In an essay on “Golden Ages” in his “Prejudices: Philosophical Dictionary,” Robert Nisbet argued that a great period of ferment and achievement often features a “dialectical antinomy.” This is a fancy way of saying that you need ideas and trends and forces in tension with each other (community and individualism, the secular and the sacred, new ideas and settled consensus, younger and older generations) to ignite what he calls “the blaze of creativity.” We can debate just how golden their achievements really were, but in hindsight his description applies to the period of the boomer takeover — it was the tension between a multitudinous younger generation’s utopianism and libertinism and mysticism and an older generation’s attachment to patriotism and family and religion that shaped and stamped the rise of rock ’n’ roll, the rebel cinema of the 1970s, the New Age reinvention of religion, the New Journalism and the postmodern wave in the academy and the libertarian ascendancy in the G.O.P. and more. . . .I often wonder about this. Now that we have overthrown everything, what are we going to do with our rebellious energies? Everybody poses as a rebel, from Steve Bannon to Bernie Sanders. All the artists want to be rebels, but their rebellious statements and anti-establishment screeds are eagerly bought up and displayed by the most august institutions of the art world. "Rebel" has become an all purpose word of praise applicable in almost any circumstance.
But now we are in the twilight of that era — and it is not at all clear that the boomers’ successors are prepared to react against boomer hegemony with anything like the same creativity and vigor. In part that’s because technological and social change has left the rising cohorts of Americans fragmented, polarized, alienated from one another, too divided by belief and taste and language to build something new together. And in part it’s because the boomers themselves contributed mightily to fragmentation, leaving too little standing when they tore things down and rebuilding haphazardly and self-interestedly, bequeathing a spirit of transgression and permanent revolution that’s run out of things to deconstruct and is either feeding on itself, lapsing into torpor, or generating niche forms of radicalism on the further left and right that are too weak as yet to produce revolution or renewal. (Indeed it is not a coincidence that conservatism, itself decadent in this late-boomer dispensation, is desperate to claim boomer culture for its own — think of Ted Cruz’s love of “The Simpsons” or the new pro-“Roseanne” ardor on the right.)
As Nisbet writes in the same essay, golden ages give way to ages of iron very easily. “If there is no community,” then “there is nothing to challenge, nothing to fuel the dynamism” required for a golden age, and if there is nothing but transgression and dissent, there is nothing to give acts of transgression the “purpose, substance and meaning” that make them something more than just puerile self-indulgence. Both problems define our age; everyone fancies themselves a rebel, even Sean Hannity and Donald Trump, but the traditional forms and structures that would give rebellion purpose and clarity exist only through as effigies to be torn down in ritual re-enactments of the original revolution, now decades in the past.
I suppose one positive way to think about this would be to say that the gray weight of conformity presses down heavily on every society, so if you don't want to sink back into stasis, you must rebel continually: against routine, against the formulaic, against bureaucratic pettiness, against going with the flow. But that still values the new for novelty's sake, and assumes there is something wrong with the flow you won't join. Or maybe it doesn't, but simply asserts that each generation must create its own thing, and maybe each person.
I simply find myself puzzled by the vast amount of angry rebellion in a world with so little to rebel against.