With apologies to all those Baby Boomers I know – I, of course, don’t mean you.
There is something so very right about trashing the Baby Boom generation. Tom Friedman – a member of said generation – suggests a few names in his column on Sunday:
“The Greediest Generation?” “The Complacent Generation?” Or maybe: “The Subprime Generation: How My Parents Bailed Themselves Out for Their Excesses by Charging It All on My Visa Card.”
Barack Obama himself wrote in The Audacity of Hope:
In the back and forth between Clinton and Gingrich, and in the elections of 2000 and 2004, I sometimes felt as if I were watching the psychodrama of the baby boom generation — a tale rooted in old grudges and revenge plots hatched on a handful of college campuses long ago.
Perhaps this passage is what led Andrew Sullivan to describe Barack Obama’s candidacy (back when he was a long shot) as America’s only chance for a much needed truce in the long civil war fought by the Baby Boom generation:
…the most persuasive case for Obama has less to do with him than with the moment he is meeting. The moment has been a long time coming, and it is the result of a confluence of events, from one traumatizing war in Southeast Asia to another in the most fractious country in the Middle East. The legacy is a cultural climate that stultifies our politics and corrupts our discourse.
Obama’s candidacy in this sense is a potentially transformational one. Unlike any of the other candidates, he could take America—finally—past the debilitating, self-perpetuating family quarrel of the Baby Boom generation that has long engulfed all of us. So much has happened in America in the past seven years, let alone the past 40, that we can be forgiven for focusing on the present and the immediate future. But it is only when you take several large steps back into the long past that the full logic of an Obama presidency stares directly—and uncomfortably—at you.
At its best, the Obama candidacy is about ending a war—not so much the war in Iraq, which now has a momentum that will propel the occupation into the next decade—but the war within America that has prevailed since Vietnam and that shows dangerous signs of intensifying, a nonviolent civil war that has crippled America at the very time the world needs it most. It is a war about war—and about culture and about religion and about race. And in that war, Obama—and Obama alone—offers the possibility of a truce.
The point of all of this is that the Baby Boom generation was quite terrible. While the “Greatest Generation” tackled a Great Depression and won a World War, and then came home and created an age of prosperity and the United Nations – and then, by the late 1950s and early 1960s, fought for and won civil rights, finally erasing the official discrimination against African Americans that had blighted America since it’s inception – the Baby Boomers – the children of the Greatest Generation – started an American civil war, focused initially on Vietnam, and then later on the role of government, on abortion, and on religion’s place in public life. While these are worthy issues to argue about, the culture war of the Baby Boomers kept them from tackling many of the urgent challenges of their day – from global warming to infrastructure deterioration to America’s place in the world. As the Baby Boomers entered adulthood, their national cohesion that was evident in the Greatest Generation dissolved into squabbles and then by 1968, into a virtual civil war.
Since the 1960s, America has failed to invest in our roads, our utilities, our energy infrastructure; America’s dependency on foreign oil was demonstrated in the 1970s, yet we did nothing and blamed it on Jimmy Carter’s bad leadership; at the same time, a radical brand of extremist Islam began to grow – and our government encouraged it, seeing it as a tool to use against the Soviet Union; some two decades ago, global warming was accepted as a fact by the greatest majority of scientists, yet we have failed to take any significant steps.
Instead, since the late 1960s, we have fought and re-fought the war over the war in Vietnam. What happened in the rice paddies and jungles of that nation are almost irrelevant to the culture war. What is remembered is where people stood while they were here. John Kerry served with distinction, but spoke against the war when he came back – forever putting him on the liberal side of the war. Dick Cheney got one deferment after another, avoiding serving at all – yet he was enthusiastic about the war as long as he himself wasn’t fighting, making him a conservative. John McCain was captured and came home a hero and George W. Bush served stateside in a cushy National Guard unit for the sons and daughters of those politicians influential enough to prevent their children from serving – yet both are equally conservative because they both were annoyed at the hippies protesting. Barack Obama was only a boy, but as Sarah Palin never failed to mention, he served on a charitable board with someone who decided to fight an insurgency against the American government to oppose the war – which by association made Obama a far-left radical. Much less important than what these Baby Boomers actually did is how they felt about the war.
It is possible to determine with a great degree of accuracy whether a Baby Boomer is a Democrat or Republican simply by asking their position on a war that ended almost forty years ago. Those who protested the war and stood against it took one side in the culture war; those who supported the war took the other side. As a rule, the Democrats – Kerry, Clinton, Gore – were against the war. The Republicans – Bush, McCain, Cheney – were for it. (This was despite the fact that it was “the best and the brightest” under Democrats John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson who started the war.)
The obvious problem is that these divisions are barely relevant anymore.
The Baby Boomers pissed away the prosperity their parents bequeathed to them and squandered the opportunities presented to them – and now are busy using their children’s future earnings (our future earnings) to buy their way out of the mess they have created. They avoided the challenges of their times and found people to blame. They focused on OJ Simpson, Britney Spears, Madonna, and Monica Lewinsky – on abortion, Vietnam, gays, and religion – and not on global warming, on campaign finance, on the corruption of our political process, on an overleveraged economy.
After decades of avoiding systematic problems – as the solutions became embroiled in the ongoing culture war – we now must face them. With two wars in the Mid-East, a failing world economy, a growing threat of catastrophic terrorism, and whatever else may come our way, procrastination is impossible. Now it’s time for us to try to salvage this wreck.
That’s what the 2008 election was really about. And that’s our challenge. It remains to be seen if we’re up to it.