The golden age of the boomers—the period from about 1960 to the middle of the 1980s—is to America today what the Greek Bronze Age was for the contemporaries of Socrates: a time of heroes and sages to be mined and mimicked in everything from politics and philosophy to popular art. Bohemian Rhapsody, a 2018 film about a quintessential boomer rock band, is the highest-grossing biopic of all time; Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin album covers have as much symbolic currency in our culture as the cross or the hammer and sickle; boomer-era fictional heroes—James Bond, Spider-Man, the entire Marvel Comics lineup—have a near-monopoly on American cinema; boomer bard Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2016. Decades after Americans won the Cold War, denouncing socialism still serves as a rallying cry for the Republican Party, while Democrats treat every inconvenience as an opportunity to declare a new Civil Rights Movement. Even Silicon Valley sounds noticeably boomerish notes in its devotion to disruption, its laissez faire morality and enthusiasm for psychoactive drugs, and its dreamy utopian designs for government and society. Our culture, it seems, is stuck. Why can’t we get past boomerism?
Helen Andrews, senior editor at The American Conservative, wants to get us out of the boomer rut. In her new book Boomers: The Men and Women Who Promised Freedom and Delivered Disaster, Andrews sets out to diagnose the sickness at the heart of the Me Generation and to free us and future generations from its corruption. Modeled on the work of Lytton Strachey, whose biographical portraits in Eminent Victorians sought to comprehend the heart of his age through—and wound the reputation of—four well-respected Victorian luminaries, Andrews scrutinizes the boomers’ legacy via the successes and failures of six exemplary types: Steve Jobs, Aaron Sorkin, Jeffrey Sachs, Camille Paglia, Al Sharpton, and Sonia Sotomayor.
Andrews’ premise is that “The baby boomers have been responsible for the most dramatic sundering of Western civilization since the Protestant Reformation.” Where previous generations may have seen themselves as part of a pattern of tradition originating far in advance of them and continuing long after their grandchildren, the boomers wanted to wipe the slate clean and create history anew. “They did not,” Andrews charges, “take their place in the chain of civilization.”
However deplorable they may be in sum, Andrews expresses genuine respect for her six boomer representatives. “I was going to spend months, even years with these people living in my head,” she writes. “I did not want to pick anyone for whom I felt contempt.” Where a lesser writer might focus on flashy, outsize stand-ins for the age like Michael Jackson or the Weather Underground, Andrews wants to give the boomers the fairest shake possible by looking to those who had long and lasting influence, who “had all the elements of greatness, but whose effect on the world was tragically and often ironically contrary to their intentions.”
Steve Jobs, for instance, dedicated his entire career with Apple to the seemingly noble task of channeling idealism and countercultural rebelliousness into entrepreneurship, ultimately creating one of the most successful computing companies—and one of the most identifiable brands—in the world. Unlike his fellow boomers, whose lust for liberation often led to the razing of institutions, Jobs saw himself as a builder. “Jobs succeeded beyond his wildest hopes in building a lasting institution,” Andrews concedes, but “the very durability of his creation means that the rest of us now have to live in the world Silicon Valley made, a world that gives free rein to the boomers’ worst vices.”
What television did to the average American’s attention span has been accelerated a thousandfold by handheld internet devices. Pornography is now accessible to any teenager on the planet at the touch of a button. The business culture of Silicon Valley, with its appetite for cheap labor and dependence upon China, has become the national standard. In place of the work-life balance that American wage earners struggled to win over the course of two centuries, Silicon Valley is destroying the division between work life and home life. “Nominally egalitarian but oppressive in practice, the start-up spirit insists that everybody be super psyched about their job all the time.” Not the most hospitable arrangement for having a family, or having any commitments other than economic ones.
So too with the rest of Andrews’ cast of characters. TV writer Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing transformed Capitol Hill into a barracks for obsessive, technocratic interns. The economist Jeffrey Sachs used his celebrity to replace diplomacy with economic development, turning international relations into a lucrative managerial enterprise for a caste of global financiers that left poor countries in even worse shape than they were before. Cultural critic Camille Paglia made pop kitsch an object of academic study and ushered in an era of frivolous academic programs based on fill-in-the-blank studies, accompanied by activist student bodies making administration-bloating demands. Professional activist Al Sharpton perfected the art of the shakedown, dissolving the popular enthusiasm of the Civil Rights Movement in an acid bath of patronage and extortion. And U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor farmed out governmental power to highly credentialed lawyers and laid the groundwork for the last decade of institutional capture by the social justice bureaucratic complex.
Conspicuously absent from Andrews’ lineup are any famous boomer politicians: the Clintons, the younger Bushes, Sens. Biden, Lieberman, and McCain. This is, I suspect, by design. Andrews demonstrates how the baby boomers carried out an unprecedented transfer of power away from governmental structures answerable to voters, and instead vested authority in institutions and bureaucracies clustered within the class strata of American society populated entirely by celebrities and elites. Rather conspicuously, the institutions they most eagerly took hold of were those that had formerly served the working classes: “They took what was supposed to be the most effective mechanism in history for guarding the rights of the disadvantaged, the left-wing parties of the Western democracies, and seized them for the wealthy and privileged.” However inefficient the old democratic channels may have been, they gave average Americans a voice in the governance of their country. A nation run by bureaucrats, billionaires, activists, academic experts, and celebrities, on the other hand, leaves its populace silenced.
In Andrews’ view, the boomers killed politics and fed its corpse to “culture,” and the consequences of this massacre have reverberated for the last several decades. The legacy of boomer anti-politics is technocratic neoliberalism, a movement of cultic hysteria, academic frivolity masquerading as intellectualism, and a culture suffused with pornography, narcotics, and cheap distraction. This is the inheritance the boomers leave the generations that follow.
But Andrews admits that hardly any of the evil she attributes to the boomers began with them. Television and pornography preceded Jobs by decades, and long before Silicon Valley shifted American tech manufacturing to Asia, American presidents had shaken hands with Mao and Deng and opened the door of America’s economy to their regime. Aaron Sorkin invented neither the upwardly mobile political busybody nor the television drama, and the most aggressive bureaucratization of the federal government happened during the New Deal, decades before Sorkin popularized technocratic management as the highest form of politics. Sachs merely rebranded a half-century-old American imperialism in the language of humanitarianism, conducting privatized Marshall Plans in Africa and the former Eastern Bloc. Camille Paglia inherited her Freudianism from her teacher Harold Bloom, and her insistence upon the artistic seriousness of pornography was prefigured by her older rival Susan Sontag—both stalwarts of the Silent Generation, born in the early 1930s. The institution of ethnic patronage has a long pedigree in America, of which Al Sharpton remains but a late inheritor. And none of the contortions Sotomayor applied to the legal establishment would have been conceivable without the innovations of an earlier notable from the Greatest Generation, Chief Justice Earl Warren.
Virtually nothing for which the boomers claim credit originated with them. This is their real tragedy: not that they inaugurated a radical break with what came before, but that they were a generation of immense, almost world-historical promise—the largest single age cohort in American history living in the greatest economic expansion the world had ever seen—who instead of advancing far beyond the influence of their forebears turned out, in the course of trying to liberate themselves from the past, to be wholly, fatally derivative. The legacy they leave to their Gen X and millennial children and grandchildren consists of repackaged hand-me-downs passed off as their own inventions. Every supposedly novel boomer doctrine was prefigured by, if not taken directly from, the genuinely revolutionary intellectual and social ferment of the late 19th and early 20th centuries: pacifism, libertinism, free love, drug experimentation, an enthusiasm for Eastern religions. By regarding the boomers as unique, even uniquely perfidious, are we not just playing into their fantasy of being extra special?
Christopher Caldwell, in his recent book The Age of Entitlement, notes that though boomer creativity has been highly overemphasized, their generation is in fact unique for being the first “to inhabit as adults the America newly built out of experimental attitudes toward race, sex, and world hegemony.” That is, they were the first generation who came to consciousness within the modernist dispensation, who took as natural the culture of constant upheaval and shock of the new that followed the world wars.
Caldwell’s analysis reinforces Andrews’ plea to her own contemporaries: “Millennials seem intent on making the boomers’ same mistakes.” But where the boomers inherited a world of largely intact but declining institutions whose destruction they gleefully accelerated, for millennials, America is already in ruins. “All of the civilizational cushioning that gave boomers the leeway to act out without permanently destroying the country has been eroded. … In all the fields touched by the six boomers profiled here—technology, entertainment, economics, academia, politics, law—what they passed on to their children was worse than what they inherited.”
If we want to do better, we’ll have to avoid the boomers’ mistake of thoughtlessly rejecting the values of the past while regurgitating the innovations of their parents. We’ll have to do what the boomers refused to do: learn to respect the wisdom of the distant past, to consider what we will leave our grandchildren, and to think outside the assumptions and prejudices of the present to forge our own link in the chain of civilization.
Joseph M. Keegin is a former schoolteacher, currently writing for Athwart and The Point and blogging at www.fxxfy.net. He lives in Chicago.