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MAN BITES TOWN

The Generation Rap : The Baby-Boom Bunch Has Begun to Belittle the Brains of Its Heirs

February 24, 1991|HARRY SHEARER

IN THE LATE '70s, when kids still did such nutty things, the younger brother of a woman I then knew suddenly joined a punk band. The woman, a paragon of idiosyncratic intelligence, went ballistically stereotypical when faced with the prospect of her brother, black Shinola in his cropped hair, playing distorted thrash guitar. The lyrics--she fumed about the barely comprehensible yelling--were dangerous. As for the music, she complained, it was "just noise."

Here was a woman who had grown up with the Rolling Stones (culturally, of course, Mick never touched her) saying the same things about the Spit Puppies or whatever her brother's band called itself that her parents had said to her about the notorious Stones. It was one of those remarkable moments when an individual becomes fitted for a suit of generational clothes.

The baby-boom bunch, the notorious rat in the python's neck, has now reached such a moment. Many of us are now decrying our juniors for being uninformed clods, ill-prepared to take over the solemn job of making the world a worse place to live.

A Times Mirror survey, much bandied-about recently, purports to prove that young people are miserably ignorant about geography and history, astonishingly brain-dead for a generation allowed to blossom with the blessing of 24-hour television. Grown-ups who once believed they should not trust anyone over 30 now are loath to entrust their handiwork to anyone under 30.

Like the complaints about the Spit Puppies, this rant has a charmingly familiar ring. I clearly remember surveys in the mid-1960s "proving" that less than 25% of the American public knew that mainland China was controlled by a Communist regime. Then, as now, such information serves mainly to let "us" feel smarter than "them."

The generation now belittling the brains of its heirs did not learn about Vietnam, for the most part, by snuggling up in its communal sleeping bags with weighty tomes of Indochinese history. We picked up what we knew, if we were lucky, at teach-ins. If we weren't lucky, our information came from underground papers and FM deejays who repeated the lyrics of certain socially conscious rock groups.

There's another darkly familiar strain to all this. Those quoting the Times Mirror survey don't use it to argue for, say, dramatic improvement in history and geography education. That would just be throwing money at the problem. The supposed ignorance of youngsters is used, instead, to justify further dumbing-down of the media. Newspapers that want more young readers, after all, can't risk alienating them by printing--you should excuse the expression--news.

Polls and surveys are almost never used to make things better. NPR's Cokie Roberts attributed the lack of cheap pandering in the congressional debate on the Persian Gulf resolution to the fact that members had no clear idea what course of action was politically popular. The surveys were too divided to give them a clear direction for demagoguery. Left to their own devices, they sounded remarkably like the thoughtful men and women that we assume our politicians have long since ceased to be.

Decision-makers in news and entertainment often use "the numbers" to justify their pet conclusion that the public is too stupid for the sort of stuff these elevated intelligences choose for their own pleasure. The public, of course, consists of people too lacking in drive and ambition to pick up and spend their lives in Hollywood and New York carving each other up for the biggest slice of the gross.

Yet, as smart a curmudgeon as H. L. Mencken was, his most-quoted cynical observation is dead wrong. Plenty of people go broke every year underestimating the intelligence of the American public. The names of those people are immortalized in the credits of the nine out of 10 TV series that disappear before their promos are dry, and the hundreds of "Is this dumb enough for you?" movies that slink into video stores, never having seen the inside of a theater.

And adults have always enjoyed seeing the ensuing generation as a tragic decline in the quality of the human product. Parents may be proud of their own offspring, but seeing the next crop as stunted and flawed makes it easier to justify reluctance to turn things over to these (a) anarchists, (b) conformists, (c) lazy good-for-nothings or (d) materialistic greedheads. I don't like the idea that anybody, young or old, can't find Mexico on a map, but bashing the kids for their ignorance and lack of values is a strange way of saying how smart and principled we are. After all, who reared those monsters?

So they can take over anytime they want. They seem to be getting smarter; a New York Times story says fewer young people are willing to participate in polls and surveys. Maybe they'll find out where foreign countries are the way we always have--when wars erupt in them. Meanwhile, kids, I have just one piece of advice: Turn down that noise!

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