There's an entertaining little column currently running at CNN.com that I have to admit made me do a double-take, mostly because it focuses on something about Paul Ryan that I should have picked up on but which I've strangely overlooked: he's my age. The piece posits that Ryan's "Gen X sensibilities" will be an asset to him as he attempts to ascend to the second-highest office in the land and trumpets the fact that he's the first person of his generation -- my generation -- to run on an American presidential ticket. Obviously, he won't be the last since the Baby Boomers are on their way out as the dominant cultural force and, well, we're next in line.
While it would be ridiculous to broadstroke an entire generation of Americans and argue that those who grew up during the same time period turned out roughly the same way -- sure there may be common cultural touchstones, but personal experience always matters more -- there's still something undeniably weird about tagging Paul Ryan as "Gen X." Maybe it's because for so long that label has been more like a brand name -- and the product it's always attached to is the furthest thing from Paul Ryan. Fair or not, when you think Gen X, you immediately imagine the Seattle sound, irony, Clerks-ish lassitude and the birth of the soon-to-be-corrupted hipster ethos which dictates that the coolest thing is not giving a shit about being cool. Ryan doesn't embody any of those qualities. I can't imagine his tastes too closely align with your archetypal Gen Xer, either.
Apparently, though, they do.
According to the article, Ryan listens to "grunge" -- a term, needless to say, that was always pissed on by anyone who truly loved bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden -- and has a fondness for the pop culture of his early years. But where Ryan diverges from the traditional model of the Gen X youth is when it comes to pretty much everything else. It'll surprise no one to learn that he was voted "biggest brown-noser" in high school and he supposedly worshiped Ronald Reagan as a kid, which contrasts starkly with the taste-makers of my generation's culture, who spent the 80s intravenously feeding on punk bands that made entire careers out of vilifying the Reagan era.
Obviously, I'm not the personal standard to which any 42-year-old should be compared. I've never acted my age and still don't; it's served me incredibly well at many points in my life and has been my downfall at others. I'm not expecting Paul Ryan and I to have much in common aside from our age and I admit that I look in the mirror and can't imagine that I've been on this planet the same amount of time as somebody like him. Ryan strikes me as someone who was born old, but that could easily be a product of his particular political affiliation. I have a tough time picturing any hardcore conservative being young only because conservative thinking always seems to be based around a desire to return to the past. By its very nature, it's against the progress that the next generation invariably represents.
And I think that's the issue I most have with dubbing Paul Ryan "Gen X."
Again, I'm not saying that everyone from a given generation has to behave the same way and believe the same things, but Ryan seems to have suffered none of the ennui and indecision that became a hallmark of the era in which I came of age. I certainly don't believe this makes him a lesser person -- in fact he's probably very lucky to have been so driven from the beginning. I've also always thought that his political opponents, the Democrats, put too much emphasis on the notion of being cool. Yes, the GOP has never been cool and it likely never will be. There isn't a cool fucking thing about being Republican and when Republicans claim to be, it just winds up looking inadvertently comical. The Democrats, though, have a tendency to treat politics like it's its own kind of exclusive club for the hip kids only -- and that just makes them look like condescending assholes.
Still, Ryan doesn't think young. He's aligned himself, from an early age, with a group of people hell bent on stifling progress and yearning for an era that either never existed or which they aggressively fetishize. The GOP really has become the party of backwards. And that's why, no matter how young in years Ryan may be, in a relative sense, he's not going to be able to use that as an "asset" to reach out to the now older and wiser men and women who once embodied the attitude of what was dubbed "Gen X." He may be our age, but he's not one of us -- and he never really was.
Put it this way: I have no doubt that Paul Ryan listened to Nirvana when he was young. I just don't think he ever heard.