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    Friday, February 03, 2006

    The Grating Generation

    Gary Kamiya reviews Leonard Steinhorn's new book, The Greater Generation : In Defense of the Baby Boom Legacy, and, naturally, I can't help but be swept up in the debate. (Nothing on I Hate Boomers yet, but it'll happen.)

    Let me say before I dig in that I primarily mean the middle-class boomers on up in my critique.

    Here are some interesting bits and thoughts:

    Steinhorn advances a double argument, demythologizing the Greatest Generation while praising the deeds of the boomers. In his view, the heroes of Tarawa and Bastogne dropped the ball when the war ended. ...

    By contrast, Steinhorn writes, boomers were passionate idealists who demanded that America live up to its ideals. Disillusioned by official lies about Vietnam, appalled by America's pervasive racism, rejecting double standards for and discrimination against women, unwilling to blindly accept authority, the boomers fought for a more tolerant, enlightened, transparent and just society.


    I can't, overall, disagree with Steinhorn that the so-called "Greatest Generation" was not ever-so great. When the war was over, it's true that everyone was too exhausted (when you keep in mind the lengths of tours of duty in WWII versus Vietnam, you can understand why) to jump right into agitating for social justice. So, they had a bunch of kids and, equipped with the GI Bill, spoiled them. That takes care of the 1940s and 1950s. But who really jumped in in the 1960s and 1970s to produce social change? The Montgomery Bus Boycott was in the 1950s and revealed serious unrest among blacks. This was an unrest which had been brewing amongst Greatest Generation blacks (and some whites and others) who saw African-American soldiers go off to serve their country for years overseas in two World Wars, only to return to their "home" and drink from separate drinking fountains and be limited to lower-paying, lower-prestige jobs, amongst so many other injustices. The unrest that led to the Bus Boycott led to the protests and demonstrations so well-publicized that brought on the 1964 Civil Rights Act. This all happened before the boomers were even out of high school and the leaders who really accomplished all this, Dr. King, Bobby and Jack Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, etc, were all firmly of the Greatest Generation.

    As for feminism, Simone de Beauvior published The Second Sex in 1952 and Betty Friedan The Feminine Mystique in 1963. Women's dissatisfaction with their circumscribed roles in the United States grew very much out of their having performed men's jobs during WWII and knowing their potential, as well as activism in the Communist Party and Civil Rights movement, wherein they were often excluded from policy-making in favor of bake sale duties.

    As far as homophobia is concerned, it was a small group of queers fighting, let's be honest. But the Mattachine Society for gay men was started by Harry Hay in 1950 and the Daughters of Bilitis, for lesbians, began in 1955.

    To act as though the most important work for blacks, women, and homosexuals was done by the baby boomers is to basically throw history out the window. As Kamiya mentions: The "when born" definition of the Boomers, 1946-1964, doesn't track perfectly with the "big years" of 1964-1968. ... the fact that so much of the boomer legacy was forged by men and women who not only did not belong to the boomer generation, but had a completely different worldview, is inconvenient for Steinhorn's neat division.

    Indeed, much of what the baby boomers built atop the foundations of Civil Rights, Feminism, Marxism, and Gay Rights, crumbled despite their concrete bases. The Black Power movement experienced short-lived success followed by devastating failure; Women's Liberation, with its radical spirit, made few substantive gains (major tenents like free childcare, the abolishing of beauty standards, have yet to be accomplished) and indeed did much to set back feminist goals by presenting an anything-goes, frivilous picture of feminists that remains foremost in people's minds today. Stonewall was a beautiful thing, but I don't think I'm alone in my view that it was the AIDS crisis (no doubt experienced disproportionately by baby boomers) that brought gay rights to the fore. And let's not pretend for a second that the nature of economic justice has changed much for the better since the 1960s. Don't even get me started on the Vietnam War- anyone who thinks the US left Vietnam because kids were waving signs and stomping on flags has a pretty skimpy view of the overall political climate in the early 1970s.

    This is not to say that nothing was accomplished by the baby boomers. Kamiya says:

    America's racial landscape is not as rosy as Steinhorn thinks. Steinhorn makes much of diversity training, multicultural college curriculums, and political correctness (which he seems to regard as a positive term). But these phenomena, while they may demonstrate the racial goodwill of the boomers -- or perhaps simply their dutifulness -- are mostly meaningless gestures. America has better racial manners now, but the largest problems remain unsolved.

    I am ALL FOR multicultural education and diversity training and the like, but it seems that baby boomers are just as often the people railing against political correctness. In fact, I can't think of a time I've heard the whining against PC coming from anyone under 40-something.

    Steinhorn's analysis is not fine-grained enough to distinguish between the various quite different offshoots of the ambiguously individualist boomer ethos. He focuses on the mainstream liberal branch, which accepts the role of government, believes in redistributive justice, and tends to vote Democratic. But an equally important branch is the libertarian, which rejects big government, sees redistribution of wealth as bureaucratic theft, and tends to vote independent. Libertarian boomers reject liberal pieties and do-gooderism, the qualities that make up the heart of Steinhorn's boomer virtue. Yet libertarianism and its cousin, an aggressive meritocracy, are increasingly dominant forces in American life. This is why affirmative action, for all its racial "virtue," is on life support, and more important, why Americans are unconcerned that the gulf between the rich and the poor keeps getting wider.

    Steinhorn's vision of a happy, decent and virtuous boomer America is accurate enough as far as it goes, but it leaves out one little thing: money. Steinhorn celebrates the way boomers remade the workplace, making it more individualistic, free, innovative and non-hierarchical. He denies that the boomers sold out: "[T]he media ... prefers the stereotypical storyline about Boomers, that they rejected capitalism in the Sixties and then sold out to become grasping yuppies in the Eighties, so they're not really a generation of reformers but a generation of self-inflated narcissists. Yet the truth is that most Boomers never really rejected capitalism in the Sixties and most never bathed in its excesses in the decades since -- from the Sixties onwards they've simply wanted to make our system more responsive and humane."

    As examples of this new, enlightened approach to the system, Steinhorn cites the trend toward open workstations, non-hierarchical org charts, companywide brainstorming, socially responsible investing, etc. All of which is no doubt true. But Steinhorn has nothing to say about the explosion of service-sector McJobs with dreadful health benefits, or downsizing, or indeed the whole phenomenon of essentially unchecked capitalism, in which a company's stock price and the profits its shareholders get are the sole determinants of whether thousands of employees are laid off. When it comes to these issues, far more fundamental than whether the boss allows his subordinates to vent, the boomers' vaunted virtue suddenly disappears. Whenever boomer virtue runs up against the bottom line, the bottom line tends to win. Steinhorn is right in insisting that this does not prove that boomers are hypocritical -- or at least not any more hypocritical than any other generation. Few boomers, as he points out, were Marxists in their youth. But this kind of, ah, accommodation does nudge the Boomer halo just a tad.

    Steinhorn is right that the boomers are responsible for a fundamental change in America's manners, and to a lesser degree in its mores. It is no longer acceptable to openly disparage ethnic groups or paternalize women. But manners, and even goodwill, do not run society. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the real impact of the boomer sensibility is on interpersonal relationships and subjective attitudes; it has little tangible impact on American society. Thus, boomers support diversity training (but not national programs to address inner-city poverty), multiculturalism (but they take no interest in foreign news or culture), and environmentalism (as long as they don't have to change their lifestyle at all).


    Indeed, it seems the major accomplishment of the baby boom generation is their deeply self-righteous individualism. I appreciate that sexual norms (monogamy, heterosexism, abstinence before marriage) were more openly broken by the baby boomers than previous generations. I appreciate the liberalizing of curriculum and do think it makes some difference. But what troubles me about this generation is their need to position themselves as so awesome, when many of their "accomplishments" were merely gestures, rather than social change of the type that does require some level of sacrifice. I mean, the best thing that the baby boomers could do to show that they have some kind of enduring sense of ethics is to dismantle Social Security NOW, before they get the payout, or figure out a way to fix it so that it can maintain for future generations (and not just mine, but my grandchildren's).

    It's also not that all baby boomers are these sell-out myopic asshats, but I'd venture to say the majority are. I respect John Kerry, for example, especially as he served in Vietnam and in the Senate; he didn't go around waving signs and then retire to suburban comfort so he could tell his kids about the glory days of the sixties when he, personally, and his friends, "changed everything". Steinhorn and others may mock the Greatest Generation for giving up after the war and going home and having babies (which is arguable, but still), but where did the boomers go after Vietnam? The very same damn place.

    (I haven't read Steinhorn's book and don't plan to because I don't have a strong enough stomach. So, what I am responding to is Kamiya's characterization. If the book ends up this greatly informative and nuanced take on the baby boom generation, I apologize. But "nuance" and "baby boom generation" have, in my experience, never ceased to be mutually exclusive.)

    Spiraling Toward Irrelevancy is pretty funny on the topic:

    The ad begins with a quote from Richard Shenkman (whoever he is): “What Tom Brokaw did for the Greatest Generation, Leonard Steinhorn does for Baby Boomers. It’s about time someone did.” Yes, because if the baby boom generation has only one great flaw, it’s that it doesn’t spend nearly enough time congratulating itself on its own wonderfulness. ... You’re meant to bypass the fact winning World War II and braving the Depression were pretty big deals. Because, you know, worrying about your next meal every day for a decade and saving the world aren’t throw away discussions. For that matter, neither were braving the Dust Bowl, surviving influenza pandemics (real ones, not the media created ones we have now), fighting the Korean War, landing on the moon, et cetera. But to linger over those points would take attention away from those who thought Woodstock was the greatest thing ever.

    4 Comments:

    Blogger Dark Daughta said...

    I hadn't heard about his book, but now, given the wonderful hack job you did, i'm excited. Hmmm, should I be reading him or more of you. Thanks for having an opinion and stating it in such a beautifully assertive way. Did my heart good to see the words of another flaming woman.

    7:17 AM  
    Blogger Danyel said...

    great, great post.

    9:17 PM  
    Blogger EL said...

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    10:18 AM  
    Blogger EL said...

    ahem, what I meant to say was,

    there's nothing like praise from two favorite bloggers in the morning!

    thanks, y'all

    12:59 PM  

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