by Daniel A. Kaufman
When I was in elementary school in the 1970’s, one way a kid might respond to an insult would be to say, “I know you are, but what am I?” The other kid would reply with another insult, to which the insulted would simply repeat the initial response. This would go on, with escalating annoyance on the part of the insulter and ever-increasing glee on the part of the insultee, until the insulter either stalked off in an aggravated huff or punched the insultee in the face.
The last part is important, because the “I know you are, but what am I?” tactic was one usually employed by the weaker party in a conflict, often in response to the provocations of a bully. This was back in the day when there was little to nothing by way of anti-bullying policies, and if one was small or scrawny or geeky (and male), one could reasonably expect to come into the sights of some bully or other. (When I was seven or eight years old, I went through a short period when bullies would follow me home from the school bus and shove me down in my driveway.) Their aim typically was humiliation, but they also could beat you up and almost certainly would get away with it. The only possible way to get even with them was to be so annoying that they would lose their cool, and it was to this end that “I know you are, but what am I?” was deployed. Of course, it was quite risky, in that it might get you beaten up, whereas if you hadn’t done it, you likely would have gotten off with just the verbal insults or the loss of your lunch money. As with muggers – yes, that happened to me too, twice in fact at gunpoint – the smart thing to do was to give them what they wanted and chalk it up to a bad day.
I engage in these reminiscences in order to make a comparison with a strange phenomenon that has attracted a lot of attention in recent days. A recent trend among people ranging from Gen-Z teenagers to millennials approaching 40 has been to say or write “OK Boomer” in the course of (mostly political) arguments with their elders. It quickly became a meme and now has even spawned a line of “OK Boomer” merchandise. In case you are unaware of this phenomenon, a number of articles about it have appeared in several major news organs. (1)
On surveying this thing, one notices that it is applied to a rather broad swath of the population, from the most wizened old coot to 40 somethings who weren’t even alive during the Baby Boom, and in light of the fact that most young people don’t know any history, one might think that those deploying this meme don’t actually know what a Boomer is. I broached this with my freshman Intro to Philosophy class this morning, and the students assured me that this was not the case; that they know very well what a Boomer is and that the term is meant to indicate a mindset, rather than a specific generation. I wondered aloud how this could be, given that the different generations are marked, in good part, by their very different mindsets – those of the Baby Boomers and Generation X are diametrically opposed, in fact – but this only drew a confused, largely inarticulate response.
I also expressed some puzzlement at the choice of the Baby Boomers as their metaphor, given that they were the generation of the counterculture and fought many of the key civil rights battles of their day, often at great personal risk, including serious injury and even death, and I referenced the murders of voting rights activists during the Freedom Summer (a bit older than the Boomers of course, but “Boomers” as per the current use of the term), as well as those gunned down by National Guardsmen at Kent State. Given that those saying “OK Boomer” seemed to belong to the progressive, social-justice wing of Gen Z and the Millennials (I have yet to see a young Republican type employ the meme), the sixties generation seemed an odd choice. If anything, it should be “OK Gen X-er,” since we’re the ones who don’t give a shit about righteous causes, not the aged hippies of the Baby Boom. (Then again, we’re also are the ones who don’t give a shit about what some random kid, whom we don’t know and who has no money or importance of any kind says about us.) One student said, with some agitation, that it didn’t matter what they’d done “back in the day,” that only the fucked up crap they were doing now mattered, but otherwise, my musings elicited no response.
If “OK Boomer” is not a reply directed at Baby Boomers specifically, but towards a mindset instead, then what mindset is it? Several students said that it was a response directed towards those older people who “won’t listen to our arguments” on matters of critical social concern and especially on climate change. “We know we don’t have any power, and we know that these old people are just going to do what they want anyway, and we’re so exhausted from arguing with them about it forever, that at this point, we just say ‘OK Boomer’ and walk away.”
A somewhat desultory discussion followed. I observed that it might be difficult to distinguish the person who “isn’t listening to my arguments” from the person who finds my arguments unpersuasive and that regardless, in a democracy, one does have to consider what one’s opponents think, even if only to put together an effective opposition, but I didn’t get much by way of a response. The moment had passed, and I got on with the day’s material. A few students looked pissed off. As luck would have it, the subject I was lecturing on included some of the more common arguments against the existence of God, and by the time I’d gotten halfway through, I’d managed to piss off an entirely different subset of the Gen-Zers in the room, while the people I’d pissed off before suddenly seemed somewhat happier. I longed to publicly bathe in the irony of the moment, but the thought of making the first lot sullen and sulky again, on top of the ones who’d become sullen and sulky as a result of the lecture made me think better of it.
The whole thing was amusing at first, but then it started to bother me, because I actually care about young people. I’ve written at length, expressing my anger at how we’ve ruined childhood with our ridiculous meddling and coddling and ultimately selfish obsession with safety and control, creating a generation and a half’s worth of anxious wrecks, and I’ve squarely placed the blame for the wretched state of what currently passes for a youth culture on my generation and the Boomers before us. (2) These are our children, after all, and the world they inhabit – especially that shit-swamp of a virtual world they spend so much time in – is our creation. “OK Boomer,” rather than an expression of youthful potency and rebellion, is actually an articulation of impotency and resignation, something that is only made worse by the fact that these poor people think they’ve executed some kind of “sick burn” in conceiving it. Of course, it is little more than an updated version of the earlier “I know you are, but what am I?” except that now it is no longer restricted to seven year olds, but includes college students and even people nearing 40 as its users. It is what the weak say to the strong, in the realization that there is nothing else they can do, while lacking even the bravery involved in deploying the earlier, elementary school formulation, as it does not incur the corollary risk of getting beaten up.
What it signals is that there will be – can be – no genuine youth rebellion from this generation; that the kids who in previous eras would have risked being hung from a tree, while trying to register black southerners to vote, or face being shot in the face by National Guardsmen while protesting an unjust war, have been bamboozled by their corporate masters into thinking that typing “OK Boomer” into their Apple I-Phones™ and broadcasting it through the medium supplied by Twitter,™ and selling t-shirts, printed by PrintCorp™, and proliferating hashtags and virtual-cancellations through numerous other corporate platforms, run and financed by “Boomers,” that they are actually rebelling; doing something; contributing. And if organs like the New York Times and the Washington Post are stupid and gullible (or cynical) enough to cheer it on, what chance is there that anyone to whom anyone is going to listen is going to call it out for the pitiful bullshit that it is?
And that makes me mad as hell. Not at the kids, but at us. So mad in fact, that I’m going to put on the Dead Kennedy’s California Uber Alles. It seems apt.**
(2) See, for example: https://theelectricagora.com/2018/11/12/breaking-kids/
** This seems apt too.