The story of America over the last half-century is the story of the baby boomers. Born between 1946 and 1964, the boomers were, for more than 50 years, the country’s largest generational cohort, and though millennials, born 1981-1996, finally overtook them last year, the boomers remain in many ways the most important. Their money still drives our economy, their concerns still dominate our politics, and the stories they tell themselves about our country and its history are still, by and large, the stories that children are taught in schools today. When Joe Biden is sworn into office on Wednesday, he will be our first nonboomer president since George H.W. Bush, only because Biden, born in 1942, is technically a member of the preboomer silent generation. His four predecessors, whatever the differences among them, were and are boomers to their core.
But what is the essence of their boomerism? And why, as the boomers age into retirement, are their children and grandchildren turning against them? The essayist, former Washington Examiner magazine editor, and millennial Helen Andrews attempts to answer this question in Boomers, a scathing and witty new broadside against America’s most mythologized and self-mythologizing generation.
If you’re at all familiar with Andrews’s previous work, you’ll know she’s not one to mince words. “The baby boomers,” she writes early in the book, “have been responsible for the most dramatic sundering of Western civilization since the Protestant Reformation.” Before they came along, according to Andrews, America was rich, democratic, unified, pious, and optimistic about the future; now, we are a divided nation of lonely, indebted, TV-and-pornography-addled depressives, so brainwashed by self-serving boomer propaganda that we can barely comprehend the enormity of what has been done to us. Perhaps worst of all, the boomers themselves don’t understand what they’ve done — they still think of themselves as heroes. Andrews would like to correct the record before they die.
Andrews’s spiritual guide is British critic Lytton Strachey, who, in his 1918 bestseller Eminent Victorians, skewered a handful of universally beloved celebrities of the late 19th century, whose vanities and delusions (or so Strachey believed) had helped lead Britain into the horrors of the First World War. Andrews adopts a similar method. Her book consists of six essay-length profiles of prominent boomers — Steve Jobs, Aaron Sorkin, Jeffrey Sachs, Camille Paglia, Al Sharpton, and Sonia Sotomayor — whose biographies exemplify (in the fields of technology, entertainment, economics, academia, politics, and law) what, for Andrews, is the essential tragedy of the boomers: “They tried to liberate us” from a past they never really bothered to understand in the first place, and “instead of freedom, they left behind chaos.”
Andrews is a lively stylist with a taste for black humor and barbed asides, and she effectively lays waste to a great deal of self-serving boomer fluff. Steve Jobs, with his combination of naive hippie idealism and cutthroat, borderline sociopathic ambition, was not, as Jon Stewart asserted in 2010, a traitor to his generation’s values but the apotheosis of them: He became fantastically rich and powerful while continuing to indulge in the antiestablishment posing of the counterculture, a pose that allowed him and his colleagues in Silicon Valley to turn a blind eye to the neofeudal society they were creating in California. Meanwhile, Jeffrey Sachs, the celebrity development economist, international “shock therapy” consultant, and Wall Street do-gooder, is, in Andrews’s telling, a synecdoche for all the ways in which the boomers have claimed to end the injustices of the past while in fact carrying them on, only without the past’s moderating virtues. Sachs, like the liberal imperialists of the Victorian age, has spent his career traveling the globe dispensing condescending advice to foreigners on how to live their lives and organize their economies — except Sachs, unlike the old imperialists, has never had to take any responsibility for what happens when they actually follow his advice. When Charles Gordon died at Khartoum in 1885, Andrews notes, at least he was technically under the authority of the khedive of Egypt. And at least he was there, personally, in the Sudan, not hiding in Cambridge firing off bullying emails to his critics.
Andrews, a religious conservative, also blames the boomers for, among other sins, ushering in an age of widespread atheism, anomie, infertility, sexual license, and lack of meaningful connection to the past. She takes the celebrity academic Paglia, sometimes considered a conservative for her anti-feminist invective, to task over her glib enthusiasm for prostitution, pornography, hypersexualized pop culture, and other markers of “decadence.” Paglia’s is, Andrews writes, a “mauve decadence,” by which she means that Paglia, the supposedly hard-nosed controversialist, is even more naive than the feminists she rails against. In contrast to the French decadents of the late 19th century (or even modern ones, such as the novelist Michel Houellebecq), who understood their love of mental and physical corruption as a symptom of personal and social decay, Paglia and her liberationist boomer fellows persist in believing there’s no problem a more unrestrained id can’t solve — even today, when “men under forty [are] developing erectile dysfunction at unprecedented rates from watching too much Pornhub.” Sadly — but fittingly, Andrews suggests — Paglia’s own brain seems to have been rotted by the cultural junk food she has spent most of her life promoting. She has scarcely published a new idea since the early 1990s, and the follow-up to her opus Sexual Personae, which she claims to have finished writing in 1981, is yet to appear in print.
But Andrews is nothing if not original, and her book is full of surprises for anyone expecting a dreary list of think tank talking points. One might expect her chapter on Al Sharpton to complain of his glorified shakedowns of businesses, his boosting of hoaxes such as the Tawana Brawley rape case, and his troubles with the IRS, as in fact it does. But the chapter’s centerpiece is a smart and unexpected indictment of what Andrews takes to be Sharpton’s most quintessentially boomerish trait: his belief that, when it comes to race relations and civil rights, we need “transformational” rather than “transactional” leadership. On the contrary, Andrews argues, our country’s most historically successful vehicle for the uplift of the poor and marginalized has been one of its least idealistic: the big-city political machine, which, in her telling, used to provide a democratically legitimate means for hashing out messy disputes among a city’s different ethnic and racial groups. What boomers such as Sharpton have done is to discredit the sort of tawdry horse-trading that made that system work. Instead, we get highly charged symbolic conflicts that do little practical good but allow everyone to maintain their moral purity. We still get the horse-trading, too (see: Sharpton’s shakedowns). It’s just less effective, and we have to lie to ourselves about it.
Boomers, however, is not a simple polemic. Andrews argues that her subjects have, for the most part, done more harm than good, but she does not believe they are especially evil, stupid, or venial. Rather, she is interested in what she sees as the particular tragedy of the boomers: that they did what they did not out of malice or greed but out of naivety, obliviousness, and mundane self-regard. They were born into what, for millennials accustomed to debt and the skyrocketing cost of a middle-class life, was an almost unimaginable degree of security and prosperity, and their response was to take it all for granted — to assume that the country surrounding them was so rich and solid that it would remain that way forever; that they could cut corners, act out, rebel, destroy, critique, and transform without any thought for the consequences. They are, in Andrews’s view, a generation of perpetual children, forever stuck in the belief that their actions don’t really matter because somewhere, out there, the real adults are ready to clean up after them.
In this, Andrews picks up on a thread from Christopher Caldwell’s The Age of Entitlement, from January of last year, which, in addition to its more headline-grabbing argument about civil rights law as a “second constitution,” sought to frame U.S. history since the 1960s as the story of boomers as they moved from youthful rebellion (the ‘60s) to young-adult hedonism (the ‘70s) to midcareer striving (the ‘80s) to retirement and beyond. (Caldwell, Andrews mentions in the acknowledgments, was an early reader of Boomers.) If there’s one minor criticism I have of Boomers, it’s that in it, Andrews reserves her critical firepower for figures who are all, with the partial exception of Paglia, creatures of the center-left establishment. But as Caldwell argued, Reaganism, with its sunny belief in the power of free markets to solve all contradictions, was no less a boomer ideology than the technocratic liberalism we associate with Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. The millennial libertarians whose ideology boils down to sex, drugs, and Bitcoin are just as much the feral children of the boomer revolution as are the would-be Red Guards Andrews savages in her final chapter, and I would have enjoyed reading Andrews’s take on so boomerish a figure as, say, Rush Limbaugh.
But that’s a minor complaint for what is, throughout, a wide-ranging, thought-provoking, and often wickedly funny book. As we millennials age into the height of our powers, the boomers can only pray that the majority of us will remain too distracted by video games and social media, too bamboozled by the myths they’ve told us about themselves, to look at them, as Andrews does here, with a clear and critical eye.
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