Taylor Swift, John Boehner, and the New Intergenerational Condescension

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Millennials, eh? Short attention spans, smartphones, narcissism, et cetera — how are you supposed to get through to them if you’re a good old-fashioned Republican looking to convince the majority of the American electorate to vote directly in contradiction to its own interests? (Again?) They don’t go in for patriotism, they’re skeptical of rhetoric about terrorism, and in general, they’re not big on old white men in suits. Well, unfortunately monikered House Speaker John Boehner reckons he has the answer: Taylor Swift GIFs!

In one of those sort of face-palming moments that some part of you refuses to believe isn’t some sort of prank orchestrated by The Onion, Boehner’s website published this post: entitled “12 Taylor Swift GIFs for you,” it outlines Boehner’s objection to President Obama’s plans for free community colleges, BuzzFeed-style, with pithy, reductive arguments and, yes, Taylor Swift GIFs. I hope he’s paying the interns who presumably put it together.

Once you’ve stopped giggling and forwarding the link to your friends, there are a couple of things to think about here. The first is that — shock, horror — Boehner is full of shit. He cites the plan as costing $60 billion over ten years — it’s unclear where he got this figure from (there’s no citation, of course), but if we assume he’s correct, yeah, sure, that sounds like a lot of money (it’s more than my daddy earns, Mr. Boehner!). But when you consider that according to the IRS, the US federal income tax revenue base for 2012 was roughly $2.5 TRILLION, you start to see that actually, as far as governments go, $6 billion a year is a drop in the ocean. (And, for the record, it’s also less than $20 per person in America.)

Boehner is scaremongering here, nothing more, nothing less — he’s citing a figure that sounds like an insane amount of money to the man on the street without any context or explanation. To take a couple of other examples, US defense spending in 2013 (the last year for which figures are available) was $610 billion. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter — recently in the news for having a gun that it won’t be able to fire until 2019 — cost $11.4 billion alone. In other words, the community college plan costs less than one percent of America’s military budget and about half of what we’re paying for a jetfighter than can’t fire its own fucking gun.

The Taylor Swift GIFs, of course, address precisely none of this. This isn’t surprising, of course, because if presented with all the facts, Americans might decide that, hey, it might just be a good investment to commit 0.2 percent of our federal tax revenue base toward free tertiary education for people who can’t afford the sort of fancy colleges that people like John Boehner went to. They might also think about the fact that an educated workforce is good for the country, albeit not so good for the sort of companies who rely on cheap, uneducated workers to keep labor costs down so they have lots of money left over to donate to people like John Boehner.

But anyway, enough about Boehner, because I doubt anyone with any more than a cursory interest in politics will be remotely surprised to discover that he’s full of suspiciously scented hot air. I want to talk some more about Taylor Swift GIFs, and what they say about the way politicians interact with the public. There’s been plenty written about how millennials are generally cynical and distrustful of politicians (according to a Harvard survey cited in this New York Times article, only 18 percent of voters under 30 say they “trust congress”). My highly scientific opinion is that this is because of the constant stream of bullshit they’ve been being fed by assholes like John Boehner, but hey, that’s just me.

Anyway, politicians aren’t the only ones struggling to “reach” millennials — there are innumerable ad-industry thinkpieces about how to market to the new generation, along with a growing industry of self-appointed experts. Even the Church is worrying about how to sell fire and brimstone to those godless social media-savvy kidz of today.

Our esteemed House Speaker isn’t the only person to decide that the answer lies in the success of BuzzFeed. You can see where the thinking comes from — millennials like memes, right? They’re down with cat GIFs and condescending Willie Wonka and doge and those ASCII bears on Twitter? That’s how they communicate, right? So if we get some pithy slogans and make sure the intern has the Impact font to slap them over the top of whatever image is doing the rounds on the web this week, kids will love us forever, right?

And, of course, it’s not that easy. Brands’ attempts to leverage online culture have generally been cack-handed at best and actively disastrous at worst — remember Epicurious trying to use the Boston Marathon bombings to promote their whole-grain cranberry scones, or the utterly predictable #myNYPD fiasco? Even well-intentioned projects like BuzzAdemia come off looking tone-deaf and irredeemably lame — does anyone really think that the millennial generation is so stupid and out-of-touch with anything remotely serious that they’ll only countenance scholarship if the subject matter is presented in BuzzFeed listicles?

So why do older generations keep getting this wrong? I’d argue that it stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of what memes and online culture are. You don’t need to talk to millennials in Taylor Swift GIFs, because for god’s sake, just like every other generation, millennials are perfectly capable of communicating like normal human beings, and indeed spend the majority of their time doing just that. Memes aren’t popular because they’re a form of communication catalyzed by a shortened attention span or the Rise of Social Media™ or any other generational stereotype — they’re popular because they’re irreverent and funny. They’re the sort of in-jokes that social circles have always had, with the difference being that now those in-jokes play out on a global scale instead of within the confines of a classroom.

In this respect, they’re not communication so much as they are shared experience — a joke everyone can laugh at for a little while until it gets overexposed and unfunny. But of course, there’s nothing less appealing than knowing that some older person is trying to muscle in on the joke, and doing so for entirely self-interested reasons. Boehner’s not wheeling out Taylor Swift GIFs because he wants to make a genuine connection with younger voters — he’s doing so because he wants something from them, and that fact is painfully, embarrassingly obvious. If there’s anything that really does separate millennials from previous generations, it’s that they’ve grown up in an information-heavy environment that makes them less susceptible to this sort of misguided pandering. As Jarvis Cocker once wrote, “We learned too much at school/ Now we can’t help but think/ The future that you’ve got mapped out/ Is nothing much to shout about.” No wonder the oldies don’t want free community colleges, eh?