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Kal Penn’s Pitch to the Youngfolk: Tin-Eared, On-Message

I’m unused to being pandered to. This is as I believe it should be: if a Democratic National Convention speaker started engaging the immediate material concerns of a healthy white male raised in comfort who received a great education and has a great job (even any job), I would wonder—well, whether I was watching the wrong convention.

So Kal Penn’s speech last night directed at the under-30 set (Penn, an actor most famous for playing Kumar in the Harold and Kumar series, is a former White House liason to young Americans), which he delivered just before the broadcast networks cut in, was a pretty new experience for me: I was not just observing, but being addressed.

Speaking of relevant issues is an important element of pandering, but so is speaking of them in the target’s language, and it was Penn's method of accomplishing the latter that made me uneasy. His goofy, slacker schtick—which reached its height in a pretaped segment in which he and John Cho (the guy who plays Harold) receive a call from President Obama while pretty obviously stoned—was a real turn-off. I felt talked-down-to: Am I really supposed to believe that this 35-year-old guy in a suit is authentically just like me? Surely nobody could think I or practically anyone else is so stupid.

But the expectation of such stupidity was the only justification for lines like: “a man … who’s cool with all of us getting gay-married”; “you don’t even have to pull pants on”; “as I wonder which Twitter hashtags you’ll start using when I’m done talking, #sexyface”; “the oldies out there, you guys can do it too.” It was not all as tone-deaf as “oldies,” which I’m pretty sure is a word that describes Herman’s Hermits songs; the use of “gay-married,” in particular, evinced a real ear for dialogue. But even when he got it right, he got it wrong. These lame rhetorical tics were condescending, and made me feel objectifed—a collection of demographic checkmarks rather than an individual.

The flip-side were the policy platforms Penn reminded us of: the president’s support for same-sex marriage and repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell; the Affordable Care Act, which helps young people in part by letting them stay on their parents’ insurance through the age of 26; doubling the funding for Pell Grants, which is essentially need-based federal student financial aid. Many observers (on Twitter, naturally) were most impressed by Penn’s invocation of young friends of his who had benefited from Obama’s achievements: “my friend Matt got a job at a Detroit car company that still exists,” “my buddy Kevin’s boyfriend was able to watch him graduate from Marine Corps training.” But the most effective part of Penn’s five-minute address was his description of Obama’s refusal to trade a tuition tax credit to the Republicans in exchange for not raising taxes on the middle class. Maybe it’s because I am fortunate enough to be in so little need of pandering, but such stories, of the president actually valuing my cohort’s needs, are ten times as persuasive as proficient use of young-people lingo.

Penn will reappear at the convention tomorrow night as the host of a three-hour webcast. No doubt there will be more schtick; apparently the completely insufferable Zach Braff is going to show up, which is enough to make any sensible young person consider voting Republican. At the same time, the gambit recognizes that many of us will be watching online because we don’t have TVs. That is how you speak to us in our language.