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We Didn’t Start the Fire

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books and culture

We Didn’t Start the Fire

How much blame do the baby boomers deserve? February 12, 2021
The Social Order

Boomers: The Men and Women Who Promised Freedom and Delivered Disaster, by Helen Andrews (Sentinel, 256 pp., $27)

So, I’m a boomer, okay? I mean, a real Zelig of a boomer. I started Brandeis University just a few years after Abbie Hoffman and Angela Davis graduated. During my time there, two classmates, Kathryn Power and Susan Saxe, hooked up with a former convict studying at the campus on a government scholarship for parolees. Along with some of his ex-prison buddies, they robbed a National Guard Armory in Newburyport, Massachusetts and went on to kill a Boston police officer in a bank heist; Saxe and Power didn’t get their diplomas, but they did earn the distinction of being two of only ten women ever to make the FBI’s Most Wanted list. I saw the Who play at a dive club called the Boston Tea Party and an out-of-his-gourd Keith Moon—“Moon the Loon”—smash his drums into kindling. I was at the festival at Altamont outside of San Francisco, known for the moment when Mick Jagger’s Hell’s Angels “security guards,” hired in exchange for $500 worth of beer, stabbed and killed an 18-year-old African-American man.

I didn’t ask to be a boomer. To be honest, I wasn’t cut out for trippy, mud-sodden rock festivals or protests with doped-up yippies trying to levitate the Pentagon. (Like every other boomer—or so it seems—I was there, too.) I would have preferred growing up in a more peaceable, restrained era, like . . . well, let me get back to you on that.

Anyway, I get why so many millennials view boomers as the generational equivalent of a plague of locusts. Helen Andrews, author of the recently published Boomers: The Men and Women Who Promised Freedom and Delivered Disaster, makes an especially strong case for boomer perfidy. Her witty and cultivated prose is itself a rebuke to gonzo boomers’ hyperventilating non sequiturs. She aims to own the boomers, and there’s no denying that she succeeds—up to a point.

Who wouldn’t agree that we were a lucky lot? America was ready to escape the painful memories of the Great Depression and World War II and move on to a brighter future. Our parents’ fecundity—an average of more than 4 million babies per year between 1945 and 1964—reflected their optimism. The fathers I knew, including my own, avoided talking about their wartime experiences partly because men of the time admired masculine restraint but also to protect this indulged generation from the world’s horrors. It helped their cause that the country was about to enter a long period of economic growth and levels of affluence unknown in human history. The boomers inherited “prosperity, social cohesion, and functioning institutions,” writes Andrews, and with many obvious caveats, she’s right.

Andrews spurns a more predictable narrative of protests, riots, and crazy antics in favor of six essay portraits of men and women, each representing “some aspect of the boomer tragedy.” Her model is Lytton Strachey’s 1918 Eminent Victorians, an irreverent profile of four Victorian worthies that made its author one of the best-known cultural figures of his time. Andrews’s subjects, too, are prominent figures, and she finds something to admire in each. Still, they make up a surprising group: Steve Jobs, Aaron Sorkin, celebrity scholar Camille Paglia, development economist Jeffrey Sachs, Al Sharpton, and Sonia Sotomayor wouldn’t seem to have much in common, nor to represent boomerism as popularly understood.

But Andrews has a clear set of criticisms about the boomers well served by these particular notables. In a nutshell, the boomer generation accomplished the “most dramatic sundering of Western civilization since the Protestant Reformation.” Boomer market power gave rise to a popular culture that devoured both the high and folk culture of the past. The church, the family, a grounded political establishment, the humanities canon, and personal restraint all crumbled into barely recognizable wreckage. The boomers deluded themselves into thinking that they were acting for the good of mankind; in fact, they were sure of it. Andrews’ book is a cri de coeur from children left behind in the ruins, telling their parents that their idealism was a sham.

Her first subject, Steve Jobs, nicely illustrates her theme. In crude outline, Jobs’s biography is classic boomer–bourgeois bohemian: a Bob Dylan-obsessed, vegan hippie grows up to become a wealthy businessman who still manages to project hipster cool. Of course, that outline fails to capture the genius of the Apple founder who married boomer rebellion and corporate ambition. His genuinely amazing products were more like inventions than mere merchandise. But he also understood exactly how to flatter the self-image of his increasingly affluent customer base. “Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers,” went that famous 1997 “Think Different” ad. “The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo.” Hordes of these “misfits” shelled out $1,200 to buy their iMacs. Andrews respects Jobs as a maker, not a taker; while his tear-it-all-down peers were getting high, he built one of the most successful businesses in American history.

Aaron Sorkin comes across as the most honestly idealistic of the group. He seemed to share in the boomer fantasy of political innocence and of the glamour of a workaholic White House that he immortalized in The West Wing. Sachs, Sharpton, and Sotomayor, on the other hand, appear more like climbers who hoisted their reputations by exploiting their generation’s idealism. Andrews has a knack for finding the sharp anecdote to puncture the arrogance and hypocrisy of her subjects. During one of his innumerable global trips taken to improve the worlds’ economies—quite unsuccessfully, in Andrews’s telling—the benevolent Sachs relaxed in the waiting room of Russian Minister of Finance Yegor Gaidar. That is, “until the minister’s secretary came over and asked him, in front of a roomful of patiently waiting officials, ‘Excuse me, Mr. Sachs, would you please take your feet off my table.’” Sotomayor used her outsider status as a tool for bullying a liberal-minded establishment. A few days after Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s husband died, Sotomayor, an attention-hound on the bench as well as off, insisted that the grieving jurist salsa dance with her in front of their embarrassed colleagues.

Like most writers with a strong point of view, Andrews does some cherry picking. Her portrait of Camille Paglia, in particular, is marred by the practice. “Paglia has dabbled in decadence as if it were a game,” Andrews writes. And it’s true that Paglia worshipped the turn-of-the-century English decadents Oscar Wilde and Walter Pater. She spent a lot of time hanging out in gay bars and railing against the “prudery” of her generation of feminists. Still, to say she had “rosy expectations of human sexuality,” as Andrews does, is to miss the real scholar by a mile. Paglia understood Western civilization as a grand effort to keep wild and indifferent nature at bay. She believed her generation was naïve to the reality of nature and especially when it manifested itself in sexual relations, which could never be completely free of aggression or cruelty. Hence, her revulsion for Foucaldian academics hostile to their civilizational inheritance—as their woke millennial successors still are. “The sixties attempted a return to nature that ended in disaster,” Paglia has written. And more provocatively: “Everyone of my generation who preached free love is responsible for AIDS.” Not so rosy.

More egregious is Andrews’s slighting of Vietnam, a word that makes only fleeting appearances in Boomers. More than any other single cause, the war lit the boomer rebellion against their elders. Young men just out of high school were drafted to fight an unwinnable, brutal war in a country that few could identify on a map and whose history and culture were a mystery to them, amid persistent equivocations by the government. Nightly viewing of the napalming and killing of young and old civilians, even when described in the calming voice of Walter Cronkite, might have been enough to bring Andrews herself out into the streets.

In fact, one senses a resemblance between the boomers’ revolt against the Vietnam-era establishment and Andrews’s own generational discontent. David Halberstam’s influential 1972 takedown of that establishment, The Best and the Brightest, describes how an arrogant technocratic elite brought chaos to the next generation. Sound familiar? In fact, Halberstam’s book could be seen as doing to the 1950s elites what the antiwar Lytton Strachey did to the bellicose Victorians. Given Andrews’s identification with the acid-penned Strachey, it’s ironic that many boomers regarded him and his coterie of artsy English intellectuals known as the Bloomsbury Group as kindred spirits—hippies but with money and pedigree.

Generational studies are a fine genre; shared historical environments do have a great impact on our perceptions. But generations don’t always stay in their assigned lanes. Boomers did not invent their rebellion ex nihilo. Philosopher Herbert Marcuse (born in 1898), psychologist Abraham Maslow (1908), and media theorist/futurist Marshall McLuhan (1911) had a powerful influence on their thinking—and Rousseau was in the air, whether they knew it or not. Feminist boomers took cues from Simone de Beauvoir (1908), Betty Friedan (1921), and Gloria Steinem (1934). Andrews blames the boomers for the porn-a-thon that has become an accepted part of American leisure. But as she herself demonstrates, it was Justice William O. Douglas who, in 1966, opened the door to that outcome when he decided that the long-banned Fanny Hill had redeeming social value. Douglas was born in 1898.

All of which raises the questions I hinted at above: were boomers really singularly greedy, sanctimonious, and deluded—and was there ever actually a time when a generation could simply live peacefully and gratefully off the gifts of the past? I doubt it, but why listen to me? I’m a boomer.

Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

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