Why We Need To Share Millennial Stories Through Independent Platforms

Zhivko Illeieff | Society & Culture | Commentary | March 29th, 2018

I owe my introduction to American culture to the stand-up comedy of Bill Hicks and George Carlin. This culture hack, fortunate for me and perhaps terrifying for any ruling class, was possible because I was born and raised in Bulgaria where BitTorrent technology in the 2000's gave me access to counter-culture content that wasn't available on traditional media, as opposed to Baywatch, Friends, and every Bulgarian grandparents' favorite, The Bold And The Beautiful.

Once you resonate with higher truth in one medium, it tends to lead you to similar expressions in other places. Hicks and Carlin lead me to the art of Alex Grey and Robert Crumb, the music of Frank Zappa and Tool, the writings of Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn, the philosophy of Cornel West, and other artists and truth-tellers whose dissenting ideas had found ways to escape the filtration devices of the information industry.

In the meantime, I witnessed how the Bulgarian oligarchy fought for control of the country's drug trade, information channels, industries, and ultimately power over the Bulgarian population.

Much like the U.S., different messiahs and economic "experts" from important places like Wall Street and The World Bank often descend into the Bulgarian political stage with empty promises of progress and equality, only to push the country further into corporate control . The events after 1989, when "communists" became "democrats" overnight, were characterized by mass privatization, increased inequality through the gospel of austerity, high levels of corruption, radicalization of right-wing parties, and widespread demoralization of young people who became apathetic to political issues. Most "well-intentioned" politicians, pundits, and experts who revolved around marketing campaigns to "fix Bulgaria" turned out to be frauds who bamboozled the Bulgarian population through their narratives.

Today, about 2.5 million Bulgarians, or nearly 35% of the country's population, live in severe material deprivation , meaning they can't afford to pay for rent or other basic necessities.

Those responsible for Bulgaria's downward spiral are not unlike their American counterparts. They use the same techniques (mass media control, extreme censorship, cuts in social programs, market monopolization, and other neoliberal tactics), and achieve the same results-increased income inequality, low living standards, mass demoralization, ineffective health care, political polarization, and so on.

Not much is needed to connect the dots. In the end of the day, the mechanism which turns public wealth into private gains boils down to how the ruling elite uses different narratives to manipulate the opinions and behaviors of millions of people . What the work of artists, musicians, comedians, and activists teaches us is how to spot this mechanism. Simply put, truth-tellers point out what oligarchs around the world work hard to conceal-the truth about poverty , war , and capitalism , the power of language , the mechanism of propaganda , and other "cracks in the Matrix."

After I moved to the U.S., I quickly understood why the counter-culture icons I discovered oversees are not embraced by " official culture " in the U.S.-what they say is viewed as a threat to the ruling class. Individuals and platforms that elevate independent thinking are bound to be recuperated, whitewashed, censored, silenced, and ridiculed by the economic and political elite, and replaced by less-threatening ideologies, often by those who hide behind their allegiance to democracy. This is why talking about last night's football game or Hollywood's latest ode to the U.S. military makes you a "productive member of society," while questioning the Democrat-Republican duopoly and other manifestations of the corporate state makes you a "conspiracy theorist" or, more recently, a "Russian spy."

Yet, tricksters tend to find their way around culture engineers. And once their truth resonates with your beliefs, it is hard to go back to corporate-funded, commercially interrupted daily news and propaganda.

The lessons that Hicks and Carlin taught me early on in my life were more useful than any official education I received, as their comedy not only analyzed the fabric of American greed, but also provided a framework for deconstructing the propaganda that enables such greed to take place on a massive scale . Who can watch Hicks's bit on the first Iraq war and not describe his critique of the military industrial complex as prophetic? This is especially true in 2017, when 89% of U.S. Democrats voted in favor of a $700 billion defense policy bill.

It is such signs of "bipartisanship" that reveal the one essential counter-culture lesson-question everything. Question the Democrats. Question the Republicans. Question the news. Question even those who tell you to question and especially those who tell you not to. This is the legacy of those who stood up and "lifted the veil" to expose, in Zappa's famous words, "the brick wall at the back of the theater." There are many who continue this work today. It is a fight worth having.

One vital part of this fight is about the right to shape our stories-not by being passive, obedient consumers, but by talking with each other, working through our differences, and living in a society where people's voices matter. To do so, we have to expose and counter top-down efforts that box us into categories and divide us through elaborate fairy tales.

Perhaps this is why I pursued projects that allowed me to document first-person narratives. In college, I lead a team that documented diverse perspectives about the totalitarian regime in Bulgaria. After that, I worked at Appalshop, short for "Appalachian Workshop," where I produced work that voiced the concerns of Appalachians and rural America. Both places have a lot in common-their people, history, traditions, and natural beauty represent a treasure for humanity. Yet, they are plagued by the results of political and corporate greed, as well as propaganda that vilifies and blames the poor for their problems, while pushing the neoliberal agenda of "corporations first."

Popular culture often neglects the rich history and traditions of those places and focuses on diminishing them and their people. Bulgarians are portrayed as hordes of immigrants and unskilled workers bent on storming the shores of Britain and other "civilized" countries. Similarly, Appalachians have a long history of being a target for journalists, photographers, and pundits who exploit and sensationalize people's addictions and financial struggles.

Even worse-a selected few who come from such places often use their heritage to add credibility to negative stereotypes portrayed in the mainstream media. I see this in Bulgarian politicians who diminish their own country's heritage for private gains. I see it in J.D. Vance's "Hillbilly Elegy," which continues to be heavily criticized for its disingenuous accounts of the causes of Appalachian struggles.

Such commentators are entitled to their opinions. However, their efforts to speak on behalf of millions of people, while ignoring the institutional and corporate causes of inequality and structural violence , need to be examined and countered. This is especially true in cases where "official culture" coronates such individuals as spokespersons for millions of people.

A case in point was the 2016 presidential election in which the U.S. mainstream media provided a tribune to a real estate magnate and a hustler, and thus legitimized him as a viable candidate. Today, those same corporate pundits, owned by the Comcasts and Walt Disney's of the world, cast themselves as leaders of "the Resistance."

Similarly, evoking the "millennial generation" often becomes a way for corporate media to control the narrative of tens of millions of people. By letting corporate forces frame the issues of young Americans, we also let them set the limits of the range of opinions that are allowed to pass through mainstream media. Chomsky advises that we view agenda-setting media as what they truly are-corporations owned by even bigger conglomerates Therefore, corporate media's content on the "millennial generation" can be viewed as a product that utilizes the millennial label for its own profit.

Do you ever wonder why the origin of the millennial label is not well known? As it turns out, the label originated from the books of Neil Howe and William Strauss-two amateur historians with connections to the ruling class . Essentially, they transformed the idea of generations into a capitalist-friendly, reductive narrative that provides a story for anyone willing to ignore its lack of scientific credibility .

While there's certainly a case to be made for using generational labels as a shorthand to investigating complex societal issues (as this blog post hopefully illustrates), there's a difference between genuine inquiries into generational dynamics, and using such labels to sensationalize or obfuscate the issues of tens of millions of people for private benefit.

I regard the millennial label as an instrument for corporate and government propaganda that is so deeply entrenched in our society that many of us don't even know where it came from . I believe this is by design-the myth is sustained by obfuscating its origins. And its origins lead to, you guessed it, attempts to manipulate and profit from us.

If you are skeptical, consider this:

Does it matter that Strauss and Howe, who coined the millennial label in 1987, before many millennials were even born, have connections to "deficit hawk" billionaires like Pete Peterson (known for his attempts to spread the gospel of austerity through " engaging the next generation "?

Does it matter that neoliberals like Newt Gingrich called Strauss and Howe's first book an "intellectual tour de force," and have since been invited by self-appointed "millennial" organizations to preach about generational struggles?

Does it matter that Steve Bannon was inspired by their theories , and has worked with Howe on "several film projects?"

Does it matter that Strauss and Howe created a business out of their generational forecasts?

Does it matter that dozens of "millennial-lead" organizations are using the millennial label to peddle the same economic policies that have annihilated democracy in America and the rest of the world?

Does it matter that books about millennials, and written by millennials, use Koch-sponsored propaganda to argue that young Americans don't approve of welfare programs and would put them " on the chopping block " if given the chance?

To me, it does. In fact, I consider this "chopping and screwing" of the American population to be one of the greatest frauds of our time. Not because there's no value in thinking in terms of generations, or because generations don't exist. It is the perversion of the concept into a product-selling operation that exposes its use as an instrument for propaganda.

While previous works on the subject, such as Karl Mannheim's The Problem of Generations , read as an invitation to deepen our understanding of the concept of generations, Strauss and Howe took a more controversial approach-they combined the concept of generational analysis with historical prophecy; a move that, by their own admission, didn't fare well with traditional historians and scholars.

"What we think that politicians or marketers, in particular product salesmen who are concerned about how to reach generations , should think about as they read our book and try to decide how to get elected or launch a new product line," says Strauss in a 1991 CSPAN interview , "…is look real hard at the section of our book that will certainly be most controversial with historians. That is, we have a 50 page chapter on what the future of the cycle will be…we call it 'Completing the Millennial Cycle.'"

A closer examination of the label's use exposes its role as a "hook" used by a vast network of nonprofits, businesses, and marketing agencies that aim not to understand the people behind the millennial label, but to influence society's opinion of them, and ultimately influence their opinion of themselves.

The justification that is usually used by those who employ the millennial label echoes the words of Edward Bernays, the father of Propaganda :

"The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, and our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of…It is they who pull the wires that control the public mind."

The trick worked. Today, most mainstream news platforms and "authoritative" magazines talk about millennials (some 80 million people) like they are a monolithic entity, when in fact they exhibit the same differences that are present in the rest of our society. Yet, most news outlets gloss over the origins of the label, its use, and monetization.

More importantly, it is not your opinions that are being elevated in the media and regarded as "millennial insights." It is the opinions of people who are allowed to pass through the gates of corporate-lead news platforms. A prime example is Jason Dorsey, a rather older millennial, who is often quoted as an "expert on millennial issues," when in fact he is simply promoting his business of selling "insights" about millennials and the upcoming generational brand of people, Generation Z.

Where are the activist millennials? The poor millennials? The millennials who didn't graduate from college? Where are the millennials who would rather talk about substantive issues, instead of selling their own generation in the form of "insights" to the ruling class?

While we intrinsically know that addressing millions of people with a single word is a laughable proposition, cultural engineers have justified, and profited from, these divisions in our society. This is how we have exposed our minds to the brainwashing that usually follows efforts that use biology and marketing to draw conclusions about people's "collective identity."

My research into the topic exposed a new world of possibilities in the same way Hicks and Carlin's comedy opened my eyes to a deeper understanding of reality. What would happen if, instead of selling insights about millennials, there was a way for anyone to add their story to the collective millennial narrative, without being an "expert" on millennial issues? In other words, what would a true bottom-up platform for millennial stories look like?

These questions lead me to create postmillennial.org , a story-sharing platform that makes it easy for millennials and their allies to create and share content about their experiences without the spin that usually follows such accounts.

The platform addresses a major obstacle in publishing content about millennials - it makes it easy for those who fall into the millennial age cohort and their allies to share their perspectives on various issues. The idea is to generate content that is intellectually stimulating, instead of the usual "millennials, those who are x-to-x years old" articles that, willingly or not, mistake birth cohorts with generations.

Most importantly, postmillennial does not owe allegiance or give editorial control to any Party or corporation.

Unlike The Lily, a Washington Post "visually driven product designed for millennial women," postmillennial is not sponsored by JP Morgan .

Unlike Goldman Sachs-sponsored articles in The Atlantic, postmillennial does not compare generations in sensationalist terms .

Unlike "millennial" advocacy organizations , it does not peddle trickle-down economics on behalf of millions of people.

Sure, news platforms need money to survive. However, if we continue to let billionaires decide the faith of our platforms of information, like they do with our political process, we might as well throw in the towel now.

I believe that a millennial-focused platform that is open to diverse perspectives and thoughts has the power to reclaim the millennial narrative, even in the presence of industries that actively work in the opposite direction. We can use the privately engineered label to our advantage, and work to change the millennial label from an expression of the capitalist system and its media culture, to an evolving dialogue where all voices matter.

This originally appeared at postmillennial.org

Zhivko Illeieff is a writer & media producer. He is also the founder of postmillennial, a story-sharing platform that lets millennials and their allies create and share content about their experiences without the corporate spin. He may be contacted at hello@postmillennial.org