Beto: Appetite For Destruction
Generation X, of course, exists precariously sandwiched between the Baby Boomers and the Millennials. This is normally not a terribly uncomfortable place to be and we don’t like complaining much anyway, but of late the squeeze is on. We’ve been squashed flat and we’re oozing out the sides of our generational sandwich like hot cheese from a panini.
The thing about Gen X is that something went terribly wrong on us. The regularly scheduled programming didn’t take. Whatever confluence of hippie sentiment and cynical overcorrection roiling through America from the late ’70s through early ’90s curdled us. Even though no one actually raised us, and we were told there was nothing worth believing in, we were raised with a belief, and that belief was that there was merit in cynicism, in questioning everything, in pointing out how stupid things were. We were raised to believe there was merit in embracing controversy and walking the knife’s edge and pushing the envelope right off the edge of the table sometimes. We were raised to believe in the purity of art even when it was ugly, and that science should be uncorrupted even when it revealed harsh truths. We were raised to believe that journalists were superheroes and writers were mystics who could perceive a deeper reality.
Above all else were raised to believe in the sanctity of free speech, not as a meaningless platitude but as a living thing, as a practiced ideal. Free speech needed to be exercised or else it withered and without free speech, there could be no art and no science, no journalism and no literature. There could be no truth; there could only be propaganda. Thus we believed there was an inherent value in shocking people with speech, that doing so nurtured the very roots of freedom itself. We thought that as long as someone was brave enough to say all the bad things, it would protect the people saying the good things.
Maybe the programming did take and it was just the wrong programming.
We thought that our role was to sit at the back of the class and point the truth out to the people who didn’t see it. We thought our role was to keep it real, to keep it weird, to stay above the fray, to crack wise about taboos that no one else would dare to talk about. We thought other people were like us and saw the merit in doing so. We thought people would respect us for it like we used to respect Lenny Bruce and George Carlin and Bill Hicks and Hunter S. Thompson. We thought that everyone understood what we understood, which is that even when you get it wrong, crossing lines is still right. Crossing lines is ALWAYS right – we were totally right about that.
What we didn’t know was that we were totally wrong about what other people were like.
America had itself a fling with edginess. But edginess for America was like something that happened in Vegas. It’s gonna stay in Vegas. And as far as I can tell America left Vegas a while ago and is now back at its job typing spreadsheets for corporations or whatever it is America does all day and has no more time for that sort of mentality. And America won’t put up with our Gen X childish shenanigans any more.
Generation X came of age in a brief shining moment – a place in time where the rancid rotten hypocrisies that lie at the heart of every stable successful society were brought down by a generation of insane and reckless youth who had been raised with all the benefits that stable successful society conferred, yet rejected them for no better reason than youths tend to be insane and reckless. (I know they dress it up pretty, but IMO the 60’s mainly happened because rebelling was briefly considered cool). We Xers were thrown into this insane and reckless world as innocent, open-minded children with none of the benefits of societal stability and we kind of hung our hats on the notion of chaos even though we ourselves weren’t insane or reckless. But those rebellious youths we looked up to grew up and became old people and old people tend to be set in their ways and don’t mind their own personal hypocrisies because they’re comfy and familiar like a well-worn pair of Birkenstocks or maybe an old VW van. And as is so often the case, the generation that followed the unstable insane recklessness of Gen X’s world, the Millennials, decided they preferred the successful stability of a society based on rancid rotten hypocrisies as well.
My generation has lived long enough to see the people who were raised in an unjust and oppressive world rise up and destroy that world to create another unjust and oppressive world that happens to suit them a little bit better. We were the only generation who actually believed in destruction. The destroyers never believed it. They destroyed something that desperately needed to be destroyed because it was cool at the time to destroy stuff but they never really believed. They never had an appetite for destruction like Gen X did. And their children never believed, to begin with. Destruction scares them and they’re easily frightened. We’re left standing as the only generation who actually believes that there’s inherent value in destruction.
All a sudden there’s this flood of people who are shocked, SHOCKED by edginess. Shocked by naughty words or making jokes or even Very Serious Points about taboo subjects. Things that were always ok before, at least within my lifetime, are suddenly not ok. It’s as if Generation X came of age in some small and peculiar window of time when the tsunami of judgement culture that has plagued humanity since humanity began had temporarily receded and lured us innocents out into the bay to collect seashells and say inappropriate things. But now the tide of judginess has come right on back in again leaving all us poor saps blinking in confusion, looking up at this 30 foot wave coming right at us sucking up Johnny Depp to the left of us, and Kevin Williamson to the right, swallowing James Gunn whole and then spitting James Gunn right back out again for some reason. I even thought it got Sam Seder but luckily he dodged it. Then Louis CK ran into the wave of his own accord and even though I feel a little sorry that he’s in there because I think it’s ok to tell jokes about Parkland kids he got himself into the wave so it’s hard to have sympathy. The wave even sucked up Kathy Griffin and she’s not even IN Generation X I don’t think, I mean seriously, how far can this wave run inland before it runs out of energy???
Pretty far, it appears, because now they’ve come for Beto.
Beto, as I know that you know but our outdated journalistic conventions demand that we pretend that you don’t so I have to tell you who he is, is some dude who maybe wants to be president although he approaches the notion with all the reticence every Gen Xer approaches anything. Beto is running for president like he wants to keep his options open in case something less stupid comes along between then and now. Beto wants to be president like I want to go to my cousin Brenda’s bridal shower on Saturday, which is to say that it sounds pretty lame and I’m desperately hoping I develop explosive diarrhea so I can stay home but I guess I wasn’t doing anything anyway.
Anyway, Beto apparently wrote a shocking story and an even more shocking poem way back in 1988 (if you’re keeping score at home, that’s 31 years ago…these works of literature are very nearly old enough to run for president themselves) at the age of 16. Now as some of you may recall, I’ve been quite vocal in my disgust regarding this recent, awful trend where “journalists” go back through people’s high school and college records digging up political dirt on them. Regardless of political affiliation I think resorting to raking muck from a time before a person entered public life is cheating and very bad for our republic. I think this is true for every person of every generation but I think it’s an especially dirty trick to play on the members of Generation X because we had it repeatedly drummed into our heads pretty much from birth that being edgy and shocking was a desirable, even culturally necessary character trait.
Beto’s story is one of those things that we Gen Xers wrote a lot of growing up – a story from the murderer’s perspective. Do you know why we did that? Because adults had led us to believe that the urge to commit violence towards others was an arena of life worthy of exploration because adults had led us to believe that EVERY arena was an arena of life worthy of explanation. The adults had even gone so far as to say that getting into other people’s heads, even bad people doing bad things, was necessary for the betterment of society, that understanding why people did bad things was an important step towards preventing bad things from happening. The media we consumed, the books we read (mostly given to us by parents and teachers, BTW) and the shows we watched were all dark and gritty and obsessed with violence. We were told that it was entirely normal, indeed, good and healthy, to consider these things. Remember The Basketball Diaries? Remember Go Ask Alice? Remember VC Andrews and Stephen King and Anne Rice? Remember Eminem? Remember how LAME Tipper Gore was?
We were fed a constant diet of death and violence while our parents and every adult in our lives was speaking psychobabble nonsense about the importance of listening to emotions and rejecting conventions and challenging authority. No one ever sat down and told us “It’s inappropriate for a child to write stories about murder.” How could they have anyway, with a straight face or an ounce of credibility, given the world they created for us? I mean seriously, we read “The Cask of Amontillado” – which is ABOUT MURDER from the murderer’s perspective – at school like 500 times (I am barely exaggerating – my teachers had an inexplicably huge boner for that tale of Poe. I think they even made us read it in Algebra). I don’t know a single, solitary guy in my age cohort, including my gentle and sweet husband, who doesn’t have some evil little story like Beto’s out there that they wrote back in their teens. I was in a group for young writers in high school and every week it seemed like some dude would bring in his own personal murder spree fantasy and the faculty advisor would praise him to the heavens for it.
It was a thing, I assure you. If you don’t believe me, go listen to the Gen X-er Toadies singing “Possum Kingdom”. Go listen to Gen-Xer Beck sing “Girl”. Go listen to Gen-Xer Eminem. Watch “A Nightmare on Elm Street” or “Hellraiser”. Watch “Silence of the Lambs” or “Diary of a Serial Killer” or my personal fave, “Blue Steel”. We did. We watched all those things and came back for more. We sang “I Used To Love Her, But I Had To Kill Her” on the school bus and laughed and laughed about it. A curiosity, even fascination with death and violence was and IS perceived as totally normal among people of my age group. It is what we grew up with just like the Boomers grew up with Howdy Doody and Kukla, Fran, and Ollie.
For those of us with an artistic streak, it was what we thought the world expected from us as fledgling artists – that grittiness, that darkness, that willingness to climb inside other people’s minds to explore the ugly underbelly of humanity. Beto’s story is utterly, unremarkably normal for a guy born in 1972 to have written at the age of 16, because we all were trying super duperly hard to be edgy and cool and dangerous since that’s what the adults had told us we were supposed to be.
And as for Beto’s poem, I personally think this is a glaringly obvious joke, meant to be funny and shocking in that juvenile, Howard-Stern-type way that was popular at the time. Pranks like this were regular occurrences at my high school (Chris Henke, I’m looking at you here). But let’s say for the sake of argument that this is real. Let’s imagine that Beto was really actually trying to write an erotic poem about a cow.
That’s right, I said, so what. Children are bizarre creatures. Children are thoroughly, spectacularly weird because they haven’t learned the rules of appropriate behavior yet. One of the ways in which teenagers in particular are weird is that they will mimic adult conventions with great precociousness and near accuracy, but because they haven’t fully digested the rule book yet, they don’t get the nuances right. (And in the case of Generation X, this is especially true since we were being actively indoctrinated with cultural rules that the adults apparently never really even believed themselves). Teenagers trying to produce what they consider “art” often veer into an uncanny valley where they closely copy the trappings of adult works without really comprehending where the boundaries are or why something that is ok for an adult to do, may not always be acceptable for a teenager. This happened to me a couple of times in school – I came up with some crazy project that a teacher or a parent had an issue with and I really didn’t see anything at all wrong with what I’d done.* It seemed to me just like what adults did and I didn’t understand why what was like, totally ok for Sam Kinison wasn’t acceptable for me, a junior in high school, you know?
Further complicating matters even more so was how often those precocious-yet-ignorant attempts at art actually worked. A whole lot of adults of the time were easily beguiled by a clever teenager armed with a thesaurus and capable of throwing some multi-syllabic words together. I wrote a spy drama that was basically me interweaving a bunch of tropes from movies I’d seen and my teacher thought it was so good he called my mom and accused me of plagiarism. I won a poetry contest once where all I did was string together a series of disturbing images and some words I learned off of Duran Duran albums into several poem-ish structures that meant nothing, about ten minutes before the assignment was due (we ALL had to enter the poetry contest, you see, it was mandatory, as a card-carrying cynical Gen Xer I’d never have done such a thing of my own free will) and the grownups all thought I was a prodigy or something. I thought it was hilarious. My teachers couldn’t understand why I didn’t take more pride in my special and amazing poems getting so much attention, LOL. And my “poems” were nowhere near as good as Beto’s. The teachers at my school and the judges of the poetry contest would surely have creamed their collective jeans over “The Song of the Cow”.
Us kids would have had a blast laughing at how Robby got one over on the teachers.
I miss that Gen X world even more than I miss the existence of boys named Robby, which is to say a whole lot. Our childish attempts at art may have been pretentious and derivative and offensive and meant ironically but we were doing something real. My kids, although I love them to pieces, often talk about maybe writing something and have great ideas, but then they go on Xbox Live instead. And I can hardly blame them since people who challenge norms in 2019 are so often destroyed by it.
I hate this world. It goes against everything my generation was unintentionally raised to believe in by no one in particular. I hate how everyone seems in such a rush to clutch their pearls and swoon at someone saying an unapproved world or thinking an unapproved thought. I hate how no one even tries to get into a “bad person’s” head anymore to understand their point of view. I hate how we’ve replaced the overbearing Christian busybody thought police with the twin demons of the overbearing SJW busybody thought police and the overbearing “let’s get revenge on the SJWs” alt-right busybody thought police.
Here’s a novel concept, how about no thought police? It never works.
Whatever the magic was that turned all us Gen Xers into dark and cynical weirdos was good magic. I believe the snarky observations we have to offer the world from our positions in the back row are, for the most part, valuable and necessary criticisms.
It may be that the cynic’s time has not yet come, that in another few generations there may be yet another group of kids born during a time when the adults are off somewhere “finding themselves” and the programming fails utterly. Maybe those kids will be in a better position than we were to take a stand and trigger a tsunami of free speech, free thought, and dedication to art for art’s sake that will wash away the judgement culture that humans love so much, for a little while, anyway.
Blessed is the mock, for it shall inherit the earth.
*I gave a raunchy speech on condoms one time, got in huge trouble. Said some pretty cruel stuff about the famine in Ethiopia. Wrote a really mean poem about a hated teacher in which she died in about a thousand gruesome different ways. That kind of thing. My parents worried about me.
Photo by Beto O’Rourke for U.S. Congress