The baby boomer generation has recently come under much well-deserved fire and scrutiny. Given the popular nature of this criticism, however, much of it has reduced its object of critique to caricature. The boomers enjoyed postwar posterity and affluence and thus don’t understand the Millennials and their inability to get a stable job, get married, and live productive decent lives (after their period of understandable youthful rebellion, which the boomers also had). So goes one of the main lines of the largely bi-partisan pop-criticism: the boomers are narcissistic and naïve about the wildly different (and much worse) material conditions facing younger generations.
But before anti-boomerism was a popular meme embraced by a wide swath of the populace, it was a uniquely right-wing, conservative perspective. Everything boomers are most notorious for—the Civil Rights revolution, street protests and riots, embrace of mass media, drug culture, and the sexual revolution—is not only being embraced by a new generation of Americans, but aggressively doubled down on, if in a slightly variant form. Snarky utterances of “OK, boomer” by Bernie broads ring hollow in light of this.
In her debut book Boomers, Helen Andrews lends a powerful and courageous voice to this traditional conservative critique of the boomers, while infusing it with new verve and vigor. Using exemplary boomer representatives of different aspects of Boomer culture—Steve Jobs for tech-as-revolution, Aaron Sorkin for TV and mass media, Al Sharpton for Civil Rights, Camille Paglia for feminism and sex culture—Andrews deftly picks apart all the most cherished shibboleths of the Boomers.
Daring to tread where many others will not, she doesn’t merely decry boomer excesses—in the manner of conservatives who must always first acknowledge the majesty of Civil Rights before humbly suggesting that maybe, perhaps, it went a bit too far in some respects—but rather questions whether things like busing and judicial integration were wise endeavors at all, or successful even on their own terms. In a chapter on Sonia Sotomayor, Andrews rejects the “industrial manufacture of left-wing precedents” enabled by public interest law and the intrusion into private life that followed inexorably from Civil Rights jurisprudence and bureaucracy. In these respects, she echoes some of the recent arguments of Christopher Caldwell in his magisterial The Age of Entitlement, which similarly declines to qualify its denunciations of the Civil Rights revolution tout court. (Caldwell provides the first blurb on the book’s jacket cover.) Books like these represent an invigorated, confident wing of intellectual conservatism which, if not representative of the whole, is still significant and reason to be hopeful.
In the chapter on Al Sharpton, where much of her discussion on Civil Rights and race is found, Andrews excoriates not only James Baldwin’s putative intellectual heir Ta-Nehisi Coates for his lies about “white flight” (that it was racist, not simply a rational reaction to neighborhoods becoming violent and unlivable), but James Baldwin himself. Baldwin “was inspired not by oppression but by his personal neuroses”, borne of a traumatic childhood, “a complex about being hideously ugly,” and who later complained of “pathetic middle-aged affairs with unworthy gay lovers.” This isn’t for the purpose of flaunting the pain of a troubled man but to analyze the root of his mistaken interpretation of racial issues, which liberals take so seriously. And her conclusion is that “his error was to project his pain onto the black experience.” Al Sharpton himself, meanwhile, is taken to task for lauding “transformational” leaders like MLK while denouncing “transactional” leaders of the machine-politics, Mayor Daley mold—though the latter often delivered the tangible goods more consistently. This iconoclastic approach to such venerable figures in the liberal canon, especially surrounding the sensitive issue of race, is a quality rare in mainstream conservative writers.
Nor is this the only arena where Andrews struggles mightily against prevailing headwinds, contesting standard liberal and conservative narratives alike. In a chapter on Jeffrey Sachs she offers a robust defense of Empire, and an incisive critique of American post-war anti-imperialism throughout the third world, while simultaneously questioning the very construct of “colonialism.” Andrews locates much of the folly of recent American foreign policy in the refusal of America to explicitly act like the Empire that it clearly is, instead of deploying soft power, NGOs, and imperial euphemisms as substitutes. This cuts against liberal anti-colonialism as much as it does any conservative nationalism that ignores the persisting, and unavoidable, reality of Empire.
Andrews is in most ways conventionally conservative when it comes to the question of sexual politics, but even here she is unusually perceptive. When discussing Camille Paglia’s dissident brand of feminism, which she has some admiration for, Andrews nevertheless sees a monumental error in her blithe approach to sex. Paglia correctly recognizes that sex is inherently dangerous, and can’t be made undangerous, as liberal managerial types would attempt to do, but she erroneously concludes that one should therefore revel in it all the more, rather than be doubly cautious when dealing with it (a non sequitur if ever there was one). In the context of Paglia’s involvement in gay culture, Andrews brutally exposes this folly:
Gay culture might seem delightfully insouciant from the outside but she knew what was happening behind club doors. Later, she came to know how the whole story ended—in plague. And yet when she finally became famous, with two of her best friends dead from AIDS and the excesses of the bathhouse era tempered but by no means tamed, she persisted in arguing that the problem in America was too little sex, not too much.
At a certain point one can only diagnose willful blindness.
But where did the Boomers go wrong? What is the origin of their fantasy-driven approach to race, sex, and economics? Working backwards, the answers to that may be partially found in the first two subjects the book focuses on: Steve Jobs and Aaron Sorkin.
Masters of the two types of screen, digital and televisual respectively, both are apostles of mass media in its changing forms. The capture of desires and dreams through the power of mass media had shaped a whole generation, the first one raised with a television in the home. Digital mass media technology extended (and transformed) this realm even further. Like the proverbial fish asking “what is water?”, the Boomer is so immersed in the realm of televisual mass media that “its intrinsic biases—toward flash over illumination, sound bites over substance, the methods of advertising over the methods of persuasion—have become their basic intuitions.” With this being the case, it is it any wonder their (and now our) politics are so vulgar and commercial, so driven by appearance and sloganeering, and most of all unreal and dominated by fantasy? Nothing better explains their perpetual pathetic attempts to re-enact the social disruptions of the ‘60s and the heroic vision of themselves they absorbed through the television set.
Boomers, like The Age of Entitlement, is not only distinguished by its noble refusal to mouth the pieties and genuflect before the false gods of our age, but also by a strong literary sensibility and command of prose. Andrews is a sharp stylist and a withering critic. While she has wielded her pen to devastating effect before, in essays across various publications, her combative, take-no-prisoners style comes into its own with Boomers. To provide just a glimpse of it, she refers to the notorious atheist activist Madalyn Murray O’Hair as “a pudgy self-involved Communist [who] had almost single-handedly eliminated a practice [school prayer] older than the country whose Constitution she so brazenly manipulated.” Upon Jeffrey Sachs’ completion of a dubious foreign economic intervention in Poland, she writes that “he did what every great man does when he is overwhelmed by hubris. He decided to go to Russia.” Betty Friedan “was a self-obsessed malcontent who deliberately concealed her past as a fellow traveler of the Communist Party USA in order to make The Feminine Mystique seem like an honest memoir and not political propaganda.”
As uncompromisingly tough as she is in her approach toward them, Andrews nevertheless aims to avoid gratuitously piling on the Boomers. As with any generation or group, they had vices and virtues, successes and failures. Determining where they went wrong and how to avoid following in their path doesn’t entail singling them out as the root of all evil. Millennials could, of course, reject their vision rather than reiterate it in a new key, but so far they are not. There is plenty of blame to go around. (Where Gen X’s fits in is famously still somewhat nebulous and indeterminate; where zoomers shall land is too early to say.) Still, entire generations can leave a legacy that is ultimately ignoble, and the Boomers have done so, as this book forcefully argues. But so long as one still draws breath, Boomer or Millennial, X or Z, there is always one solution that can begin to rectify a lifetime of folly and destruction, and which is perpetually available to members of every generation: repentance.