Monday, December 12

Shut Up

David Crary, AP National Writer: As Boomers Age, Legacy Doubts Surface

NEW YORK - They partied and protested, then grew up to dominate America with their chutzpah and sheer numbers. Yet now, as the oldest of the baby boomers prepare to turn 60, there are glimmers of doubt within this "have it all" generation about how they will be judged by those who come next.

The ferment of the '60s and '70s — when boomers changed the world, or thought they did — faded long ago. Nostalgic pride in the achievements of that era now mixes with skepticism: Have the boomers collectively betrayed their youthful idealism? Have they been self-centered to the point of shortchanging their children?

I gave some consideration to just letting this post stand right there, but then there's Digby's fine tribute to Richard Pryor, including the backhanding he received from the gang at FAUX, which is really of a piece with this.

So let's start here. Richard Pryor was not a Boomer. Nor George Carlin nor Lenny Bruce . Not the Beatles, Elvis, Chuck Berry. Not Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, or Michael Schwerner. Kate Millett was born in 1934, Muhammad Ali in 1942. The Mattachine Society was fighting the New York statute that made gay bars illegal in 1965, before the oldest Boomer could take a legal drink at a heterosexual gin mill. The fight for civil rights, women's rights, and gay rights do not "belong" to Boomers. Neither, for that matter, does rock and roll, rebellion, or shag carpeting.

And, okay, one more bad wire-service story assignment isn't going to kill us (Crary, to be fair, manages to collect some interesting quotes along the way). And I bet that even people who find some sort of broad truth in this sort of thing don't imagine it runs too deep. The thing that irks me is how much this looks like the lazy stenography and easy Red Right/Left Blue coverage our politics receives in the very same papers. Isn't the whole Boomers/The Sixties/Change the World/Tune In Turn On just the Hippie/Leftist/Traitor/Pornographer bogeyman stripped of the overt politics?

How exactly do you square the Sixties Love-In March on Washington social agenda with our national politics since then? The massive defeat of George McGovern, Nixon's Southern strategy, a one-term moderate Southern Democrat followed by twelve years of Ronald Reagan (the man who ran against the Sixties for sixteen years before he got the nomination), the mass migration of Dixiecrats to an increasingly right-radical Republican party--is it reasonable to believe that millions of Woodstock attendees turned their backs on social consciousness the minute they had to earn a living? Or could the unthinkable be true--that our pet construct is too simplistic, or just plain wrong, to serve as anything but wire-copy fodder?

I was born at the tail end of 1953, which puts me right in the middle of the second Boomer quarter. It means I wasn't old enough to have a driver's license when the Sixties ended (if you're out there doing the math, the legal driving age was 16-1/2). I was in the last draft class of the Vietnam war. Much as I'd like to, I can't take personal credit for the '64 Civil Rights Act or ending the war. I was affected by them, as anyone is affected by his times. But the people I grew up with and have known all these years were just as conventional as their parents before or their children after. They smoked some dope and listened to Pink Floyd instead of packing phone booths and jitterbugging, or getting their eyebrows pierced and sharing files. They didn't go to socialist summer camp or make bombs in the garage. They went to college to get good jobs, as well as smoke some dope and listen to Dark Side of the Moon with headphones continually for four or five years.

Which brings up the attendant point. Boomers, apparently, have all the money:
The boomers — 78 million of them born from 1946 to 1964 — are wealthier and more numerous than any generation before or since. They have controlled political power long enough to stack the financial deck in their favor.

I gotta say I'm nearly speechless at this. I'd be happy to go on at length about dirty hippies turning into soul-dead Yuppie scum, and if you want to blame our numbers on someone the place to look is probably our parents, but "the wealthiest generation ever"? Is there some way to quantify this? Boomers are in their peak earning years. When I was young my parents' generation was the wealthiest ever. It's hard to imagine how, under a capitalist system, it could be any other way. Still, the incredibly wealthy people I know are either a) older than Boomers; b) Boomers who inherited wealth; or c) plastic surgeons. I don't know that many people who live much better than their parents did, or do now. I know any number of people who want as little to do with money as possible, and would probably ignore it entirely if they could.

And few of them are able to finagle the system, let alone for their own benefit. Compare what happened in the first Reagan term when he proposed tax withholding on dividend checks. It wasn't Boomers shot that one down.

In my youth we lived through two oil embargoes, wage and price controls, massive inflation, stagflation, spiraling interest rates, three recessions, and double-digit unemployment. Every Boomer family I know of, save a few of the very wealthy ones, is a two-income household at least in part of necessity. The 80s helped some, unless you went hog-wild for real estate, and the 90s helped a good deal more, same as the 50s and early 60s lifted my parents' generation. The explanation for tax-cut mania--which hasn't exactly benefitted the bulk of Whatever Generation You Give A Trendy Name To--is the rise of extremist anti-everyone else Republicanism. Go blame them.
NEXT: The younger generations offer their judgment on the baby boomers.

Yeah. Chewy.


Anonymous said...

I never got the need for a generation to have a legacy anyway.
Can't they just be a huge clump of people with as many vast differences as similarities?
I mean, is there any reason to assume that we have anything at all in common with people with whom we are randomly grouped?
Whether it's the people on your block, or the people at your job, or the people in the grocery line with you yesterday, or the people who also use your cell phone plan.
We've all got things in common, and we've all got differences.
Why does being a generation make you more likely to have similarities than differences?

Can we start mocking the guys who go on about "generational legacies" the same way we'd mock the guys who go on about "the legacy of Crest Toothpaste users"?

Jim McCulloch said...

As someone a few years too old to be a boomer (I was born at the beginning of WWII rather than in the decade after it), allow me to say right on. Please don't take it as sarcasm. I not only agree with you, my own experience has been that generational politics is complete bullshit. I am undeniably a preboomer, but I myself marched (both in college and after college) and smoked dope (after college--we used peyote, which was legal, when I was a college student). I didn't get over being left wing when I got a job. Neither did most of the so-called old left either, despite much publicised aberrant cases.
Anyway, good post.

Norbizness said...

This, like so many other things, reminds of the Mr. Show that opens with Bob Odenkirk (b. Oct. 1962) and David Cross (b. April 1964) almost deciding to split up because of their irreconcilable generational differences, only to discover that their mutual dislike of hippies would see them through.

James Briggs Stratton "Doghouse" Riley said...

My wife is actually a sort of Freedom Rider of the Crest generation--as a child she was part of the studies showing Crest as an effective decay-preventive dentifrice (she's from Bloomington, her dad was a dentist, and the IU School of Dentistry was involved in the study. For that matter, both her parent's sexual histories are somewhere at the Kinsey Institute).

Anonymous said...

Huh. I totally blame you people for shag carpeting.

Anonymous said...

Considering some of what we've learned about you in the past, Doghouse, it would seem that you and the wife are well matched, then, at least in terms of anecdotes.

And, yes, oddly enough, I was thinking of that whole campaign when I picked Crest users out of the crowd of possible absurdities.

kathyr brings up a good point, though. If not you, who *are* we to blame for shag carpeting? I'd also like to nail down who I get to hold a perpetual-letter-writing grudge against for jump ropes with plastic beads on them.

Anonymous said...

Personally, I blame the Clenis for "shag" carpet.

Oh, and last summer I picked up some old Life Magazines at a yard sale -- it was fascinating to look through the issues from the late '60s (sure, I was alive then, but my recollections of the time involve cartoons and Cap'n Crunch more than they do my participation in the Civil Rights movement). I learned that while some young people were seeking peace and love in Haight Ashbury, the rest of the country's young were taking ROTC classes while working on the family farm or at the local hardware store. (From the WWII issues, I learned that people in their 40's looked really old back then).

So, I recommend that all A.P. writers be forced to read stacks of mildewy magazines from the past before they are allowed to write pieces on generational profiles.