Monday, July 18, 2011

The Legacy of the Baby Boomers

The good news is: Tom Friedman has left the country. Even if his absence is only temporary, it still feels like good news.

Friedman was getting bored with the Washington production of the debt crisis, so he jetted off to Athens to watch the Greek tragedy that is currently being played out on its streets.

Friedman seems to prefer Greek tragedy to its American cousin. Or maybe he just likes to be where the action is.

Or where the drama is. Friedman sees the Washington production as akin to Broadway; he sees the Athenian action as an off-Broadway production.

The only rational conclusion we can draw is that Friedman has taken to channeling former Timesman Frank Rich.

In the real world, the debt ceiling debate in Washington is not really a drama. As William Kristol pointed out this morning, it’s more like a very-high-stakes poker game.

In a drama the outcome is predetermined; in a poker game it isn’t. They are not really the same thing. It is best not to confuse them.

One does understand why Friedman sees the events in Athens as street theater, but the multiple Euro-American debt crises are not going to be resolved on the streets. They might be dramatized on the streets. Let’s hope that they are not resolved there.

Still, Friedman gets the larger cultural point right. What is playing out in the American political debate and the Greek debt crisis is a clash of generations, a conflict between the baby boomer generation that was born in the aftermath of World War II and that generation’s children.

Apparently, today’s youth has just figured out that yesterday’s baby boomers ate their lunch and their dinner. They are not happy.

Yet, there is not a great deal that they can do, beyond putting on some compelling street theater.

Friedman explains:  “Indeed, if there is one sentiment that unites the crises in Europe and America it is a powerful sense of ‘baby boomers behaving badly’ — a powerful sense that the generation that came of age in the last 50 years, my generation, will be remembered most for the incredible bounty and freedom it received from its parents and the incredible debt burden and constraints it left on its kids.”

For the record I am not a baby-boomer. Tom Friedman is.

I like large concepts as much as the next guy, and I do have some fondness for sweeping generalizations, but we need to emphasize that there was a world of difference between post World War II America and post World War II Europe.

In Europe the post-war generation grew up in the midst of an immense rebuilding effort, coupled with what became almost a phobia about any kind of conflict.

For most of Europe war was not a heroic exercise. Europeans did not glory in the exploits of their military commanders.

In many parts of continental Europe the boomer generation did receive a legacy of freedom, but that freedom was purchased at the cost of an extraordinary amount of human destruction. And it was purchased by America and Great Britain and the Soviet Union, not by those who would enjoy it.

While European boomers did receive a great bounty, not just in freedom, but in prosperity, they did not receive it from their parents.

They received a legacy, almost as a gift, from an outside power. Parents of European boomers did not work or sweat or bleed to give their children a legacy of freedom and prosperity.

In America the cohort that is now called “the greatest generation” took the martial skills and the confidence it had gleaned from military service and transferred them to the task of building the nation.

In one sense this generation rebuilt America, but not from the ravages of war. It rebuilt an America that had nearly been destroyed by the Great Depression.

Somehow, their children, the baby boomers got it wrong. True enough, it felt entitled, but it also refused to emulate the example set by its parents. In fact, it set out to undermine it.  

The boomer generation started coming of age in the mid-1960s. Its first contribution to American culture was the anti-war movement and its attendant counterculture.

Again, things did not quite work out the same way in Europe.

This does not mean that Friedman is wrong about the clash of generations in Europe, but we should understand that things were quite different for the European boomer generation.

While we had our counterculture, France, to take an example, had May, ‘68. The two might have looked similar, but they came from different sources.

European youth were repudiating their parents, not because their parents had been successful, but because their many of their parents did not fight the Nazi juggernaut.

During the war many Europeans simply went along; they collaborated.

While America had made Charles de Gaulle a great war hero, French youth saw him as the symbol of French military humiliation.

To those parents who tried to explain their collaboration by complaining that there was nothing they could have done, European boomers responded by showing them... by engaging in terrorist actions. Italy had the terrorist group, the Red Brigades, and Germany had the Baader-Meinhof gang.

Things were quite different, and far less intellectually coherent in America. Strangely enough, the 1960s anti-war protest movement repudiated the values that had won America a victory in World War II.

In place of hard work and discipline, the boomer generation promoted an entitlement culture, one where it could live off of the labor of others. It tended to reject free market solutions in favor of liberal welfare programs. Through its counterculture it rejected the work ethic in favor of self-indulgent pleasure-seeking.

The story of America’s cultural revolution has often been told. I have written a few myself in my book Saving Face.

Where then did the American counterculture come from? How did the boomer generation, a generation that had been given everything, come to squander it?

While the counterculture had many and varied intellectual fathers, today I want to underscore importance of one man.

If you really want to change a culture, you need more than media and academic chatter. To effect real change, a nation needs to find a human being who symbolizes new values.

Few people think of him in this way, but the man who most fully symbolized the counterculture was John F. Kennedy.

I don’t think you had to be there to understand the radical difference between Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy. For the young people of the time, JFK was a beacon of youth. He was not an old gray father figure, but he was a new role model.

But JFK was also a model of self-indulgent entitlement. Having accomplished little of note in Congress, he was elected to an office he was barely qualified to hold. Living off his father’s fortune, he was a role model of "aristocratic" entitlement. For all I know his father’s will to make his son president had something to do with wanting the world to forget Joseph Kennedy’s support for Adolph Hitler.

As for John Kennedy, he was, at the very least, notoriously self-indulgent.

Keep in mind that the idea of entitlement is really a throwback to an aristocratic past where people lived off of their rents, and where work was for the bourgeoisie.

The socialist and communist contempt for the bourgeoisie derives from an aristocratic attitude, one that represented a pre-Industrial world, a world before the great wars.

Thus, I count the sense of entitlement as reactionary.

Despite what the polls say, JFK was hardly a great president. He was barely even a competent president. Yes, he did reform the tax code, but he also allowed Nikita Khrushchev to set up missiles in Cuba, thus precipitating a crisis that he would eventually handle well.

Among JFK’s other dubious achievements is the Vietnam War. Kennedy got us involved in Vietnam in the first place, and, after his death, the people who escalated the war were, after all, people he had brought into government.

As is well enough known, Vietnam was the legacy of “the best and the brightest,” and that means that it was mismanaged and mishandled by Ivy League intellectuals.

Today, very few Americans bother themselves with these inconvenient truths. Most Americans think that JFK was a great president.

There is no mystery about the continuing appeal and influence of this flawed man and mediocre president.

John Kennedy remains a powerful cultural influence because he was martyred in Dallas.

Without the martyrdom of JFK, I suspect that we would not have had the anti-war movement or the counterculture. These were, in effect, ways to keep the spirit of JFK alive, to show that he had not died in vain.

The counterculture was a cult to the memory of a martyred president. It has led us to be snookered by charismatic boomer politicians.

The cult is still sufficiently powerful to have given us two JFK presidential clones: Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

The latter was less qualified than the former, but both are great champions of entitlement. While the first was more self-indulgent than the latter, the latter is notoriously self-absorbed.

Of course, Tom Friedman does not quite see that the values he is denouncing are embodied by two presidents he admires.

No, he wants to blame the debt-ceiling crisis on none other than Eric Cantor, the House Republican majority leader.

In case you haven’t noticed, its been open season on Eric Cantor these days. Liberal intellectuals have singled him out for character assassination.

They seem to have decided to make Cantor the scapegoat for any new stock market decline or government bond default or late Social Security checks.

Tom Friedman shows the proper liberal contempt: “There are Eric Cantors everywhere — reckless baby boomer politicians for whom no crisis is too serious to set aside political ambition and ideology.”

Since when did Cantor, who represents the views of the vast majority of his Congressional delegation, become an ideological zealot with vast political ambitions? Is he as much of a zealot and as ambitious as Barack Obama?

So, one of the strongest opponents of the entitlement culture is being scapegoated.

You have to wonder what it is about Eric Cantor that has caused the liberal left to gang up on him? Could it have something to do with his religion?

Just a thought.


The Ghost said...

when you stray off the pantation, you should expect to be punished ...

Dennis said...

In the spirit of Sheila Jackson Lee, Al Sharpton, et al, "the only reason the Left and Democrats are going after Cantor is because he is Jewish." It is plain racism.

olinescu said...

Thank you for your analysis,
Now I understand the way the american corporation is organized: as a military model where the worker has a mission. Bad management everywhere or almost, where emphasis is put on results no matter the cost; it is like every small CEO has a big strategy to accomplish.
Maybe I am mistaken, but as a foreigner working in USA for the last 7 years I always asked myself about the origins of this military structure in the american company.
This is not a critique in any way, just an observation.

Pheobe said...

It won't work in actual fact, that is exactly what I suppose.