The Men and Women Who Promised Freedom and Delivered Disaster
by helen andrews
sentinel, 256 pages, $27
Every generation thinks itself the best, or the worst, or the first, or the last. Anything to distinguish it from the generations that came before. Intergenerational contempt is nothing new, even if it purports to be: It was there even as Marcus Tullius Cicero was beheaded in Rome in 43 b.c. But as Helen Andrews observes in this wonderfully acidic assault on the boomers, “One of these days the Jeremiahs will be right.” The implication is that the Jeremiahs are right about my lot, the generation born between 1945 and 1964, born in the light of that terrible glow from a thousand suns over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and forever under the same threat of a vast cloud, mushroom-shaped and rising.
As Andrews puts it, brutally but accurately,
Every generation is dealt its own challenges and handles them as well as it can. The boomers were dealt an uncommonly good hand, which makes it truly incredible that they should have screwed up so badly. They inherited prosperity, social cohesion, and functioning institutions. They passed on debt, inequality, moribund churches, and a broken democracy.
She adds for good measure: “The baby boomers have been responsible for the most dramatic sundering of Western civilization since the Protestant Reformation.” Overstating the case? I’m not so sure.
A few years ago, I had come to the conclusion that we boomers were unremittingly ghastly, all of us. Selfish, greedy, infantile, delusional, spendthrift, and needy. Insistent upon our largely imaginary “rights,” disregarding of our real responsibilities, negligent of our children. In thrall to the inane post-Marxist let-it-all-hang-out Frankfurt School of the mid-1960s, as well as to the Chicago school of economists a little later: two sides of the same individualist, fill-your-boots coin. Feeling ourselves well beyond the clutches of anything as ludicrous as a God, we divorced our partners and told ourselves we were justified in so doing, as the children looked on aghast. We did not save money. We wanted everything now. Self-discipline, loyalty, deferred gratification, sacrifice and humility—all qualities admired by the generation that preceded us and devolved from Protestantism, were swiftly jettisoned.
Andrews usually dissects with a scalpel, sometimes pounds with a hammer, six prominent boomers, using them in each case as a means for identifying six areas in which Western society has broken down. So, Steve Jobs—in whom “idealism and obnoxiousness were always mixed up,” and whom Andrews describes as “a family-obsessed psychological basket-case”—enables her to lay into Silicon Valley’s perpetual adolescents with their false idealism concealing deference to (or in Jobs’s case, worship of) the new authoritarianism in China.
Camille Paglia’s vapid feminism is deconstructed, her love of bad art and popular music derided, her delusions unveiled. Like the “mirror on the ceiling of the whorehouse,” she reflects her culture’s perversions and indignities. Even 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.
Incidentally, Andrews states near the beginning of this book:
I was drawn to the boomers who had all the elements of greatness but whose effect on the world was tragically and often ironically contrary to their intentions. Their destructiveness came from their virtues as much as their vices. I was going to spend months, even years with these people living in my head. I did not want to pick anyone for whom I felt contempt.
But don’t let that put you off: There’s a healthy vein of contempt and cold fury running through the entire work.
So, on to the old crackhead Aaron Sorkin, then. I take it the author did not much enjoy The West Wing. She is right, of course, to take aim at liberal Hollywood’s capacity for deceit and self-delusion. As you may be aware, we have exactly the same problem over here in the United Kingdom with both the BBC and our insufferably woke luvvies, not to mention the truly awful playwright David Hare, whose every dull yet tendentious work is lapped up, adoringly, by our state broadcaster. The worst of it, though, is when we are treated to dramas that are supposedly rooted in the real world and yet are festooned with patent lies, the better to enforce the progressive message—and this, for Andrews, is Sorkin’s real metier. She cites a typical example: On one episode of The West Wing, a conservative interviewed on television about AIDS says: “Normal, God-fearing heterosexual couples don’t spread those kind of diseases.” As Andrews observes: “No one polished enough to appear on television has ever begun a sentence with the phrase ‘Normal, God-fearing heterosexual couples,’ except in sarcasm.” The problem, regardless of what side of the political divide you may inhabit, is that stuff like this saps your belief in the drama. You no longer believe what you are seeing.
Andrews is perhaps at her best on that grizzled old rabble-rouser Al Sharpton. She admires his wiliness, his ability to merge transformational rhetoric with transactional practice. Sharpton draws out of her, though, some wonderfully astringent observations of perhaps America’s most pressing problem: this weird, confected war between black and white:
The truth is that America’s race problem is not gothic or ghosthaunted. It survives not because we are psychologically too guilt-ridden to deal with it but because the people invested in it gain too much from it to let it go away. It is the most tawdry, boring thing in the world: group favoritism. It’s patronage. These are not symptoms of . . . blood hatreds but a rule of human behavior observable in every multiethnic society in history.
There is room in this chapter for an entertaining bludgeoning of the unjustly revered James Baldwin—no victim himself, but someone coddled by a sycophantic white establishment and, while beset by personal neuroses, “disconnected from reality.”
So many boomer icons, so many boomer plinths to be left bare. And yet, sooner or later, Andrews gets around to them all. She will have annoyed many liberals with her observation that the enforced integration of American schools was perhaps only a qualified success, suggesting: “With the best will in the world, it is not possible to teach tenth-grade English when half the class is ready for Julius Caesar and half the class has never heard of Rome.” The most admirable quality of Andrews’s writing is its point-blank refusal to entertain convenient lies and evasions:
The quality of a civilization is judged by its great cities; for decades, beginning in the 1960s, ours were rendered uninhabitable. Yet today the official interpretation of that catastrophe is what James Baldwin said so glibly: “I do not bring down property values when I move in. You bring them down when you move out.”
No, people got the hell out of Detroit, Chicago, Baltimore (just as people are rapidly escaping London) because they feared for their lives and, even more so, the lives of their children.
It would have been a grave disappointment if Andrews had not found room in the catalogue of hopelessness for the economist Jeffrey Sachs: “tempestuous,” “bullying,” “arrogant.” The U.S.’s implacable objections to colonialism left my country, which thought it had won the Second World War, substantially weaker than it had been in 1939. And yet American distaste for colonialism has its limits. A Keynesian liberal, Sachs would of course think himself an unforgiving supporter of that now ubiquitous idiocy “decolonization”—and yet, as Andrews points out:
It is hard not to notice that Sachs’s career as a development economist has been essentially identical to the imperial project. 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. Gordon was invited everywhere he went, too.
In lieu of British control, the old empire instead became festooned by CIA and KGB operatives, and later, once they had retreated after the collapse of the Soviet Union, by the NGOs who were the very heirs of colonialism, acting in the manner of district high commissioners.
There’s one more in the glorious sextet of unwitting villains: Sonia Sotomayor, whom President Obama appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court. She embodies the intellectual limits and political overreach of the liberals who have pushed transgender rights and removed “every trace of religion” from public schools. A year or two ago, Charles Murray (no believer) told me that he regarded the removal of God from society as a bizarre experiment. He was talking about Western Europe—but he could just as well have been talking about the United States. Once we have abolished God, what is there left to worship, apart from ourselves?
It is healthy, then, that Andrews has no more affection for millennials than she does for boomers:
It’s always the people who most hate the idea of turning into their parents who end up doing so. The millennials blame the boomers for wrecking the country, yet rather than break free from their influence, we continue seeing the world in their terms. . . . After a century of revisionism and debunking, the only part of American history that millennials feel they are allowed to like or have pride in is the 1960s. So that’s the part we’re determined to imitate.
Hence all those riots, the cancel culture, the #MeToo hysteria, and the elevation of the transgendered, who should be pitied rather than glorified.
Andrews is a compelling writer—witty, sharp, supremely well read, and balefully prescient. I would have liked a little more on the psychology of the boomers—why we turned out so hopeless, so narcissistic, so grasping and easily led. My guess is that the Cold War is in there somewhere—the perpetual threat of imagined destruction (as opposed to the real conflicts in which our fathers fought and often died), that shadow hanging over us that oddly made us irresolute and whiny instead of stoical. Also important are the retreat of religion, the terrible myth of self-actualization, and the comparative ease of those postwar years, which must have suggested that we could have it all and pay later, a kind of psychic lend-lease. Whatever the case may be, I am supremely grateful to Andrews for confirming that we are bad, bad people. Collectively, individually. What a mercy we’ll be going soon.
Rod Liddle is associate editor of The Spectator.