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Follow the leader

Posted by Joshua Glenn  March 10, 2008 11:18 AM

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Thanks, readers, for alerting me whenever you spot a New York Times story about something that was covered in Brainiac weeks earlier. To be honest, I delete most of these emails without even looking up the Times stories in question. Life is short!

However, I couldn't resist looking up "Mag Hags: In the World of Magazine Design, Ugly is the New Cool," the latest installment of Alice Rawsthorn's Object Lesson column for T: The New York Times Style Magazine; "Mag Hags" appeared in the Men's Fashion Spring 2008 edition of T, which was published yesterday.

"The latest school of style-magazine design is called 'the new ugly,'" Rawsthorn reports, breathlessly. "The name was coined last fall by Patrick Burgoyne, the editor of the British design magazine Creative Review, to describe the latest issues of Super Super in London and 032c in Berlin."

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OK, readers, you're onto something this time: This is definitely an example of the Times running a supposedly cutting-edge story about a hot trend... which can hardly be described as hot, at this point, since Brainiac readers heard all about Super Super, 032c, and the "new ugly" weeks ago. On November 15, to be precise.

Where did Brainiac hear about the new ugly, you ask? From a post by Michael Bierut on the blog Design Observer, as I was careful to point out. Rawsthorn, however, merely slips a quote from Bierut into her column. Although she most likely read about Super Super, 032c, and the new ugly from Design Observer, she never lets on where -- or when -- she cottoned to this hot trend... which can only be described, at this point, as lukewarm.


One other little bit of Times-bashing, and then we'll forget all about that newspaper for a while, OK? While I was away on vacation, last month, over a dozen readers urged me to take a look at "In the Eye of the Beholder: When a Boom Begins," a story by Jenny Lyn Bader that appeared on the "Ideas & Trends" page of the Times's popular Week in Review section, on February 17.

"Barack Obama could be the first Generation X president," Bader announces. "Or, depending on how you figure it, Mr. Obama, born in 1961, could be the third boomer in chief, following Presidents Clinton and Bush." Despite the fact that the Census Bureau defines the baby boom as births during the years 1946 to 1964, notes Bader, "the practice of defining generations is more complicated than the theory."

If this sort of thing sounds familiar, it's because you read about "Generation Obama vs. the Boomers" in Brainiac (and in the Ideas section) almost exactly one year to the day before Bader's ideas/trend story appeared. You may have read about it again in "Obama: boomer or post-boomer," a Brainiac post (and Ideas column) about "the Original Generation X" that appeared this past December. My original post was sparked by a column written by the Globe's Peter Canellos, who picked up -- early -- on Obama's own insistence that he isn't a boomer, and that his politics are post-boomer politcs. The more recent post was inspired by an Atlantic Monthly essay on Obama. However, I've been rethinking the post-boomer generations since 1992.

Bader goes on to quote "generation-spotter" Jonathan Pontell, coiner of the phrase "Generation Jones," as an authority. Pontell places Obama in the generation that he claims was born between 1954 and 1965. This is confusing, though, because Bader has described Obama as an Xer, while the point of Pontell's "Generation Jones" conceit is that Americans born between the mid-1950s and mid-1960s don't identify either as boomers as Xers. The point I've made in Brainiac is that Americans born between 1954 and 1963 (Pontell and I are roughly in agreement about these dates) are Original Generation Xers... and that part of what defines an OGXer is a visceral disdain for being labeled a member of any generation. Particularly the Boomers.

Having already muddied the waters by calling Obama both an Xer and a member of Generation Jones, Bader compounds the problem by quoting the influential pop demographers Neil Howe and William Strauss, who argued that Americans born from 1925 through 1942 were the "Silent Generation" -- and then noting, with some puzzlement, that John McCain, born in 1936, "doesn't seem especially Silent." As I've argued in Brainiac, there's no reason to be puzzled: McCain is actually a member of the outspoken, though conflicted Anti-Anti-Utopian Generation, born between 1934 and 1943.

Obama is an OGXer, Clinton is a Boomer, and McCain is an Anti-Anti-Utopian. Got it?

Bader should have consulted BRAINIAC'S GUIDE TO AMERICA'S RECENT GENERATIONS before writing about Boomers, Xers, Jonesers, and Silents. If she had, she would have understood that Obama was slyly referring to me in a speech that she quotes at the end of her essay. "I thank the Moses Generation," Obama said -- referring to the Anti-Anti-Utopians, not the Boomers, if you ask me. "We're going to leave it to the Joshua Generation to make sure [progressive social change] happens."

Very flattering! But I prefer the term PC Generation.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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