I thought this life of thoughtful liberalism was my birthright, too. Before I understood that my generation was to be born in interesting times.
-- Maureen McHugh
I love the above line for how tidily it skewers a certain strain of liberalism as a lifestyle in America. It comes from the short story "Useless Things," which sketches out a world where smart, educated and creative young people are scrabbling to get by while their parents enjoy a lot of professional success and material comfort. The story may have felt like a dystopic future when it was written, but in a United States where our youngest crop of working adults is staring down a 12-13% unemployment rate (compared to a general unemployment rate of 6.7%), it hits more like a blog post from the year 2016.
After I put the kids to bed, I'd prowl the house, devouring the artifacts of my clients' lives. I read Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle and Breakfast of Champions courtesy of one couple I babysat for. Another family's magazine stack was a mixture of Utne Reader and Der Spiegel and Banana Republic catalogs. A third babysitting client always had a George Winston tape playing in the car and bumper stickers asking us to consider switching military funding to a bake-sale model. (Thinking back now, that was a remarkably gutsy move in a military town in the 1980s.)
It is hard to overstate how very mixed up consumer culture, pop culture and politics were, in the lifetime of thoughtful liberalism that one lived in the 1980s and 1990s. I remember MTV being a satellite player in that general ethos, what with letting musicians gas on about their politics, and launching Rock the Vote, and taking non-nuanced stances on things like HIV.
A while back, I flew cross-country by myself -- such luxury! -- and I spent the entire plane ride utterly riveted by an MTV marathon of 16 and Pregnant. A friend nodded knowingly and said, "There's a lot of feelings after watching that" Yes. I had a lot of feelings after watching -- and a lot of questions. Are thoughtful parents showing this to their impressionable 12- and 13-year-old daughters and saying, "See how this boy is a complete toolbox? THAT is why you don't sleep with teenaged boys. They're boys." to hammer home a message about waiting to have sex? Are people who study psychology and counseling assigned episodes and asked to analyze the parent-child interactions to see what dysfunction is perpetuating itself from generation to generation? Does anyone else ever have the urge to rescue one of these children from her decisions?
But you know, maybe 16 and Pregnant is really the latest version of MTV's realpolitik.
The lifetime of thoughtful liberalism used to be about busting through the 1980s' "America, F*** YEAH!" bluster and pointing out that hey, we're actually part of a global community, and we can respect and celebrate cultures other than our own. But now we're all constantly aware of how global we are thanks to the World Wide Web. And the same qualities that made a lifetime of thoughtful liberalism so appealing in the 1980s and 1990s -- described once as "ecumenicalism, cosmopolitanism and tolerance" -- have somehow alienated our countrymen and -women from one another.
Think about how easily and quickly we embrace sifting and segregation: The big sort, the red states and blue states, the theory that we're not one country but 11, the comparative reporting on different regions.
I think, in its way, 16 and Pregnant addresses that big sort by encouraging the would-be thoughtful liberals of today (i.e. impressionable teenagers) to realize that beyond their world of overinvolved parents and extracurriculars and AP classes, there are fellow citizens growing up in fairly awful situations with little to no hope for improvement.
"Useless Things" ends with the protagonist fretting over how to prevent her own slide into homelessness and chasing two refugees off her land. She frets:
Over my fence I can see scrub and desert, a fierce land where mountains breach like the petrified spines of apocalyptic animals. The kind of landscape that seems right for crazed gangs of mutants charging around in cobbled-together vehicles. Tribal remnants of America, their faces painted, their hair braided, wearing jewelry made from shiny CDs and cigarette lighters scrounged from the ruins of civilization.
There's the other phrase I have never been able to forget: Tribal remnants of America. If that is not a call to arms to emerge from a life(style) of thoughtful liberalism and pay fierce attention to the economic balkanization of this country, I don't know what is.