All of Twitter is a-buzzing like a hummingbird's wings about a new, incredibly stupid article in Rolling Stone by Jesse A. Myerson.
Titled "Five Economic Reforms Millennials Should be Fighting For," here's the list for those of you in a hurry (the explanatory chatter accompanying each entry doesn't make them any more convincing).
1. Guaranteed Work for Everybody
2. Social Security for All
3. Take Back The Land
4. Make Everything Owned by Everybody
5. A Public Bank in Every State
The only thing missing is a call for a light beer that really does taste great and is less filling. Read the whole piece here but as I noted, the real drama with Myerson is happening on Twitter, where's he's been mocked and supported relentlessly since the article, which went live on January 3, was tweeted around by National Review's Charles Cooke.
Like a character in a bad Tom Petty song, Myerson's not backing down and is in fact reveling in the attention, tweeting things such as:
"Drinking scotch. Blocking trolls. It's a merry life."
"Poor me. Writing for Rolling Stone and getting hated on by dunces. Man, I've really let myself go."
"What they don't seem to understand is: I really am very nice and don't want gulags."
"If I have to answer for Soviet gulags, these market/capital twits have to answer for climate collapse, the greatest genocide in history."
That last tweet gives you a sense of Myerson's quality of thought (the "#FULLCOMMUNISM" in his Twitter bio gives you a sense of his political commitments). There's even a #StandWithJesse hashtag, which seems to be equal parts attaboys and flames (e.g. "#StandWithJesse is an ableist hashtag born out of able bodied privilege and contempt for those who can't stand!").
But to me, this episode is not about an ahistorical and already-been-tried-and-failed-countless-times policy agenda. It's about the long decline of Rolling Stone.
Rolling Stone was borne out of Jann Wenner's love of music in a time (late 1960s) when music was simply more important in the nation's cultural life. Youth music—encompassing everything from nostalgic pop (think Mamas and Papas, Sha Na Na) to alt-country (Byrds, Flying Burrito Brothers), to proto-punk (Stooges, MC5)—was never apolitical per se but even the most tendentious protest songs were less about any specific greivance and more about a generational shift.
The gap between Americans raised before World War II and after was huge in a way that's difficult to recall for those of us who came of age after the '60s. Greatest Generation parents who might have grown up without on-demand indoor plumbing and survived the Depression and fighting in Europe, the Pacific, North Africa, and Korea came from a different planet than the one on which they raised their kids. To their credit, they bequeathed to the baby boomers a world that was still full of major problems but one that was much richer and full of opportunites. And to their credit, the boomers (of which I'm a very late example, having been born in 1963) readily went about using new opportunities and freedoms (expressive, sexual, educational, economic) to build the world they wanted to live in.
In the late '60s and a good chunk of the '70s, youth-oriented pop music was central to that project. Whatever you might think of the Beatles' music, their very existence—and their constant self-recreations—made everything seem possible. They were far from alone as pop music maguses, too.
Simply by talking with major pop figures, Rolling Stone could be a vital and compelling magazine because it served as something like a boomer conversation pit. Over time, however, music stopped playing the same sort of vital role in generational conversations—don't get me wrong, it's still a part of it all. But as the mainstream in every area of life splintered and recombined into a million different subspecies, no single form of cultural expression matters so much to so many people anymore.
That's a good thing for the culture and the country (and the planet, really), but Rolling Stone has been looking for a replacement core identity for decades now. The magazine that once published New Journalism masterpieces about David Cassidy and stardom, Patty Hearst's rescuers, and "Charlie Simpson's Apocalypse" had trouble figuring out how to deal with a world in which pop and movie stars were less interesting than ever (and more disciplined in terms of talking with the press) and in which men and women of good faith might actually disagree over complicated aesthetic and ideological matters. There has been a lot of good writing and reporting over the years, but there's no question, I think, that the magazine is chasing trends and insights rather than creating them.
A big part of the reason is this: Rather than represent a wide-ranging set of viewpoints, Rolling Stone increasingly has opted for a sort of standard Democratic liberalism, with a heavy dose of guilt that comes from becoming rich and thus feeling inauthentically committed to '60s ideals of radical chic. When it comes to things like drugs, the magazine is far more likely to write uncritical, hysterical "new drug of choice" fables (such as this 2003 gem about meth as a "Plague in the Heartland") than it is to push back against the anti-drug animus that is every bit as much a part of the Democratic Party ethos as it is of the Republican one. The mag is more likely to publish mushy articles about environmentalism and autism by Robert Kennedy Jr. than stage a debate that might shed actually light on a given topic. For years now, its political coverage has been dominated by writers such as Matt Taibbi, who operates as a sort of cleaned-up version of his former eXile self. That is, he's a lefty's lefty who drops enough f-bombs to add a cool quotient to a magazine whose politics are, like a Capt. Beefheart record, safe as milk. Someone like the self-consciously right-wing P.J. O'Rourke, whose pieces from hellholes around the world were filled with great reporting and anti-hippie jibes, need not apply. As Brian Doherty has noted here, the magazine never seems to miss an opportunity to badger Bob Dylan into expressing total agreement with some sort of liberal mainstream. Bob, don't you think Obama is the best? Bob, don't you agree that global warming is the worst thing around?
Is it really so hard for Rolling Stone to realize that Dylan—the mag's ultimate hero—is a far more interesting character precisely because he's heterodox (if not stark raving mad)? God, the mag should have built an entire special issue around this bizarre admission in Dylan's memoir, Chronicles, Vol. 1:
There was no point in arguing with Dave [Van Ronk], not intellectually anyway. I had a primitive way of looking at things and I liked country fair politics. My favorite politician was Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, who reminded me of Tom Mix, and there wasn't any way to explain that to anybody.
Instead you get bullshit bits about what's on Barack Obama's iPod and a 2012 Douglas Brinkley Q&A with Obama that takes butt-kissing into a whole new dimension not yet mappable by science. And a sad-sack story about "Five Economic Reforms Millennials Should Be Fighting For" that even Raul Castro would have been embarrassed to publish.
In a world in which pop culture—especially youth-oriented pop culture—allows a thousand flowers to bloom in a way that was unimaginable even 40 years ago, Rolling Stone can no longer get by simply by talking with Patti Smith or John Lennon or Bob Dylan for 25,000 words at a time. It might have reinvented itself as a clubhouse where people who love music or movies or whatever could get together to argue over politics, economics, and policy. That could indeed be interesting, especially in a world where large chunks of young Americans are going right, left, and especially libertarian. Just as there is no longer one dominant mode of music, there is no longer one dominant mode of politics.
But the people at the helm of Rolling Stone cannot seemingly even acknowledge that anyone who might disagree with them on, say, the effects of minimum wage laws on the poor, is worth a second thought. All they can do, out of a sense of liberal guilt, is publish radical calls to arm that they must know are ridiculous. Sadly, a magazine that was once required reading for anyone who wanted to know what the younger generation cared about is now a pedantic, insecure, and ultimately ineffective tool of Democratic Party groupthink.