A lefty millennial activist takes on columnist Jonah Goldberg
“In America,” I once quipped, “the old are always ready to give those who are young the sad news that history, with its opportunities for fresh ideas, is over.” And they often do it in the columns of Jonah Goldberg.
On Monday, The Times posted a throwback Cold War prose poem titled, “A millennial’s Rolling Stone rant offers up some tired old ‘solutions.’ ” In it, Goldberg takes time out of his busy schedule as a professional colonialism apologist and perennial Democratic crypto-fascist hunter to condescend to a slightly lesser white whale: millennial Rolling Stone contributor Jesse Myerson.
Myerson’s sins, it seems, are twofold: First, he has the audacity to call for an expansion of the welfare state to counteract the disproportionate impact of widening income inequality on young people. Second, to condemn what he doesn’t like, he insists on using hip lingo like “blows” -- a word on which Goldberg fixates with a bizarre discomfort.
Yet it isn’t really Myerson’s ideas that Goldberg sets out to refute (any critical engagement of that sort begins and ends with the Godwin’s law corollary “the Soviet Union failed!”) but rather his style. To Goldberg, Myerson is a well-worn cliche -- a young, ignorant leftist, unwittingly promoting communism in the guise of fresh ideas. He is one of the “affluent and fashionably rebellious young” whose “embarrassingly glib confidence” encapsulates everything wrong with a generation.
If only Myerson knew that “there really aren’t many new ideas,” Goldberg groans. If only he could cut the “theatrics,” stop causing a “kerfuffle” and learn to cite Plato, Aristotle, Oscar Wilde, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the French revolutionaries all in one column, just like Goldberg.
There’s an irony in that, one so severe that one wonders if Goldberg is as different from lefty hipsters like Myerson as he might hope. Beneath his bizarre, extended firefly metaphor and smug contention that it’s the rebellious, hip millennials who spend time thinking about the consumer price index, Goldberg’s basic point is that Myerson is a cliched hack who should be embarrassed to believe his historically humiliated ideas are anything new. In expressing this point, Goldberg assumes a pitch-perfect rendition of a cantankerous old conservative, literally bemoaning the appeal of Soviet communism to ignorant young hepcats. In the year 2014.
If there’s a right-wing equivalent of the “it’s always different this time” trope that irks Goldberg so much, “these lefty kids are a bunch of commies” has got to be it.
If there’s one redeeming take-away from Goldberg’s self-parody, it’s a claim he makes near the end of his column:
“One of the wonderful things about America is that both the left and right are champions of freedom. The difference lies in what we mean by freedom. The left emphasizes freedom as a material good, and the right sees freedom as primarily a right rooted in individual sovereignty. For the left, freedom means ‘freedom from want.’ If you don’t have money, healthcare, homes, cars, etc., you’re not free.”
In a way, he’s right. Young leftists like Myerson and myself share a moral outlook that fundamentally differs from conservatives like Goldberg: Freedom, in the most prosperous nation on Earth, must entail the freedom to act without the constant specter of homelessness, hunger and preventable illness. But this is nothing new, and the very founders Goldberg implies would have defended the present status quo are cases in point. The revolutionary generation (many of whom, by the way, were theatrically radical young people) was made up of men of means. They were all comfortable; many were wealthy. They had time to recycle the old ideas of Locke and Montesquieu and to dream of a nation outside the shackles of English monarchy.
It’s hard to imagine squeezing in the Continental Congress in a world where Thomas Jefferson had to run across town to his minimum-wage night job.
If liberalism believes that freedom consists of freedom from want, then we want only to extend the means for such achievement beyond the wealthy, white and landed few. Not everyone needs their own Monticello, but an apartment and some groceries might suffice.
Who knows? Maybe if millennials achieve the kind of economic justice Myerson is calling for, we might just have the time to find a new idea under the sun.
Emmett Rensin is a political activist and essayist living in Chicago. His work has appeared in USA Today, Salon, the Los Angeles Review of Books and elsewhere. He is 23 years old.
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