T his is the week that pits the old fogies against the rising generations in determining "what's in" for 2012 and "what's out" from 2011. Fashion and political opinions traditionally have made for a showdown at Generation Gap, but this year, as we move into a new year, there's a communication gap, too. It's as much about process as substance in how we see the future.
Some compare the generational conflicts in terms of speed, what's slow and what's moving in the fast lane, what we can reflect on and what we must experience urgently in the moment. From this point of view, how we receive information becomes as important as what we know. This pits the digitally hip texters with smartphones and Facebook profiles, who get their reading material from the Internet, against the older among us who cling to information derived from paper in books and newspapers. The older condescend only occasionally to read on a Kindle or an iPad.
Making matters worse are the Internet activists in the living room who reduce communication to 140 characters and never look up while making plans. Their attention is always somewhere else. Those who want to engage them in extended conversations about the past, such as what happened yesterday, learn they might as well be asking why Joan of Arc was burned at the stake.
It's a truism, which continues to be true, that you only know - really know - your own generation up close and personal. We see that mostly in the pop culture, with questions about favorites in music, art and books. Huge nostalgia gaps in the culture are determined by the era in which you were born.
The same goes for political events. "You're not a baby boomer if you don't have a visceral recollection of a Kennedy and a King assassination, a Beatles breakup, a U.S. defeat in Vietnam, and a Watergate," writes P.J. O'Rourke, an aging boomer whose generation for one short minute boasted that it would never trust anyone over 30. The culture gave them a pass. There were too many of them for frightened and intimidated adults to assert themselves.
Now that the boomers are far beyond 30, nestled among the 50- and 65-year-olds, they have a record we can evaluate at last. Mr. O'Rourke suggests they can be blamed most easily for having screwed up the culture, trashing everything from love and marriage to the economy and politics. But he doesn't want to stop there. Writing in the Weekly Standard, he shows there's lots of blame to spread around for the stupidity of the pop culture, including all those unmemorable memoirs and "self-helplessness" tracts" created and consumed across generations. It's the clever criticism of hindsight, but his argument is more than a demonstration of wit.
Every generation chooses the fight it wants to win against the generation preceding, even when it's not sure what that fight ought to be about. This was the idea captured in the 1953 movie classic "The Wild One" before the boomers put their stamp on the pop culture. When a pretty girl asks Johnny, the hipster on a motorcycle, played by Marlon Brando, "Whatcha rebelling against?" Brando replies: "Whatcha got?"
As we move into the new year, it may help those over 30 to recognize that they've still got the ability to scorn bad ideas. The new social media is neither as revolutionary nor as earthshaking as the pop pontificators may think. The focus for criticism shouldn't be on the technology but on how technology is used, and for what. The Economist magazine finds parallels in today's social media with the way people pushed the ideas in the 16th century that ushered in the Reformation. The printing press helped put ideas quickly into pamphlets easy to circulate, but it took a network of willing traveling merchants, traders, preachers and sympathetic citizenry to carry the pamphlets from one town to another. Like tweets, ideas spread spontaneously.
Instead of downloading music, poets composed impious lyrics and parodies to familiar folk songs and hymns, easily sung in communal choruses as "newsy" ballads for the reformers.
Debates found a forum even for the illiterate, who heard arguments repeated by their friends and families in inns, taverns, markets, guilds and homes. The academic allies of the pope, who wrote in Latin, fought a fierce rearguard battle against the popularizers. Still, the reformers wouldn't have succeeded if those who got the message hadn't agreed with Martin Luther about corruption in the church.
The medium isn't the message, it's merely a tool. No matter what age, "whatcha rebelling against" depends on "whatcha got." We should keep that in mind when we decide what we keep for 2012 and what we toss out.
Happy new year.
Suzanne Fields is a syndicated columnist.
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