Despite the intense degree of polarization today, most millennials do agree on one thing: baby boomers ruined everything. Right or wrong, this single alliance within a sea of partisan hatred is conspicuous enough to call for an explanation.
Why this agreement?
Enter Helen Andrews, Senior Editor at The American Conservative. Modeled upon Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians (published in 1918), Boomers profiles six notable men and women born between 1945 and 1964. Taking these six individuals as her focus, Andrews dissects the wealthiest, most powerful generation alive.
I choose the metaphor carefully: Andrews intends nothing less than vivisection. If the great tragedy of Eminent Victorians is that it was published too late to incur guilt within the accused, Andrews explicitly sets out to avoid tardiness: “The boomers should not be allowed to shuffle off the world stage until they have been made to regret.”
Andrews’ most repeated accusation is that the boomers are as deluded as they are hypocritical: “they took over the establishment but continued preening like revolutionaries.” They did “irreparable harm to Western civilization” while claiming they healed it. They “tried to liberate us, but instead of freedom left behind chaos.”
And all of that just in the preface; Andrews has prepared readers for scorched earth.
Yet the succeeding portraits—of Steve Jobs, Aaron Sorkin, Jeffrey Sachs, Camille Paglia, Al Sharpton, and Sonia Sotomayor—are, with one exception (I’ll return to this later), marked by a perhaps unexpected sympathy. As the book progresses, the reader gets the sense that the tragedy of the boomers is that they kindled fires whose embers they could not contain, that they were in fact betrayed by the very social forces they themselves cultivated.
Take Aaron Sorkin, creator of The West Wing. Sorkin had a unique grasp of television’s power to cultivate the taste it supposedly reflects. “The show,” Andrews writes, “didn’t correct popular misconceptions about White House staffers. There was no popular conception of White House staffers. It created one.” Sorkin intended to lend a dosage of humanity (even sanctity) to the messy business of politics. Unlike the comedians and ironists of his time, he wielded the power of television to cast spells, not to break them. He thought technology’s magic could help us see politics as a noble enterprise.
Yet this idealism has made him an outsider in today’s media landscape. Andrews notes that Sorkin has remained curiously unable to rebottle the lightning he captured in The West Wing, not least because we have, in both media and politics alike, gladly embraced the puerility he intended to exorcise. As it turns out, a world where the camera is constantly on is not a world where politics is nobler. It’s just a world where politics is more puerile and polarized than ever before.
Andrews’ point, here, is that we’re not actually better at governing ourselves because of television’s microscope. We’re simply aware that we govern in front of the camera and are thus more manicured, polished, and workshopped. She writes: “As PR professionals get better and better at controlling information, the last remnants of spontaneity and candor have been driven out of the public square.” The chapter thus concludes by noting Sorkin’s admission of defeat: he has sworn off television and will stick to the big screen. Sorkin thought that he could elevate an aspect of human life by pointing a camera at it. Now the lights are always on, and our political scene is more theatrical than ever. And much the worse for it.
This analysis of the wave that Sorkin rode deserves further consideration. When summer-long protests erupted across the United States, the sign of one’s belonging on “The Right Side of History” was not actually whether one had made material improvements to the lives of the oppressed. It was their PR savvy. Advocates began combing through twitter posts and social media feeds to see if their favorite stars had “made a statement” in support of Black Lives Matter. Never mind if the person had actually changed housing policies, improved conditions at the county jail, fought recidivism rates, materially or financially supported underprivileged school districts, or, well, any number of other ways to help oppressed communities.
Belonging to the church of anti-racism was not a matter of policy or practice, but simply one of performance. If you wanted membership in this church, you had to prove your bona fides with your PR skills or not at all.
Sorkin attempted to use television to elevate our conception of what politics could be, but in fact he only contributed to the PR-ification of all political action. The result has not been better politics, but anti-politics. And now social media “statements” are deemed more important than actually working for, say, a humane prison system.
Most of Andrews’ characters follow a similar, ouroboros-like arc: boomer snake-tails devoured by their own millennial heads.
Take her assessment of Steve Jobs. Unlike so many of his contemporaries, Jobs wanted to build institutions rather than destroy them. But the revolutionary impulses he harnessed to create a “rebellious” corporate image only created a culture where out of touch executives can be ousted for the crime of offending the most recent taboo.
And the same story goes on: Camille Paglia is an outsider to the pop-academia brand she herself created. Al Sharpton helped inaugurate an era of “transformational” political leadership, but his inheritors lack the transactional skills that actually achieve imperfect-but-better policies. And so today our social justice prophets are no longer deal-makers, but marketers. Robin DiAngelo can’t draft equitable housing policy, but she can guilt you into booking her services for a modest $30,000.
Andrews’ biographical snapshots amount to this: the boomers’ most ‘revolutionary’ achievements didn’t actually improve the world, but they did make a few people obscenely rich and powerful.
Andrews’ most persuasive weapon is her style. She is delightfully aphoristic: “License, like nature, abhors a vacuum”; caustic: “In 1966 there was no work of art so repellent that it could not find a defender in some English department somewhere”; poetic: “Men without jobs have video games the way men without girlfriends have pornography”; synoptic: “Over a span of fifty years, America went from sending Africa brigades of engineers to sending brigades of economists, who did not even know how to build anything.” And she selects her anecdotes perfectly (see Sotomayor requesting to change the day of the 2013 Vice Presidential inauguration for her own book-signing).
Boomers is simply too much fun not to be persuasive.
But persuasive of what? In the preface, Andrews states that she “wanted to figure out where the boomers had really departed from historical norms and done irreparable harm to Western civilization, versus where they just happened to be lucky or millennials unlucky.” This is quite the bar to clear, and it’s not clear to me that Andrews has cleared it. Nor do I suspect it could be cleared with the format she chose.
What her portraits display is not irrefutable proof of “irreparable harm” or singular departure “from historical norms,” but persons. And persons—as Blaise Pascal famously argued—are defined by their self-contradictions. We are both agents and victims of history, shaped by dreams and nightmares alike, dependent upon the air we use to curse its poisonous fumes, capable of inspirational heroism and pathetic villainy in turn.
Boomers is thus far more interesting than Andrews intended. What she sought was polemic, but what she wrote was literature. The final result is not a “proof” so much as a portrait: sure, the portraits are of very unlikable (and deeply flawed, even delusional) people, but they are people all the same. And the book is more interesting for that.
And it is perhaps in the book’s literary merit—by which I simply mean its honest portrayal of the human condition—that its greatest accusation against the boomers consists. It is worth noting that the only boomer for whom Andrews appears to have no sympathy is the one who remains undevoured by her own descendants: Sonia Sotomayor. Unlike the others, Sotomayor does not appear a character of contradictions and competing impulses. She is, on Andrews’ telling, simply and unapologetically interested in power. On this, Sotomayor has made a seamless transition from “idealist boomer” to “activist millennial.” She is less a self-contradiction than Andrews’ other targets, and this enables Sotomayor to remain a hero to many.
But therein lies the accusation. If it is in fact the case that we are creatures at war with ourselves, then the thing we cannot abide is having this fact mercilessly paraded in front of our eyes. Yet this is what the boomers did. They display our deepest, most embarrassing self-contradictions. The worst thing about the boomers, the reason we hate them for their hypocrisy, their self-contradictions, their paeans to the “oppressed” from the halls of power, their odes to rebellion printed on $150 yoga pants . . .
. . . is that they expose us to ourselves.
Want to hear more from Helen Andrews? Check out her conversation with Jeremy Beer on Givers, Doers, & Thinkers.