much more difficult to tell these days what is an Onion article and what is real news coming out of the West Wing.
But now we are living through not parody but a horror film. Specifically, a teen slasher. Think Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream, Halloween, The Faculty, and of course related works such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its explicit and oft-referenced antecedent, Scooby Doo.
In these products of pop culture, as a trope, the adults in authority positions are always craven and corrupt or simply clueless as to what’s going on. (OK, some exceptions, like Giles on Buffy as an ersatz father figure.) The teen protagonists, and some of their teen friends, are the ones who know the truth and who fight the forces of evil with what wits they can muster in spite of their hormones.
And now we have the Parkland teens leading their country toward a promised land where school children will no longer need to go through active shooter drills, while the adults in authority positions either dither or stand in their way. One adult in particular is too busy fending off lawsuits by porn stars.
It’s a quintessentially American moment.
Why is youthful heroism, as contrasted with the craven uselessness or even proactive evil of adults in authority, such a strain in the American cultural DNA? I should add here that it’s not just the horror genre that produces such works, although horror, meant to capture that most ancient and elemental emotion of fear, may be the most intuitive genre for this trope. In the Cold War classic Red Dawn and its remake, when Communist forces conquer the United States, a small band of teens lead a war of resistance against the occupiers. In another Cold War film, the very cringeworthy Iron Eagle, a teenager hijacks an Air Force jet to bomb a fictional Middle Eastern country and to rescue his father, for which acts of illegal warfare he is rewarded with admission to the Air Force Academy. And then there are The Hunger Games, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and so on.
America has been, after all, the New World, where humanity might begin anew. And people from all nations have viewed it this way. In world historical terms, a two-hundred-something-year-old nation is more or less the analogue of a teenager.
Statesmen from older European powers have been known to resent the childlike innocence of their American counterparts. Certainly after WWII, when Europe lay in ruins and the United States emerged as the world’s preeminent power, European ministers bitterly complained that the superpower was like a child raised on HGH, powerful and muscular but immature and unable to comprehend the intricacies of international politics. The British, for one, sought to “tutor” the Americans on subjects from spycraft to statecraft. In Europe, after all, the “Children’s Crusade” turned out to be no more than a cruel farce that ended with tens of thousands of children enslaved.
But America’s greatest achievements, both domestically and internationally, have often been the results of youthful idealism. When the Truman Administration proposed the Marshall Plan to fund the reconstruction of postwar Europe with no strings attached, European allies deemed it naive. Certainly youthful faith and energy fueled the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. When I attended college in the U.S., it often struck me how student projects that would seem unrealistic to those of us from older parts of the world seemed perfectly feasible to my American classmates.
It makes sense, then, that in American pop culture, Americans would identify themselves with high schoolers when opposed to adults with edges all worn off and the fires gone out in their bellies. Because pop culture is a reflection of the American soul, which intuitively sympathizes with the young, youth being a synecdoche of America itself.
At least that has been true for a very long time. Is it still true today? After Vietnam, and more recently Afghanistan and Iraq, and now Trump, America is no longer quite so young, quite so innocenet. Is it still a teenager, or is it old enough now to begin to take on the cynicism of age, to sympathize not with the plucky teens but with the politicians who tell them no?
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."