“Two D’s on your report card? What have you been I doing all semester? From now on, you are a student: no phone, no friends, no dates. . . . It’s time you started growing up, started accepting responsibility.”

“Yeah, Dad, whatever.”

It’s the familiar conclusion to many conversations here in America: One side appeals to standards of excellence, traditions of morality, a code of behavior; the other asserts the right to lump all of the above into the category of “whatever.” Complain about the expression to one of your loutish children or one of their aunts and uncles who try to keep up with the times, and you’ll be told, “Lighten up, it’s only an expression, a little slang.”

“Lighten up” is another one of those conversation finishers that dismiss every serious enterprise or intention as a relic of Victorianism. I’m almost certain that when the mother of one of his victims vented her rage at the trial, Jeffrey Dahmer must have been thinking, “Lighten up.”

But are these expressions really slang? Traditionally (pardon the expression), slang is a racy form of everyday speech, used either as a secret language to confuse the authorities or simply for the mere joy of creating vivid expressions. There must be some other way of describing a worn-out cliché whose only function is to deaden speech and end conversation.

Yeah right, whatever, lighten up, chill out, take a pill, get real. What do they mean by “real”? Apparently, only the most basic physical functions we share with other mammals: eating, copulating, and playing games. Reality, apparently, does not include writing a sonnet or learning Mandarin Chinese.

There has been much talk of the “dumbing down of America,” mostly by the victims of the process, but dumbing down is only a part of the larger process of proletarianization, the reduction of all human life to the level of a deracinated, denatured employee whose perceptions and character have been stunted by pop culture. To be a “teen”—at least since the 1940’s—has meant being the slave of a commercial culture that has dumbed the human character to a level lower than our nearest relatives on the scala naturae. Being stupid and servile—being a tool—is then equated with being really free, free from the burden of being human. What is the answer?

“Get a life.”

But I have a life of sods, of the muddled old-fashioned human variety. This pop-prole life, reality, chilled-out enlightenment is something else, as different from life as soft ice cream from gelato.