On Historical Emulation



I try, generally, not to write against specific articles– it usually isn’t useful to. A writer may understand an issue better than another, or have a better solution to a problem, but that is rarely an excuse to write in opposition to something. One can proffer positive ideas without putting them against anything. In doing so, one can create the content one wishes to see in the world, without echoing or reaffirming the trend or idea that one seeks to challenge. Nevertheless, I find myself, in writing this essay, responding to a specific article, and the site that published it. It is entitled, “Could it Be? Millennials Are the New Generation of Hippies But With Better Weed,” and it can be found on EliteDaily.com. In it, the writer claims that “Millennials” are, in many ways, like the young people of 1960’s, the Baby Boomers, that we are living in a new kind of 1960’s. She writes:

The Beatles are as popular as ever, Volkswagen vans are back in, and hippies have just become hipsters. Black rights have become gay rights, women’s liberation is now Jezebel, and Vietnam is Iraq. LSD goes by acid, ecstasy is called Molly, and bud is still very much bud.

Carol King goes by Lana Del Ray, Janis Joplin is known as Amy Winehouse, and John Mayer likes to think he’s Bob Dylan. Woodstock is Coachella, Burning Man and Bonnaroo. Vinyl are still vinyl and record stores are what is now Urban Outfitters. And JFK is most definitely Obama.



The article essentially follows this line of thinking to its end. We smoke weed like hippies did. We are activists because a small number of us participated in Occupy Wall Street and signed a petition to have Justin Bieber deported.

I wouldn’t take such issue with this article, perhaps, if Elite Daily did not claim to be the “voice of generation-Y,” as they do in their site’s tagline. Alas, they do, and, while we can argue how seriously they make this claim, I would say they make it pretty sincerely.  And, while it might be a small thing, we should take issue with that, especially because some of us seem to think that this site actually does accurately reflect “Millennials” (as I wrote in the first essay I wrote for this site, I do not believe in the idea of the “Millennial” as it is posited because of the effect that technological advancement has had on cultural fragmentation, hence the quotation marks). If “Millennials” are to be taken seriously, or, more importantly, if we’re actually to do anything with our youth and our energy, we need better spokespeople than the writers at Elite Daily, who reduce us to lists about beer and college, breakups and hookup culture, and ill-informed takes on the Syrian Civil War .

Now, is this just entertainment? Sure. It is “just” entertainment– if there can ever be such a thing– but at its heart lies a serious claim, even if the author or audience doesn’t think so. We can, certainly, have things that are stupid, and silly, and fun. These do not need to have serious claims or be placed in real contexts. I do not think, however, that this article falls into that category of content. Buzzfeed quizzes, lists of grilled cheese recipes, funny firsthand accounts– these are silly pieces of entertainment. These we can take with little thought for context or history or community, though even they can be useful in considering the world and its organization. We tread a dangerous line in separating our everyday products from those of high esteem. It not only impacts the way that we perceive high art, but more significantly, it impacts the way we see things like this which, even if we do not realize it, works in shaping our collective self-conception. Elite Daily may just be junk entertainment, but if it is, then should it really call itself the voice of a generation? Do we really want our voice to be articulated in 500 word articles about why our lives are over after 28? It’s a vapid site that celebrates stereotypes about a group of people for which it claims to speak. And we can read it and have fun with it, but we cannot let it or anyone else claim that it is useful for anything more.

Beyond the site, the article itself presents a number of problems. The first and most obvious of these is that its central conceit is without factual merit. Iraq, for instance, was not Vietnam. People died protesting Vietnam. People burned draft cards; they watched their friends get hauled off to die in a war that few thought meant anything. While most of us were too young to protest or understand the war in Iraq, neither our experience nor our reaction were remotely similar. People died, certainly, but they were actually in Iraq. People watched their friends get hauled off too, only this time it wasn’t through the draft, and this time the people watching and the people going weren’t the kind who were, or would have been, protesting the war on the bucolic quad of a liberal arts college in New England. Meanwhile our fight for gay rights, with all due respect to the gay community and its allies, does not equate to the fight for civil rights for Black and African Americans. We give ourselves far too much credit– and more importantly, the activists of that era far too little credit– in saying so. Though an important struggle, we have not had to march en masse, truly. We have not had to face police brutality. We have not had to face a history of racism centuries strong, and we have not had to summon up the kind of courage that those men and women did, nor have we had to have the kind of intellectual struggles that they did to define what made America America, or an American an American, to figure out what it meant to be Black or White or equal in the United States. Our gay citizens, certainly, have had their struggle, and I do not seek to weaken their triumphs or minimize their struggles in saying that. Rather, I am simply saying that we, collectively, have done nothing like the activists of that era did.

It is more, however, than a mere incongruence of situations. The difference is far more intrinsic to the way we think and act. Looking at the 60’s, in many ways, only shows us how little we have seen of organized political action. It shows how little we know. The author of this article claims that we are striking our own way, that we reject old, traditional ways of living in favor of a culture based on “music, and art, and love.” In turn, she claims that Baby Boomers reject anything resembling creativity, and that we will not be like that, ignoring, I suppose, the fact that the Boomers laid the very foundation of everything she adulates in the article. Nothing, however, could be farther from the truth than these claims. We are not “revolutionaries,” or at least we are not presently. We are, in many ways, in fact, “the establishment’s” dream of what young, angry people should be.

We buy our counter-cultural clothes from chain stores, one of which– by the name of Urban Outfitters– is owned by a man who openly donates to anti-gay political organizations. We buy burritos at Chipotle and pat ourselves on the back because the food came in a paper bag made of recycled materials. We protest, but not too loudly because we do not want to be arrested. We write articles, but we temper them because we don’t want a future employer to think that we’re too radical. We do not reject old ways of living, or consumerism, or anything like that. We are not revolutionary because we see some flaw in our social, political, and economic organization (though heaven knows they are there and they are pressing), we do it because we’re angry that we got the short end of the stick, because we feel like we haven’t received the world we were supposed to. We’re not unemployed because we don’t believe in the rat race, it’s because we missed the starting gun. It’s because it’s a harder race than we thought it would be, and we seem, somehow, to be shocked by the notion that life is difficult. If we could all have jobs and huge apartments we would choose to have them. If we could all lead perfect, upper middle class lives, we would choose to lead them. We are as firmly under the thumb of authority as any generation has ever been, and it is not against our choice.

Lying to ourselves with articles like this only hurts whatever potential we might have for the future. In thinking that we are somehow the second coming of the 60’s, we placate our own impulses, our own desires for massive change. The Internet allows us to point at progress, and claim it for our own. It allows us to convince ourselves that we are actually doing something with our lives, which is, in truth, something that many of us need right now given the state of the economy and our politics. We cannot, however, allow ourselves to run from that feeling, to evade our fear that we have, thus far, meant little to the world. We need it to drive us to do better and bigger things, to use our imaginations productively.

Really, this article demonstrates that ways in which we do not really understand history, or ourselves. The 60’s did not compose a decade of flat stock characters and simple moral issues. The leftist politics of the era said far more than “free love and smoke lots of weed.” It is dangerous for us to think that it was, to think that anything at anytime was that simple– to think that the future could ever be that simple. We should not, however, wholly condemn ourselves. It is natural to want the success of others, especially when that success has been built to form some romantic ideal. After all, if we are to look back on history, isn’t it supposed make us want to have our moment to challenge ourselves that those older than us had? Aren’t we supposed to want an opportunity to face down the world, and make a claim on what it is and should be? The questions of yesterday have not truly yet been answered, and they have only been compounded by the myriad questions that arise as time and technology and history pile up on one another. We should want to have our time, when our youth and energy catalyze the world to action, to thought. It’s critical both to ourselves, and to the world.

We should not, after all of this, look to history to affirm ourselves. Or perhaps more specifically, in looking back, we should not seek to emulate. Though it is tempting to say that history is cyclical, I would like to think it is more complicated than that. At every moment there are so many contingent factors, so many chance happenings that, upon arrival to our view, combine with our ever-changing understanding of the past. No two moments are alike, as much as we may say otherwise, and we should not look at our own lives and hope that they are like those of the people that came before us. That is boring. It is unimaginative. It holds us back.

We should want a program of action, a set of beliefs and ideas, a system of values that is of us, by us. We should not be content rehashing the images and sounds and lives of other people. Photos were grainy in the seventies for a reason, and it had nothing to do with a filter on a camera. When the young people of the sixties wore bandanas and big sunglasses, they were not miming anyone. I do not think any of us want to be a photocopy, colorless and without dimension. So let’s not let ourselves become stagnant in recycled culture. We can forge new ideas in art, politics, and social organization. We can find new ways to mobilize ourselves, to articulate our wills, and communicate. We have more tools for good at our disposal than anyone has ever had in history. So let’s use them to strike our own path, to find common roots of sympathy and understanding that can broaden what it means to be a part of the world. And, in turn, let’s leave behind our hollow hopes that we are, in some way, the previous generations we fear we do not, and will not, stack up to. We have far too much to give to be a faded mirror of the past.





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