Consider this hypothetical. You’re standing in your kitchen, cutting slices of cheese with a razor-sharp carving knife. You realize there are such things as cheese knives, but you don’t have one. For those readers currently languishing in suburban opulence, who can’t imagine someone not owning a cheese knife, I’m here to tell you such people exist, and they are probably more numerous than you have imagined.
Anyway, you’re cutting some cheese. It’s not difficult because the knife is a diamond-sharp Japanese “Zebra” blade, perfectly weighted for carving your burned pot roast, which is otherwise as uncuttable as second base. Now let’s say you drop that knife in a moment of privileged carelessness and it goes point-down through the top of your foot. Stop screaming. You’re not going to die. But there is quite a bit of blood welling up in your slipper. Better attend to that. You limp to the bathroom, whimpering and cussing, and start looking for the antiseptic.
In spite of what you plan on telling your spouse (My hand was wet. It just slipped.), you really have no idea why or how this could have happened. All you know is that it hurts. Did you deserve it? Think about this. Did you deserve to have a skewered foot?
One argument says, yes, if you hadn’t been worrying about your Bitcoin investments at that moment and whether the new walnut end tables really express your essential joie de vivre, you might have paid closer attention to what you were doing. You might have taken better care. Now small ripples of dread and frustration will radiate through your life for the next few weeks the same way pain radiates through your foot.
Your mindset will be affected. Your spouse’s mindset will be affected. Maybe your acuity at your job will temporarily decrease. Your irritation levels with Ralph, your neighbor, when he decides to fire up the lawn mower at 5:40 AM next Sunday, may run considerably higher. You might even speak harshly to the cat—a small thing, like the cat himself, but surely not something he, as a fellow living being, deserves. You’re the one who dropped the knife, you careless dolt. There are consequences for everything. Close your mouth and own up to them. Be an adult for a change.
But another argument says, no, accidents will happen. No one wants to injure themselves and no one ever truly asks to be hurt. There are so many opportunities in modern life to harm yourself or others that it’s likely to happen, now and then, even if you aren’t naturally accident prone.
No matter how much care you take, there are acts of god; there are times you break your foot stepping off the train, even if you’re minding the gap; a tree hits your bedroom wall; a texting teenager rear-ends you 45 feet into an intersection and you almost get hit and have to wear a neck brace for a month; you drop your phone in the airport toilet; you forget your wallet at the register.
These sorts of things happen whether or not you look both ways, don’t inhale, read Consumer Reports, wear three condoms, and keep your windows triple-locked. Feeling ashamed and responsible for unforeseeable disasters is just adding insult to undeserved injury. Sit down. That’s right. Have a cookie. And tell me where it hurts.
Two good arguments: one about responsibility, the other about compassion. One is not better than the other, but here we stand on the diamond edge of that Zebra knife between them. Which one seems more persuasive on its face? Well, that depends on our emotions, doesn’t it? The argument that resonates more powerfully depends on who we are as emotional beings. The one we choose says volumes about us and very little about the event itself.
Hold that thought. Before we decide which argument style we prefer, let’s talk about how this distinction applies and let’s take it even further, foregrounding the discussion by characterizing the “baby boomers.” Because the boomers have been the deciders, standing on that diamond edge since 1946. And much of what terrifies us today was authored expressly and overtly by them choosing a flimsy kind of emotional “responsibility for the responsible” instead of the more compassionate feels—which tells us a lot about them, if not everything we need to know.
The boomers spent the precious freedoms their parents bought for them as traumatized adults in WWII and before that as traumatized children of the misunderstood, alcoholic, Silent Generation—and the boomers act like they earned it all themselves through true grit and moxie.
Actually, the boomers are the ones who economically fucked over Generation X. The boomers built the nuclear stockpiles, created the student debt crisis, lusted after Gordon Gekko and Ayn Rand, and are the ones who currently despise millennials more than any others. Well, we all despise the millennials. But still. We know who the boomers are. We’re still dealing with their fuckery.
There’s an internet catchphrase going around these days, “Ok Boomer,” which the dictionary tells us is used “often in a humorous or ironic manner, to call out or dismiss out-of-touch or close-minded opinions associated with the baby boomer generation and older people more generally.” Ah. That sounds about right for the generation that established our current ruinous, self-serving climate politics.
As Sorya Roberts puts it (quoting Michael Parenti) in “Happily Never After,” as the environment collapses, elite panic in “strong states with developed economies will succumb to a politics of xenophobia, racism, police repression, surveillance, and militarism and thus transform themselves into fortress societies while the rest of the world slips into collapse.” Isn’t that a lovely vision of the future? Most of the boomers won’t be around to see it. They’re going to die on the golf course well before that. But the rest of us might live to enjoy it. That is, if we’re the lucky ones.
In the art world, particularly in creative academia, worsening since about 1975, boomer narcissism has taken this form: there is always room for talented people. Oh, there are no jobs for you? You must not be one of the talented few (like me). Too bad. Even though, in the boomer generation, you could get a tenured position with an unpublished manuscript and no teaching experience.
“Always room for good people” is a veritable baby boomer mantra, the meritocratic fever dream of those steeped in imperial luxury, who turn beet-red when someone points out that the they got where they are because they were born into a fortunate time and place between global catastrophes; that the emperor is not a god; that the empire is not eternal; and that its luxuries were founded on a pylon of human skulls. Boomers comprise a large part of Donald Trump’s “base,” the leering retirees in the MAGA hats. And though academics generally despise 45, they conveniently overlook that he has more in common with them than any other generation.
So you’re a millennial or, hell forbid, a gen-Xer in your 40s and the socio-political-economic Zebra blade has now gone straight through your foot. Are you trying to stay interested in the impeachment? Are you crying “Why me?” when you realize that halving global greenhouse emissions by 2030 is neigh impossible at this point? Have you been taking solace in Oprah’s self-care philosophies and burning Gwyneth Paltrow’s special candle? Are you ready for what comes next? Are you one of the anointed few like dad was?
You’re not. You can’t be. But why not just pretend you are, just for a bit, after the Bactine and the Band-Aids, while the Parthenon burns?