walk in a skin like a secret handshake, and I’ve got breeding
like a skeleton key.
Seriously, I’m a white male, college-educated, polite and
articulate. Plus, I’m straight and from a more-or-less solidly
middle-class upbringing. I grew up among the confident, precocious
and athletic sons and daughters of doctors, lawyers, architects
and upper-level state bureaucrats. We took electives like
economics and psychology in preparation for our liberal-arts
educations in private colleges, and traveled weekends to visit
elder siblings or former teammates drunkenly Spring-Flinging
on quads up and down the East Coast. We scoffed mildly at—or
ignored altogether—the kids who were consigned to more practical
coursework: small engines, business math and the like. The
kids in whom the faculty were desperately trying to cram basic
skills before they entered the job market straight out of
high school, or sooner.
I don’t know where we thought we were destined. I don’t ever
remember it being mentioned to me or discussed specifically.
But, then, we didn’t have to be that directed, that focused.
We didn’t have to tailor our efforts to one goal. We knew
the passwords and the high signs, and doors could not be closed
It wasn’t optimism; it was assumption.
There were some minor adjustments, quirks of temperament and
character: A lawyer’s son would become an architect, or a
doctor’s son a lawyer, for example. And there were tragedies
of Updikean flavor among the older crowd—infidelities, divorces
and remarriages—and tragedies with Moodyish sting among the
younger set—drug problems, suicides and fatal traffic accidents.
But, throughout, there was an equilibrium preserved, or thought
for some time to abide.
We were still white and straight and middle-class and traditionally
well educated. We were young and mobile and vivacious and
funny. We had charm. We could quip and converse and socialize,
and we immediately recognized and appreciated all the references
on The Simpsons—the writers of which, after all, had
Flinged their Springs on the very same circuit as we. But
then, somehow, the tide turned, something gave way.
We were ridiculed in the press—Generation X, the slacker generation.
We joined in the criticism, irony shielding us sufficiently
to skewer our peers, our fellows, ourselves. From literary
brat-packers Bret Easton Ellis, Jay McInerney and Tama Janowitz
to Douglas Coupland to the beloved Simpsons, we all
took our shots and took our licks, sometimes simultaneously.
(A Simpsons episode set at a Lollapolooza concert showed
a slacker in the audience mocking a performer: “Oh, he’s
cool,” the kid drawls. “Dude, are you being serious or ironic?”
a companion asks. His face contorted in a paroxysm of anguish
and identity slip, the kid says, “I don’t even know anymore.”)
And those of us who decried this process, this odd scapegoating
of a coddled and harmlessly smug generation being criticized
for its wry disengagement, its irony, its precocity—the very
products of our indulgent, suburban upbringings—were pilloried.
Pity poor Jonathan Franzen, who was pissing people off long
before he took on Oprah. Years before The Corrections
dust-up, in his essay “Perchance to Dream,” Franzen related
his frustration at being a white, male, middle-class, over-educated
Writer of Novels With Really Big Ideas in a time when there
was a marked preference for novels of a more personal, intimate
scale and a more feminine and marginalized voice—and, he made
clear, of lesser literary value. He was pelted with rocks
and garbage. (I’m being wry here.)
And, honestly, the guy probably deserved it. What could be
more ridiculous than a white guy making a living writing in
America complaining about discrimination (even of a passive,
no-one-understands-me sort)? He knew the handshake and had
the key—and they were being held against him. He responded
to the perceived injustice, as I would have, as many of my
generation and general socioeconomic background would have:
with a whole lot of (in his case, public) navel-gazing, a
liberal dose of high-falutin’ academic rationalization, a
bit of displacement, some whining and a whole lot of overthinking.
It’s what we do. Give us a break.
See, the thing is we were raised with a notion of just how
privileged we are: That we were good and smart and talented
and deserving and that, if the world was an oyster, it’d be
ours—but also with the incontrovertible knowledge that it
ain’t, it ain’t all raw bar and pearls. We were raised on
both The Love Boat and those damn heartbreaking Sally
Struthers-in-the-Third-World appeals. Irony is both a natural
by-product and an indispensable tool when faced with tension
And, as it happened, we were a warless generation, with energy
to spare to introspect endlessly—or to argue the literary
merits of Toni Morrison as compared to Mark Leyner or Richard
Powers, or of the superiority of this or that Pavement album
to this or that Sneaker Pimps album. And the shallowness of
our fascinations was amply camouflaged by facile wit, and
our recognition that in trivial times, trivial preoccupations
were no offense.
But now, irony seems wan and merely habitual, the times no
In his latest book, Franzen’s gone so far as to rewrite the
We’re learning. We’re collectively pulling our heads out of
Sadly, at the executive level, it appears that the slacker
ethos of egocentric preoccupation and the expectations of
privilege persists as a virtual droit du seigneur.
Sadly, it appears we are being upper-managed nationally by
some arcane network of secret handshakes and skeleton keys,
while kids who should probably still be tinkering over much
smaller engines are steering mechanized infantry through a