In 2018, a majority of millennials said boomers had ‘made things worse’ for their generation. They tried to liberate us, and instead of freedom they left behind chaos.
In all fields touched by the six boomers profiled here---technology, entertainment, economics, academia, politics, law---what they passed on to their children was worse than what they inherited.
Andrews is senior editor at The American Conservative, and her book is a jeremiad, with the flavour of Old Testament divine justice, a call for owning up to one’s sins. The sins are many and the style is refreshingly unapologetically angry. The boomers should not be allowed to shuffle off the world stage until they have been made to regret their actions… In a just world there would be cosmic retribution for taking Jobs’s life’s work and turning it to the most boomerish purposes imaginable.
Andrews makes the telling point that the outsize size of post-WWII population growth meant that the boomers (born 1945--1964, today's 57--76 year olds) dwarfed and still dwarf all other population groups (voting bloc, ad demographic, books, cars, entertainment). And their entrenched position gives them the advantage of already being entrenched. It’s not so much a series of generations, but one big generation moving from one phase of life to the next, dragging the rest of us with it. Virtually all positions of control, political, economic, cultural, are held by boomers. Can we be brought to account (I'm born in 1951) before we die blissful but corrupt?
Even the successes touted -- ending the Vietnam war, civil rights, welfare, environment -- look dubious in retrospect. The massive protests of the 60s--70s had no real effect on the war, which carried on gruesomely much like Afghanistan today, killing millions and destroying Cambodia even as troops came back in shameful retreat. Civil rights reforms barely scratched the surface of entrenched racism, boomer Clinton presided over the dismantling of welfare and the selling out of the working class with NAFTA and off-shoring of production and profits. Mother Earth is going to hell in a hand basket.
The peace and environmental movements remains alive, but earlier generations were just as articulate about both, and similarly ineffectual. Nonetheless, they remain as pillars of any movement forward, and the boomers played their roles, good and bad. Good intentions don't always lead to hell. As a boomer, I resent being lumped together with ineffectual, lazy, corrupt, misguided, etc.
So there is lots of bile here from a post-boomer, but there’s no question that that our generation has a lot to account for, now that we are approaching Judgment Day ourselves, even as our world collapses in slow motion around us. Andrews marshals her stats (lots of fascinating details), and shows how the past 76 years have seen dramatic changes, with boomers centrestage. McLuhan’s global village with its mass TV/film culture is every bit as revolutionary as Gutenberg’s printing press, and, as with the printing press (and all technology), the good comes with the bad.
It’s not so much that boomers intended all this, or intended better but failed, but rather that the system itself produced the negative result, that the wars and baby boom after WWII were the (il)logical workings of the system, and that attempts to avert the disaster we see today were too little, too late to prevent it. There is little 'free will' at the best of times, and that approaches zero under capitalism. (It's the economy, stupid!)
Andrews finds an intriguing parallel with her selection of ‘eminent boomers’: Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians, published in 1918, as Britons looked back in horror at what they had done in the past 4 years of gruesome murder, and wanted to know who to blame. Strachey chose three men and a woman who had until then been regarded as heroes, who all exposed or were instrumental in the failings of Victorian society. His icons were religious (Cardinal Manning), educational (Thomas Arnold), health (Florence Nightingale) and military (Charles Gordon). While Manning represents a turn against the imperialism of Victoria times, the others were immersed in it, even the Lady with the Lamp contributed to the nightmare of WWI (by saving lives to be sent back until death/ mutilation). These ‘elegant, energetic character assassinations destroyed for ever the pretensions of the Victorian age to moral supremacy.’i
Strachey was an aesthete, ‘amused’ by only ‘wit and the flesh’, sending up these heroes ironically. His anti-war and anti-conscription activities led him to conclude that the Victorian worthies had not just been hypocrites, but that they had bequeathed to his generation the 'profoundly evil' system 'by which it is sought to settle international disputes by force'.ii A first-class peacenik. Yet he fails to point to a way out of the impasse, with no hint of revolution as an alternate reality, despite the Russian revolution taking place even as he was publishing. Eminent Victorians was a fitting launch to the roaring 20s and slide into Armageddon. Andrews is also bitter, out for blood, but no aesthete. No relishing the ironies of her icons. But, like Strachey, also failing to see a way out of our impasse.
Andrews’ victims are Steve Jobs, Aaron Sorkin Jeffrey Sachs, Camille Paglia, Al Sharpton, Sonia Sotomayor. Their victims are the millennials (1980+), who, Andrews argues, are using the laid-back liberalism of their parents/ grandparents against them, in a perverse version of ‘the revolution eating its children'. I.e., the revolution eating its parents. The cult leaders of the 1960s+ ate the old left communist revolutionaries, leaving only ‘drugs, sex and rock&roll’, which has deformed into ‘cultural Marxism’ today, obsessed with the cult of the individual, designer sex, erasing the age-old male-female into LGBTQIA for the masses, as we all slide into Armageddon.
Drowning in Ironies
Steve Jobs: 'Remember in the 60s ‘Power to the people’? By building affordable personal computers and putting one in every hand, i’m giving people power.'
But what was this power? It is largely used to watch porn, gamble, chat. Jobs was anti-porn, but the biggest Democratic donors in California, outside Silicon Valley and Hollywood, are in the porn industry. Jobs tried to keep porn out: 'It’s not about freedom. It’s about Apple trying to do the right thing for its users.'
Good luck with that. Gamblers on screens have 3x the addiction rate to those on tables. The system is now 'limbic capitalism', redirecting productive energies into addicting and servicing addictions. Video games fill the empty hours of men without girlfriends or jobs, providing clear goals and ways to achieve fake achievements, providing real feelings of contentment via dopamine hits, like lab rats who press the addiction button until they die of starvation or exhaustion. Jobs intended to transform the world in his image (smart, clean living i.e., no porno) but ended up with a dumbed-down nation addicted to online vice.
He wanted to create a company that would outlive him. Yes, Jobs lives on through the Apple corporation but is that so different from the old-fashioned tribe? Only now soulless. We have to live in the world Silicon Valley made, a world that gives free rein to the boomers’ worst vices, even the ones Jobs himself did not share. What an immortality. Kinda like hell, to be cursed into eternity.
Jobs saw Apple as an 'Ellis Island company' (i.e., outcasts/ misfits) of world citizens, but in reality this meant visa lobbying for high-skilled immigrant workers instead of native-born Americans, and out-sourcing jobs to (authoritarian, nationalist) China, leaving (freedom loving) Americans jobless.
Aaron Sorkin: A brilliant playwright, he was spooked when he how his West Wing became the raw material for US politics under Obama, life imitating art. He believes that decisions of television executives and producers mean more, to more people than the decisions of politicians, e.g., the creators of Will & Grace did more to make gay marriage a reality than political lobbying. Sure, he inadvertently had the ear of politicians, but he realized this was a reduction of politics to communications, rule by opinion polls and deep state media. Perfect for capitalism. Sorkin quit TV in disgust, sticking to movies.
Camille Paglia: Paglia is a big fan of Oscar Wilde, master of irony, and her own life mirrors his. Just as Wilde publicly condemned his past while in prison ('I was living a life unworthy of an artist'), in her later years Paglia regrets 'dabbling in decadence as if it were a game.' She came to regret her championing of porn and prostitution, violence and S&M as healthy ways to improve society's sex life. Porn exploded starting with the end of the Lady Chatterley's Lover ban in 1959 and the subsequent end of virtually all censorship with the spread of the internet. Children can easily see the most violent and degrading sex acts now. The average age at which a young person first sees porn is 11, and it is far more depraved than what their parents grew up on.
Paglia thought that prostitution would be unnecessary because 'emancipated female desire would expand to meet men's needs.' But instead, porn and prostitution were accompanied by erectile dysfunction. The age-old admonitions against masturbation have some truth. In reviewing the 20th anniversary reissue of Postman's 1985 Amusing Ourselves to Death, she dismissed her glib embrace of pop culture: 'As a fervent evangelist of the age of Hollywood, I publicly opposed Neil Postman's dark picture of our media-saturated future. But time has proved Postman right. He accurately foresaw that the young would inherit a frantically all-consuming media culture of glitz, gossip, and greed.'
Al Sharpton: Sharpton likes to talk about thermometer vs thermostat, the transactional vs transformational leader. He, and the 60s, was all about transformation, revolution, changing the temperature, despising transactional cooperation, compromise, to adjust the status quo, but he mellowed over time. He saw lots of sleazy big-city machine politics (transactional), but he also saw that it acted as a welfare state for local poor, who voted for their Christmas turkey. It was egalitarian, local. Bussing and affirmative action was transformational, but the results? It helps those who are already hussling, is abused by, say, Indian immigrants, who are already advantaged in many ways and suffer little if any racism, but use affirmative action to get university placements and small business loans. Whites flee to private schools. The same with housing. Affirmative action is abused, whites flee neighbourhoods, houses repossessed. Poorly thought-out transformation can destroy what little good there already is, making things worse for both sides of the divide, killing neighbourhoods. The Black Lives Matter activists think transformationally in a way that, ironically, keeps them from achieving transactional success, opting for nothing, in order not to compromise principles.
Jeremy Sachs: Andrews hits a bull's eye with Sachs, a character straight out of Confessions of an Economic Hit Man (2004), wielding his deadly IMF/WB weapons on vulnerable economies. He made his name in Bolivia's 1985 peso stabilization scheme, which devalued the currency, ended price subsidies, threw 10,000s out of work, broke the miners' union, opened borders to imports.
Talk about irony: Sach was the catalyst bringing to power socialist Evo Morales in 2006, who kicked out the Sachses, legalized coca, giving unemployed miners something (natural, free, beneficial) to do instead of their life-sapping mining, nationalized gas, celebrated indigenous life.
Sachs presided over Russia's collapse in the 1990s, inadvertently creating a toxic relationship between Russia and the West that could easily lead to Armageddon. He insists he meant well, that Russia went wrong only because his advice wasn't followed (he was against privatizing oil and gas, but Yeltsin's other adviser thought differently). Who cares? He is Gordon incarnate. He goes to foreign countries to which he has no previous connection and tells them how to run their governments. It is no use protesting that he was invited. Often the Sachses don't even need an invitation, hired by USAID or some NGO to provide 'technical assistance'. The Polish vice-minister of finance: 'the US government paying them to provide advice to us without asking us, even without informing us.
Gordon was invited everywhere he went, too. And Gordon was not Islamophobic, opening mosques in Khartoum even as he was about to die: 'If I thought the town wished the Mahdi, I would give it up: so much do I respect free will.' He was abandoned by anti-empire Prime Minister Gladstone. But all that meant nothing. 'It's the system, stupid!' Gordon/Sachs IS the empire, the system, by definition, evil, however good his intentions. Gordon was avenged by Kitchener, who introduced the mahcine-gun to warfare, mowing down 11,000 Sudanese and wounding 17,000.
Sachs had his epiphany and moved on to Africa and WHO in the 2000s, canvassing Hollywood stars such as Angelina Joie, Richard Gere and Madonna to finance his Millennium Villages project. And dropped by the 2011 Occupy Wall Street protests, AND wrote a book (Building the New American Economy: Smart, Fair, and Sustainable) with a foreword by Bernie Sanders in 2020. Cool.
Gordon, well, he is the ironic figure that keeps on giving. A maverick soldier and adventurer, avenged by his heir to military glory Lord Kitchener was, well, homosexual, as was Kitchener. Or rather, was celibate, a lover of boys in the best sense of the word. So irony for these 'brave warriors' was part of the package. Neither are celebrated by gay libbers, politely ignored, like Ernst Rohm. But that seamy side to the ‘love that dare not speak its name’ is just fine under capitalism, no questions asked, bereft as it is of any morality, good or bad.
Where to place the blame
The boomers have been responsible for the most dramatic sundering of western civilization since the Protestant reformation.
Really? By that, Andrews was referring to the rise of television, which many argue has altered the human mind as much as the printing press did, making sustained concentration virtually impossible. Fair enough. But why is it the victims of this technology that are to blame? It is the crass commercialization of TV, right from its inception, the frantic search for 'ratings' and ad revenue that is the real problem, its slavish support for empire. So use the political process to reign in TV. Learn from the Beeb. Yes, censorship. Socialism. Call it what you like. There is a way out of our impasse. Yes, that smacks of Soviet prudery, controlled 'truth'. But there are ways to mitigate this in the interests of society.
Andrews exhorts well-meaning advisers today to use the greatest fund of experience available to them---the great liberal empires for evidence of how to throw out the bad bits. But wait! Rather than older versions of the enemy, why not look first to the only real attempt to overthrow the nasty old imperialists, the Soviet Union, and build a nonimperialist world, learning from its experience what works and what doesn't? Contrary to western propaganda, there was much that worked there---health, education, transport, self-reliance, industrial management. Similarly, Soviet third world development policy.
It is startling, sad, that Andrews, while brave to take on the ruling (boomer) elite in the US, is too timid to take on the shibboleth of Cold War anti-communism. She glosses over the obvious victories over imperialism in recent years, mainly Morales' socialism. She makes no mention of Cuba, and indeed, it is victim of consumerism, but it has survived as an alternative to capitalism, and remains a valuable, living experiment for future generations. Yes, shoddy, too bureaucratic. But get used to it. Socialism will always look a bit shoddy compared to our phony reality, the glossy, cold image of late capitalism. Soviet and Cuban experience confirms the simple truth: workers don't want to accumulate, accumulate, accumulate just to sit on a pile of gold. Give them an adequate standard of living, and they'll chose leisure over work. Is that so bad?
My sense of boomerism is the sense that I'm a global citizen, my belief in the absolute necessity of fighting militarism, which means fighting capitalism. We had and still have, at least the boomers I identify with, an openness and curiosity about the Other. My boomer high point was watching the pin-prick flash in the sky when Apollo linked up with Soyz in 1975, affirming space as a place for peace. That was even more profound than the iconic pictures of Earth during the moon walk in 1968, that were supposed to transform us. The space race rivalry was friendly and cooperative, as it still is today despite US hostility.
There are hints of Cardinal Manning in most of Andrews' targets. Jobs and Sachs' mea culpas, Paglia's 180 degree turn from libertinism, Sorkin's rejection of TV, preacher Sharpton keeping the Good Book alive. Our posthumans with bionic limbs update Nightingale's irony. Gordon is the still the avatar of imperialism, but Sachs's 180 degree turn is a 'heppi end', as the Russians say.
Andrews is a self-proclaimed conservative, so it is hard for her to come right and say, 'It's the system, stupid!' But her protagonists add up in my book to an indictment of 'the system'. They all had good intentions. In Islam, good intentions are essential, even if you fail to fulfill them. They tried to, or at least came to rue their misguided actions. Better late than never.
i Roy Hattersley, 'The Wrong War', New Statesman, 12 August 2002.
ii Correspondence with Leonard Woolf.