Thursday, March 23, 2006

Talkin' about nobody's generation

As I was saying yesterday, I don't really believe that the Boomers are the Worst Generation ever. Generations don't do anything. Individuals do. There just happened to have been a lot of individuals born between 1946 and 1964.

The exploits of any few members of a generation don't define all the rest. Just because Bill Clinton and George W. Bush (both born in '46) were elected President doesn't make all Boomers Presidential timber or mean they are all inclined to start losing wars or start chasing interns---but let's face it, most of them did inhale---any more than Meryl Streep (b. 1949) makes them all Academy Award winners, Eddie Murray (b. 1956) makes them all Hall of Famers, Cindy Sheehan (b. 1957) peace activists, Bill Gates (b. 1955) billionaire entrepreneurs, Madonna (b. 1958) constantly self-reinventing pop stars, Sam Alito (b. 1950) dissembling Right Wing authoritarian Supreme Court Justices, or George Clooney (b. 1961) the world's sexiest men.


What should be just as obvious is that just the fact that some Boomers marched against the War in Vietnam and for Civil Rights here at home, and some dropped acid, and some burned their draft cards and others burned their bras, and some were at Woodstock and some were in Chicago, and some joined the Peace Corps, and some joined the Weatherman, and some voted for McGovern, doesn't say anything about the idealism or lack of it of all the rest of them.

Nor does the fact that a great many of them grew up to become soulless Yuppies mean that the whole generation sold its soul.

In fact, the vast majority didn't become Yuppies at all, soulless or soulful. They became like most people in most generations, working stiffs. They became mechanics and store clerks and factory hands and insurance agents and truck drivers and nurses and steamfitters and school janitors and beat cops and bus drivers and postal workers and housewives and nursery school teachers.

And when you get right down to it, the whole idea of lumping together millions of people born over a span of close to 20 years into one homogeneous entity called Baby Boomers and defining them all by the fads and pop culture and historical events of the high school and college years of the eldest of them is absurd.

Why should someone who was born in 1963 be assumed to have more in common with strangers born in 1946 than with their own brother or sister born in 1966?

In his Boomer bashing book Balsamic Dreams Joe Queenan, besides providing me with an opportunity to have fun with alliteration, makes the case that the ideas, stereotypes, cliches, history, and answers to all the Trivial Pursuit questions we associate with the Boomers should properly be assigned to the cohort born between 1940 or so and 1954. The boom in the birth rates that's usually attributed to the end of World War II and the prosperity of the 1950s---all those soldiers and sailors coming home to marry and start families---Queenan says really began a few years earlier and is actually a post-Depression boom. People who had put off starting families or having more kids because they were broke during the 30s felt prosperous enough, or at least secure enough, to begin again.

This is the group that we really mean when we think of Baby Boomers, says Queenan.

And if you do the math, you see he's right. The babies born between 1940 and 1954 were the ones who grew up to watch Howdy Doody, wear coonskin caps, scream for Elvis and then the Beatles, remember where they were when Kennedy was shot, march against the War in Vietnam, fight and die in Vietnam, get clean for Gene, go to Woodstock, give Peace a chance, tune in and drop out, and still somehow bring themselves to cast their first Presidential votes disproportionately for Nixon in 1972 and turn themselves into the first wave of Yuppies.

The incongruity of the last two stereotypes on that list of stereotypes has been used as proof that the Boomers sold out their early idealism. What they are, really, are evidence that the Boomers are not a homogeneous mass of ex-hippies, ex-peaceniks, and ex-rebels. Most of them, in fact, are none of those things, and most of them are like every other generation that came before and will come after---they pretty much take after their parents.

This is to say that most Boomers are conservative by nature and upbringing, afraid of change, self-centered, far more worried about taking care of themselves and their own than in changing the world for the better, or the worse, not given to deep thought about big pictures---although prone to congratulating themselves for having "deep thoughts" and looking at "big pictures" that confirm them in their conservativism and selfishness---harmless on the whole, but capable of great good, and great evil, if moved by the right or wrong angels.

In short, Boomers are just members of the damned human race.

If they have been more destructive than previous generations, it's only because there are more of them so there are more of every type of human being among them, including destructive ones.

If they were more idealistic---an arguable claim---it's because there were more born idealists in their ranks. And if the generation cannot be said to have lived up to the idealism of the minority among them who were and are idealists, it's not so much because they sold out as because opportunities were denied them by accidents of history...and the selfishness and carelessness of the supposed Greatest Generation, themselves the product of huge historical accidents. For example, the Boomers could have and should have been the Generation that put colonies on the moon, filled the night sky with space stations, and landed human beings on Mars. But after the moon landing, the leaders of the Greatest Generation, who were still running the show in the 1970s and would run it through the first part of the 1980s and who, by the way, started the war in Vietnam (Just saying.), decided that they were done with space exploration, it cost too much money, and it was time for them to start cutting back on everything that had helped reach a prosperous late middle age and start saving for their own retirements.

Of course, their Boomer kids, those who were well provided for, decided they liked the low taxes better than the glories of space exploration and here we are, still stuck on this rock.

At any rate, Generations, as much as they can be defined, are defined by events, not by their music.

And history works itself out in longer time scales than the 25 years or so when a single cohort of human beings happens to be in their primes.

The Culture Wars that Gen Y is now providing the cannon fodder for are continuations of fights that began in the 1950s and 60s. The Baby Boomers' secure retirements are being threatened by angers and resentments that date back to 1932. Are we living in the Boomers' world or are they living in their grandparents' world?

Look at the Congressional leadership of the Republican Party, count all the ex-Dixiecrats and crypto-Confederates, and then tell me the Civil War and Reconstruction are over.

It may be the case that what makes the Bush Administration so dangerous and destructive is that it has brought into power all at once a whole lot of last gapsers. The last of the Confederates have joined up with the last of the Roosevelt-hating plutocrats and the last of the Better Dead than Red Cold Warriors and the last of the hippie hating Nixonians to wage war on the past 140 odd years of American history.

That most of these people are Boomers is merely a biological contingency---individual bodies last only a few decades. Ideas, attitudes, hatreds, feuds, hopes, fears, and dreams live on and on and on.

There are no generations.

We are ruled by ghosts.

I think it's the conventional wisdom these days to believe that while the Boomers may have rotted from the cores out, the kids are all right. That's probably about as true as every other generational cliche, but here's a group of Gen Y-ers who are doing their Boomer parents proud.

By the way, Joe Queenan's Balsamic Dreams is good for a few laughs but it's mostly a lot of cheap shots taken at the least offensive Boomer stereotypes---Queenan treats a middle-aged Boomer in cargo shorts and Bierkenstocks eating yogurt as a far more deserving target for satire than one wearing a business suit, sitting in an office, carelessly deciding to close a factory to increase her stock options. He's a much better and funnier writer when he sticks to movies, sports, and travel writing.

And for the record, I was born in 1785.

In New Orleans.

Damn vampires.


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