Easy to be hard
On the benefits of going soft
The above tweet* stuck with me all day for a few reasons.
From the many amateur sociologists on social media you’ll hear a lot about the resiliency of the respective generations, and how it’s supposed to be dwindling. You can get it in bite-size form via a series of dumb Normandy landing memes. The idea is that kids today are soft sissies compared to their forebears. Often this will be followed by a catalogue of what the kids are doing today instead of D-Day: gaming, pronouns, iPhones, shit like that.
In this comparison, like most others, the prior generation cited is the WWII “greatest generation.” Most of those guys, though, are in old-age homes or the grave, and not inclined to waste their twilight years pwning the youngs on the internet.
So the person doing the comparing is almost always younger than the GGs, often much younger. And it makes sense they’d use Joe and Willie Dogface as a model: if they used their own experiences from their own generational cohort, the comparison would not land the same. It’s one thing to say “hey kid, nearly a third of us guys served in the wartime military” and another to say “hey kid, we worked at McDonalds after school, all our phones were landlines, and there was no such thing as streaming video.”
Not that I haven’t tried that routine myself. Things are different for young Americans now than they were for me and my buddies, and sometimes, I have to admit, I hold myself superior on that account. You have heard me more than once compare my 70s New York experience to that of the latecomers who never experienced the actual high crime rates and general madness I had to contend with. It was part of punk rock heritage to show a cold, brave face to the world, and I took it a little too seriously.
Now, being elderly, I have to admit, I can sorta see what other oldsters mean when they say these kids are soft: When I meet the kids they aren’t generally pushy, needlessly aggressive, or reflexively snide like I was/am. And they enjoy freedoms of expression, sexuality, and behavior that prior generations won for them. Sometimes, when I’m in a bad mood, I can take that for softness.
But we’re all softer — at least (I hope) in that regard — than those who came before us. In a civilized society, that’s how it’s supposed to work: You and your people keep getting more human, not less. I keep thinking of John Adams’ comment about hoping his kids wouldn’t have to study war and politics like he had and could instead take up arts and sciences. It makes sense that someone who hoped the United States as well as his own children would have staying power (as opposed to someone like Trump, who’s just trying to bust the joint out) would also imagine a future kinder and gentler than his present. And John Adams was not a sissy.
But I guess modern rightwingers would count Adams a sissy, at that. You’ve probably seen** how Sean Hannity has been pitching a pilfered voicemail from Joe Biden, in which he offers love and sympathy to his troubled son Hunter, as some kind of hilarious and disgusting faux pas — lookit this guy telling his son that he loves him, like some kinda fag!
I know it’s getting blowback, but I also know that a lot of Hannity viewers and people like them still think any indulgence of softness is foolish. I’ve talked about how conservatism is a death cult; well, hardness and an aversion to sympathy is the kind of thing you have to expect from such a cult. Life’s a hard business, they’ll tell you, and there’s no percentage in acting like it isn’t — and especially none in trying to make it less hard, which is what the kids, polls suggest, are trying to do, and which infuriates the cultists no end and makes them anxious to thwart their attempts. Because if these kids are in any way right, it means not only is the cultists’ bluster a mistake, but so have been their entire lives.
Well, I’m willing to admit I’ve made mistakes, too. I also think I can be counted on to make some more. But to the extent I can, when I err I intend to err on the side of the angels.
(*For our vision-impaired readers, the alt text: “Our grandparents lived through a war and never had any of this mental illness stuff’ absolutely, grandma washed down fistfuls of amphetamines with cooking sherry to celebrate how well-adjusted she was feeling.” **Also: “It’s Dad. I called to tell you I love you. I love you more than the whole world, pal. You gotta get some help. I know you don’t know what to do. I don’t either.” See? I’m trying to do my little.)