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Blunting the Cutting Edge/PR War

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Blunting the Cutting Edge

Scholars foresee an epochal disaster--one of the world's great civilizations spiraling toward the black hole of Generation X (aka the twentysomethings or twentynothings), not just an inferior generation but the most ignorant and useless in history.

One such scholar was the late Allan Bloom of the University of Chicago, whose The Closing of the American Mind excoriated these comatose yahoos. Now, from the same campus, a graduate student named Thomas Frank rises to defend his tribe. "He really didn't know what he was talking about," says Frank of Bloom. And not only of Bloom.

A few weeks ago a couple of boomers named Neil Howe and Bill Strauss brought out a flashy book called 13th Gen: Abort, Retry, Ignore, Fail?--a not unsympathetic examination of Americans born between 1961 and 1981. These are the ones with nothing on their minds but Mohawks and Walkmans, the ones whose parents grudgingly bore a child or two but celebrated divorce, abortion, and the latchkey as the serious gateways to self-fulfillment, the ones who will inherit not just the nation but the national debt.

13th Gen ends with predictions like this: "Over the next fifteen years, the festering quarrel between 13ers and Boomers will grow into America's next great 'generation gap.' . . . Everything 13ers do that Boomers already consider frenetic, shallow, or shocking will grow even more so, confirming public opinion that this truly is a 'wasted' generation. . . . Midlife Boomers will try to insulate their families from a mainstream culture gone rotten and will project heavy-handed value judgments into public life. Interpreting these judgments as pitiless and Scroogelike, 13ers will blast away at Boomer hypocrisy and pomposity--and get blasted back for their own cynicism and wildness."

Frank has no use for any of this. "They tend to put the conflicts of vast historical forces in terms of generations--which is a funny version of Hegelian dialectics, only it's completely absurd."

Frank, 27, is coeditor of a new journal of rude but brainy opinion, the Baffler, "the journal that blunts the cutting edge." Until we talked with Frank we had no idea what this motto meant, but now we see the cutting edge for what it is: just another Madison Avenue conceit. The real conflict, Frank writes in the latest Baffler ($5 an issue, available at some fine bookstores), is between every generation and "the unquestioned hegemony of consumerism. . . . Not multiculturalism, but MONOCULTURALISM, is the operative word of the day."

In short, critics who deride his generation (1) play into the hands of marketers who create synthetic distinctions and (2) don't know what they're talking about.

"I have four basic ways of critiquing this book," says Frank, brooding over 13th Gen. "The most important is that this book doesn't examine any actual expressions of the young but just the cultural products marketed to us. It's equivalent to studying a nation of people by the propaganda aimed at them. I've gone through chapter one and circled all the authorities they've used to show what our opinions are. Screenwriters, TV sitcoms, advertising, music videos, news clips, sports figures, young celebrities, demographers, pollsters, people who design video games, E.D. Hirsch--that's a great one [Hirsch wrote a book listing 50,000 facts young people should know and don't]--politicians, journalists, Allan Bloom, Francis Fukuyama. Not one of these has any tiny shred of authenticity.

"The second point is that this is just a really overdetermined little culture product. The reason they published the book, did it in paperback and got it out fast, is that there is this mammoth market for it. My dissertation is on advertising and the youth culture in the 1960s. I study things like the Pepsi generation. An adman told me the really crucial thing they do is generational categorizing. This book was written to fill that gap. They're inventing an identity for young people so they can market to us.

"Third, if what they say about our generation is true, that we're just getting screwed by economic development and whatnot, these kids wouldn't be taking it lying down. They wouldn't be voting for Bill Clinton. They'd be joining the IWW."

Frank's roommate "Diamonds" Dave Mulcahey, a Greenpeace staffer, speaks up now. "They're just getting screwed to the extent a lot of other people are getting screwed. It's not just people who graduated from college and have to work temp jobs. You go through a vast industrial wasteland and find people with families to feed working temp-industry shitwork."

"The problems of American capitalism run very deep, and it's silly to pass them off as the victimization of one generation and the privileging of another," Frank tells us. "My point is, dissent has no place in this book. Nowhere do they address people who understand what's going on, and there's a lot of them. Can you imagine them interviewing people like us?"

13th Gen claims Frank's generation internalizes dissent, secretly believing it's as worthless as it's said to be.

"They got that from some sort of opinion poll," Frank responds. "I'll get at that in this last point, which is that the book is pseudoscholarship. It's history light. This book uses demographics and opinion polls to substitute for close readings of true youth expression and difficult analysis."

Says Mulcahey, "The people who understand the media industry in this country is kind of corrupt and inauthentic--there's actually a marketing niche for them. The thing that consumerism does really well is divide people into categories. Instead of a life-style being the result of religion, class, and ethnicity, it's the products you buy. The Baffler is a cultural steamroller. We want to flatten out that landscape, to clear the way for a really sensible politics."

Which is?

"Which is, you know, who owns the capital and who doesn't," says Mulcahey, to our amazement, as we thought absolutely nobody talked that way anymore. "Nobody likes to use the word 'capital,' and we use it very infrequently in the magazine because it doesn't mean anything to readers," Frank adds. But he stands by it. "The onslaught of the business culture has become so much more intense, and the things that were supposed to resist it in the 60s have proved themselves completely bankrupt. Especially in the world these authors [Howe and Strauss] live in, there's almost no resistance. It's completely marginalized."

As for the boomers' denunciation of the next generation--it's mere "pseudo-hysteria," says a Baffler essay Frank wrote with coeditor Keith White. "Just the simple whining of a people obsessed with youth about to approach middle age."

PR War

If the Serbs aren't stopped in Bosnia their next military foray will be into the autonomous province of Kosovo--historic, even sacred Serbian soil that nevertheless is now 90 percent populated by ethnic Albanians, thanks to a policy of resettlement (ethnic cleansing, if you will) that began under Tito.

Albania would certainly enter the war to defend its unarmed brethren, the new state of Macedonia next door would be sucked in, and Greece--with one eye on ethnic Greeks in Albania and the other on territory it covets in Macedonia--would take up arms on behalf of the Serbs. Greece's ancient antagonist Turkey would side with the Muslim Albanians, the Bulgarian army might also weigh in, and there would be general war in the Balkans.

Diplomats and journalists tell us this scenario is credible. And so does the Washington-based public relations firm of Ruder Finn, which is being paid up to $40,000 a month by the Kosovan government (elected a year ago in defiance of Serbia) to see to it that the province's fate matters to the Western world. Previous clients of Ruder Finn were the governments of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, and American military intervention has been one of the firm's objectives.

"This is not a money-making proposition by any means. We are all personally committed to the anti-Serbian position," said James Harff, president of Ruder Finn's international division. But now the Serbian American Media Center in Chicago has responded with a troubling 26-minute video, Truth Is the Victim in Bosnia, that assails Ruder Finn's clients and the firm itself for peddling disinformation, and the media for buying it. Examples: the destruction of Dubrovnik by Serbian artillery, which the video says didn't happen, Serbian rape camps, which it says don't exist, and Serbian corpses that have been misrepresented as Croatian or Bosnian.

"[Ruder Finn's] been at the center of a publicity campaign that would make Goebbels feel like an amateur," George Bogdanich, executive director of the Serbian American Media Center, told us this week.

"This crowd in Chicago--they attribute things to us that are just unbelievable," said Harff the same day.

Here's one small skirmish. Last July the British magazine New Statesman & Society carried an article "Spin Doctors of War" that examined an oft-told tale, "almost certainly not true," but broadcast as truth to the world by the BBC. It was that Serbian snipers were paid 300 pounds for each enemy child shot. The article contained this passage: "Last week, Rhoda Paget from [Ruder Finn] admitted to assisting in disseminating the 'Cash for a Corpse' story. 'We were told it by a minister in the Croatian government. We merely informed them of its importance and have never checked its honesty. Neither do we have the resources to do so. Frankly, it's just not our job. It's the journalist's job to check them out.'"

The Serbian American Media Center slapped this sorry admission on the front page of a packet of news clippings labeled "A War of Disinformation--A War of Lies." The New Statesman article also is mentioned in the center's new video. But when we asked Harff this week about Rhoda Paget, he said she does not exist. He faxed us a correction printed in the New Statesman: "It appears that [our reporter] was the victim of a person who falsely identified herself or her affiliation, possibly with the deliberate intention of inflicting damage on the credibility of the PR firm's work."

Bogdanich said he was unaware of this correction. He thanked us for telling him and observed that the mystery of Rhoda Paget is of minuscule consequence set against the horrors of the Balkans.

True enough. But it is the war here at home.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yael Routtenberg.

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