Have you seen the opening moments of “Euphoria”? Rue Bennett, played by Zendaya, is pushed violently from her mother’s womb straight into the aftermath of 9/11, nursing in the dim glow of a television tuned into George W. Bush’s bullhorn speech. Bennett narrates the early days of her own life.
“And then, without warning,” she says, “a middle class life in an American suburb.”
“Euphoria” is not a happy show. The feted HBO series captures a generation drowning in the postmodern muddle of “middle class life in an American suburb,” where teenagers are addicted to their phones and to pornography. Rue is addicted to prescription drugs. She takes fentanyl. She overdoses.
After our military killed Osama bin Laden in 2011, Stephen Colbert joked about the media’s obsession with shark attacks during the summer before 9/11. Was that all we had to worry about? Of course not, and not by a long shot.
Yet for millennials, the joke might resonate. I took an Advanced Placement exam the day after we took bin Laden out. The end of my carefree childhood coincided perfectly with the dawn of the new world. “Euphoria” intentionally spotlights a generation born straight into that world, where sharks were permanently relegated to low-priority status.
The fluidity of gender is predicated on the fluidity of truth, which itself demands moral relativism. This is the postmodern muddle. Alongside failed wars, a Great Recession, and ambient tech addiction, it’s the world our experts hath wrought. It’s the only world Gen Z knows.
“Euphoria’s” dreamy purple haze depicts the pain of the “America Without Family, God, or Patriotism,” described in a 2019 Atlantic headline.
“In 1998,” Derek Thompson wrote, “The Wall Street Journal and NBC News asked several hundred young Americans to name their most important values. Work ethic led the way—naturally. After that, large majorities picked patriotism, religion, and having children.”
“Twenty-one years later,” Thompson continued, “the same pollsters asked the same questions of today’s 18-to-38-year-olds—members of the Millennial and Z generations. The results, published last week in The Wall Street Journal, showed a major value shift among young adults. Today’s respondents were 10 percentage points less likely to value having children and 20 points less likely to highly prize patriotism or religion.”
They’re also “less likely to trust authorities, or companies, or institutions,” Thompson added. But that’s good news—our authorities, companies, and institutions are not to be trusted. They lied to us about Afghanistan to protect and further their failed strategy. They lied to us about Wall Street. They lied to us about Silicon Valley. They lied to us about opioids. What’s worse, they destroyed our faith in reality itself.
There is nowhere for Gen Z to turn as it watches the scenes from Kabul flicker across their iPhone screens. Where should they find hope? If truth is relative, where does that leave God? Somewhere behind porn, Instagram, and prescription drugs used to get through the day.
“Woodstock 99,” a new documentary on the festival’s failed 30th anniversary attempt, shows what presaged a dark turn in the new millennium. That trend may be dark, but all hope is not be lost because family can persevere, God is real, and America is truly great. Truth and a shared consensus on what it looks like are powerful.
When Gen. Mark Milley testified to Congress in June, he spoke of our “responsible drawdown” in Afghanistan. He also had some bizarre thoughts on critical race theory, signaling the military’s pivot to a different form of jingoism. After his testimony, the chattering class chattered about wokeness.
It was entirely fair, and that’s exactly the problem. In an incisive piece of satire, Andrew Stiles wrote under the headline, “American Triumph: The Most Inclusive National Embarrassment in History.”
“The U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan has quickly become the most embarrassing national security debacle since the Vietnam War,” Stiles noted. “Perhaps more importantly, however, the debacle is one of the most inclusive of its kind in American history.”
Jordan Peterson is a bestselling author because he tapped into a gnawing discontent with the pains of postmodernism, accelerated by tech oligarchs and accentuated by neoliberal blunders. The kids in “Euphoria” might listen to his podcast. They might oscillate between hardcore pornography and Wikipedia searches. Either way, they won’t find what they’re looking for until we recommit to reality itself.
Of immediate concern are the many American lives lost or haunted by this tragedy, and the lives of those who joined us in the fight. The future feels almost as bleak. Like every generation, the Zoomers who end up in charge will lie about wars. But lying is made all the easier when there’s no belief in truth.
When The Atlantic spoke of an America without God, it was talking about public perception. America is never without God, and that’s the truth.