Saturday, August 10, 2019

Judging the Boomer Generation

David Brooks does not explain why he thinks we should evaluate the contributions, positive and negative, of the Baby Boom generation. Being as I am not a Boomer, I am happy to join in. For the record, Brooks himself is too young to be a Boomer, a member of the generation born after World War II through around 1960.

At the least we should say that the Boomers, the children of what Tom Brokaw called The Greatest Generation, have not lived up to the achievements of their parents. The Greatest Generation defeated Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan and Fascist Italy. The Boomers did not quite lose in Vietnam. Most of them refused to fight. And severely disparaged those who did. As Winston Churchill once said: it's better to fight nobly and lose than to refuse to fight at all.

Brooks does not notice that the children of the Boomer generation comprise what are now called the millennials. About the current state of the millennial generation, no one should feel proud.

When it comes to politics, the Boomer generation does not look very good. Brooks notes, sagely:

The baby boomer political era began in 1992, with the election of Bill Clinton. In the five years before that, these leaders dominated world politics: Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Mikhail Gorbachev, Nelson Mandela, John Paul II, Helmut Kohl and Fran├žois Mitterrand.

Baby boomers have been unable to match that level of talent. During the years of boomer dominance — from Bill Clinton through Donald Trump — America’s political institutions have become dysfunctional, civic debate has crumbled, debt has soared and few major pieces of legislation have passed.

Obviously, Mitterand was not a titan walking on the world stage. And Brooks managed to leave out Deng Xiaoping… probably the greatest economic reformer in world history.

And let’s not forget, the Greatest Generation gave us our first pretty-boy celebrity president in John F. Kennedy. And it gave us Lyndon Johnson. 

Yet, Brooks is correct to point out that under the aegis of the Boomer generation politics and America’s institutions have become dysfunctional. We are living on massive and unsustainable debt and no longer engage in civil civic debate.

Why should this be the case? Were I to hazard a hypothesis, I suggest that the Boomers were almost all brought up according to the principles laid down in Benjamin Spock’s book on childrearing. The book sold in the tens of millions. It’s goal was bring up children to be individually self-actualized, not to conform to societal norms and to follow cultural rules. 

During the Vietnam War, some thinkers did suggest that the counterculture grew naturally out of Spockean childrearing practices. I have no way to test the hypothesis, but it makes some sense.

Brooks notes that Boomers distrust institutions. And they have little use for codes of correct conduct. Thus, they were happy to promote movements that fought to overthrow the social order… sometimes for good, sometimes for less good.

Boomers are bad at politics because they distrust institutions. But this has made them good at leading decentralized social movements: environmental, feminist, civil rights, L.G.B.T.Q. rights.

One lesson of the age is that when all media are focused on left-wing, elite-approved movements, it’s important to notice the people quietly reacting against them. The right-leaning boomer movements are just as important: the conservative movement, the religious right, the Tea Party movement, the pro-life and gun rights movements, the populist revolt.

Brooks gives the Boomers an A for these movements, but, however much we admire them all, they have still rendered the nation’s institutions dysfunctional. They have been built on the principle that our institutions and our government is so corrupt that it cannot solve problems. This is not a useful thought. About that no one should be proud.

Apparently, the Boomers have compensated for it all by contributing massive to popular culture. True enough, the generation that refused to fight in Vietnam-- about that Brooks has nothing to say-- tried to compensate by creating better rock music, but still:

It makes sense that a generation raised on rock 'n' roll and TV would put its energy into popular culture. The boomer generation has produced a string of greats who can withstand comparison with members of any other generation: Steven Spielberg, Meryl Streep, Stephen King, Jimi Hendrix, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Oprah, Ron Howard, Madonna, Stevie Wonder and on and on.

Of course, no other previous generation was raised on television. And technology allowed the Boomer generation to do things with film that no previous generation could possibly do.
In any event, this feels like a sop to the ego of Boomers who are too delicate to recognize that they did not do all that well.

Interestingly, and aptly, Brooks notes that the Boomer generation has not produced very much of real value in the world of high culture, such as it is.

The boomers entered college just as universities were expanding and becoming more specialized and professionalized. This produced the most educated generation up to that time, but the specialization and ghettoization of intellectual and artistic life took its toll on the nation’s culture.

It’s not that people aren’t producing good work, but its influence tends to be confined to the academy or specialized subcultures. Art, classical music and novels have lost cultural influence. Boomer writers do not play the same roles as Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Maya Angelou, Thomas Pynchon, Philip Larkin, John Updike and Toni Morrison. Many of the most influential living philosophers are pre-boomer — like Amartya Sen, Charles Taylor and Alasdair MacIntyre.

Of course, the Boomer generation cared far more for popular culture than it did for high culture. It sought to influence the popular mind, the general public, and did not strive for true and enduring excellence. One reason might be, if I were to speculate, that Boomers were less interested in greatness and more interested in manipulating public opinion. Why would that have been so?

For one, they had copped out of a war and had happily accepted defeat in Vietnam. Thus, their primary goal was to ensure that the public at large did not see them as cowards, unworthy of the legacy bequeathed them by their parents.

Brooks continues to say that the Boomers excelled in technological innovation. About that there can be little doubt:

Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web. Teams led by Francis Collins and Craig Venter decoded the genetic sequence. Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Steve Wozniak are among a great cloud of boomer tech innovators. Robert Jarvik, who developed the implantable heart, stands in for all those doing amazing work in medical innovation.

When it comes to lifestyle innovations, Brooks credits the Boomers with many successes, though they feel rather dubious to me, almost as though he had simply gotten tired:

This isn’t even close. Restaurants are much better now. Products and buildings are designed in more interesting ways. Coffee, ice cream and all else is far more varied and delicious.

Heaven knows how we can judge the different qualities of restaurants and coffee and ice cream. Are fool products fresher than they were? How can we judge ice cream now and then? An old Latin saying says: De gustibus non est disputandum. It means: there’s no arguing with taste. Brooks would have done better to skip this one. He might be arguing that, what with the advent of Starbucks, coffee tastes better. But still, better than what… than French expresso? 

Besides, a culture that judges itself in terms of how many varieties of cheese it has is decadent. See the luminous example of France. 

Brooks is none too happy with the changes in manners and morals. Neither am I.

He begins with manners:

In the realm of manners, boomers brought on the triumph of the casual. Everything that was refined, stuffy, formal and stiff was loosened up by the boomers, and this is very good.
No, it is not very good. Social interactions are infested with rudeness, discourtesy, tactlessness, shameless and incivility. These are rationalized by the Boomer generation as a step toward liberation from social customs. They are a nail in the coffin of social harmony. 
As for what Brooks calls morals, allow him:

In the realm of morals, things are more complicated. If the ethos of the silent generation was “We’re all in this together” and the code was self-effacement (“I’m nobody better than anybody else, but nobody’s better than me”), then the ethos of the boomers is “I’m free to be myself” and the code is “Do you see how special I am?”

Personal freedom has been the master trend for this generation. That was a legitimate reaction against conformity. On the other hand, there is more isolation, bitterness and division. The ethos of the meritocracy filled the values void left by the retreat of any shared moral vocabulary.

I have no idea where Brooks found the sentence: “I’m nobody better than anybody else…” but it looks to be a typo, or a clear instance of garbled syntax. Doesn’t the New York Times have any editors any more. 

As for self-effacement, military organizations did have strict hierarchies.... thus I have no idea what Brooks is talking about. 

And yet, the Boomer generation did rebel against conformity. And, Brooks does not understand that undoing conformity to advance the casual was not legitimate and did not represent a civilizational advance. Being who you are and being special is not quite the same as being a responsible adult and a loyal citizen of the republic.

Brooks gives the Boomer generation a B… for what, I do not know:

As a generation, boomers have excelled at the material things that make life pleasant, convenient, long and fun. They have struggled in the realms that other civilizations would have considered more profound: governance, philosophy, art and public morality.

Other civilizations have considered these matters more profound because they are more profound. Boomers have excelled in the superficial, though they have happily elevated the superficial and the decadent to a more exalted status.

As for the most prominent Boomers, Brooks begins with a notably talented politician, named Bill Clinton. He does not remark that Clinton was an accused rapist, a serial sexual harasser and a model of human decadence. He does not note that Bill Clinton dodged the Vietnam draft. And he does not add that Clinton’s feckless leadership allowed al Qaeda to fester.

He adds Madonna and Steven Spielberg, even though no one would serious compare their contributes to those of Dwight Eisenhower or George Marshall. Pop culture icons are not great statesmen or great leaders. They are the entertainment.

Then again, perhaps that will be the ultimate Boomer legacy: turning life into nonstop entertainment. It’s nothing to be proud of.


David Foster said...

It is interesting to speculate about whether there was more Conformity in the 1950s (the era of the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit), versus today. I'd be inclined to think that there is really more Conformity today, except:

I ran across a William Whyte article in which he mentions a documentary put out by Monsanto. This would have been sometime around 1952. “It was a pretty good film, but what did it have to do about Monsanto’s research–much of which has been most imaginative? In one part of the picture you see five young men in white coats conferring around a microscope. The voice on the sound track rings out boldy, “No geniuses here. Just a bunch of good American working together.”

To modern ears, this is just bizarre. I doubt that very many companies would want to make such an assertion about their researchers today.

To the extent that this level of "don't be a standout" was common, there had to be some reaction in the other direction.

Sam L. said...

"Brooks gives the Boomer generation a B… for what, I do not know:" It's a B for "Brooks", and otherwise meaningless.
I'm a war baby. I concluded that Brooks was pretty useless, and the NYT is a perfect place for him.

The voice on the sound track rings out boldy, “No geniuses here. Just a bunch of good American working together.” I read this as "We're a team, working together."