The New Nihilism


My summer jam of 2013 is, without a doubt, Icona Pop’s “I Love It,” wherein the line is uttered “You’re from the 70s, but I’m a 90s bitch.” It is most trenchantly observed, this divide between the children of the 90s and 70s. There has been a lot of shitting on millennials in the culture recently. Joel Stein’s now infamous cry for attention is one of the most obvious examples, but it goes deeper than that. There’s major anxiety about The Young People Today. The most frequent accusation hurled at us is that we are “entitled.”


What they’re calling entitlement is really an awareness of a world stacked against us. Gen Xers didn’t rally en masse against the system because they thought they could game it. We’ve come to terms with something they never could: nobidy’s dreams are coming true. We don’t hold out hope that, while most of us won’t get what we want out of life, some of us will work at Sub Pop. No. We are all fucked.

The millennials who are getting incendiary think pieces in The New York Times are mad about this, the systemic screwing over of the world via staggering debt on a personal and national level, environmental devastation, culture wars, real wars, and Monsanto. But among a growing population a different take on this shitty situation is being espoused. We don’t care. Nihilism is making a comeback, folks. Not necessarily taken into our hearts but at least shouted back at the world in the face of its indifference. Sing it with me now. I don’t care. I love it.

The Gen Xers were condemned by their elders for being apathetic, which probably held as much water as the entitled epithet does for us. Superficially, apathy and nihilism are pretty much the same. But where apathy is “I don’t care,” nihilism is “I don’t care and neither should you,” or even more so “the outcome is the same whether we care or not. The world is fucked and so am I, and my being fucked doesn’t matter any more or less than the rest of the world and none of it matters because we’re all gonna die in a hurricane anyway.” If apathy is sitting on the couch all day, nihilism is setting your couch on fire.

So how did we get to this almost zen-like state of not caring? The 24-hour news cycle shoulders much of the blame. We are confronted with a new tragedy every fifteen minutes, none of which are deemed important enough onto hold the zeitgeist for more than one InTouch cover. Today there were eight earthquakes in different parts of the world Yet another social service was defunded. Oh, someone got shot by the police, here are links to every other time that’s happened. And each comes with an online petition for someone, anyone, to make it stop. Fatigue sets in quickly. Ours is the first generation to really be aware of suffering on a global scale in real time. It really shouldn’t matter that you have student debt, because dozens of people were shot in a mall, and that shouldn’t matter more than the hundred people who died in a mudslide. Your personal pain is one drop in the ocean, so nothing really makes an impression.

The government fucked us up, too. Coming of age the Bush administration, then seeing the inefficacy of Obama has really hammered home the powerlessness of individuals, or even large grassroots movements if they lack funding. Before the second Iraq War started, thousands of people protested its inception. It was the most protested war before it even started, and that did nothing. 90% of Americans want stricter gun control laws, and look how that turned out. Complete lack of control leads pretty naturally to complete indifference.

And let’s not leave the internet out of this. The self-directed and infinitely clickable nature of the internet results in a different perception of any one piece of information’s relative importance in the soup of general knowledge. Gone is the consomme of print media: clear, condensed, with only the parts some old white dude considered important remaining. Now we have gumbo: disorganized, variable, anachronic. That last one doesn’t really relate to soup. The point is my browser history, my internet, my reality may look entirely different than yours. But we understand that they’re both out there. And we’re fine with that.

Nihilism gets a bum rap as an immobilizing force, but I find it very freeing. It’s less of a “why bother” and more of a “why not?” Your failures have as little impact on society as your successes, so why not go apeshit? I’m never going to make a living off my art, but only nerds care if they starve to death, so just go for it. And if nothing matters, I’m free to care about things if I feel like it, and stop when I don’t. You can try to make the world a better place, or you could have another helping of cheese fries. Both are equally meaningless and therefore equally valid.

Nihilism is the only thing we have left to freak old people out with. Nudity and profanity have been rendered tame by prestige television. If we want to get a rise out of The Man, all we can do is yell that voting is stupid, and the government is run by lizard people anyway, so why even go to college? Grandmas must be really freaked out by all the upside-down crosses on hotpants in Wet Seal.

So I welcome the reaction posts saying it’s disgusting or depressing to see a valorization of giving up. But I’m not giving up; I’m disputing the idea that there was ever a game to be won. I care about things. I want to fix this dumb world. I just know I can’t. Which is fine, because it doesn’t matter.

Nothing matters.

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