by Bruce S. Thornton
This year the oldest Baby Boomer cohort turns 65, the first of 79 million people who promise to be the whiniest and most annoying crop of geezers in history. Not all of them, of course. Just as many in the Greatest Generation weren’t so great, so too the Boomers aren’t all selfish narcissists. But the sensibility dominating our public culture and politics reflects all the pathologies that a large swath of this generation has elevated into virtues.
The most obvious feature of the Boomers is their refusal to grow up. The ever-extending length of adolescence, a confection of modernity, partly accounts for this. Post-war affluence made it affordable to prolong further this historically novel time of life between childhood and adulthood. Consumerism took advantage of the new market and the greater surplus wealth to elevate in social importance the whims and desires of a group flush with disposable income. The result was the most pampered, obsessed over, and indulged generation in American history. Why wouldn’t they want to prolong this privileged position as long as possible?
As a consequence, the Boomers developed the sense of entitlement and elevated expectations more typical of children. And the culture went right along with them and pandered to their juvenile taste, mainly because there was money in it. The traditional moral limits on getting and spending had always gotten in the way of profit, so why not indulge this new generation and acquiesce in the destruction of those limits? Starting in the 50’s, the old taboos about sex, public vulgarity, and drugs — taboos predicated on the notion that just because something is pleasurable or momentarily desirable doesn’t mean you should do it — were all swept away, and hedonistic antinomianism became a new human right as well as a potent source of profit.
Hence the “eerie vulgarity,” to use Nabokov’s phrase, of our popular culture, which has managed to trivialize the transgressive into the dullest of clichés, and reduced what was once the sordid adventures of rakes and roués into the mass-marketed fashion accessories of pre-teens.
This cultural debasement was made easier by the destruction of our educational system. The postwar university’s abandonment of traditional schooling in history, language, philosophy, literature, and basic skills created a vacuum filled by leftist ideology and identity politics, both of which set utopian standards never to be met in a complicated world of flawed humans. Yet endorsing these unrealistic goals allowed callow Boomers to preen morally on the cheap, and to justify their destructive politics as earnest idealism. The intensity of feelings and passionately held opinions, not the coherence of thought or ideas, became the currency of worth and authenticity — another characteristic of children, one now reinforced and cultivated by figures of presumably adult authority.
The worst effects, however, of this indulgence of a whole generation and the failure to educate it can be seen in politics.
Traditional political thinking had always been predicated on a tragic view of human nature, one recognizing that the passions and interests inherent in people impose limits on what governments can accomplish. Loss, failure, disappointment, poverty, injustice, and suffering can never be eliminated from human life, only mitigated. Evil is a constant reality battling against the good, sometimes requiring destructive force and suffering for its elimination. Earthly perfection, in short, is a delusion, and utopia nowhere.
This was the sensibility of the Founders, as can be seen everywhere in the Federalist essays and the assumptions underlying the Constitution.
For example, Hamilton in Federalist 6 reminds us “that men are ambitious, vindictive, and rapacious.” In Federalist 10, Madison’s famous discussion of “faction” — the political groups “actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens” — likewise reflects a realist view of human nature and the power of “opinions” formed by a “fallible” reason and influenced by “passions.” “The latent causes of faction,” Madison summarizes, “are thus sown in the nature of man.” That’s why the Constitution codifies the separation and balance of powers.
Indeed, government itself is necessary precisely because, as Hamilton puts it inFederalist 15, “the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice, without constraint.” So too John Adams, who dismissed the notion of human perfectibility given the permanent human passions like envious rivalry:
Emulation next to self-preservation will forever be the great spring of human actions, and the balance of a well-ordered government will alone be able to prevent that emulation from degenerating into dangerous ambition, irregular rivalries, destructive factions, wasting seditions, and bloody civil war.
But it is Madison who provided in Federalist 51 the most famous expression of this fundamental truth:
It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices [the separation and balance of powers] should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.
With the Boomers, though, this traditional American political wisdom was corrupted by utopianism, a childish belief that perfect justice, perfect equality, absolute freedom, and a world without losers or violence would come about just because we desired it so. Unrealistic standards of state behavior and goals alien to the tragic truths of human nature became the touchstone of political virtue. At the same time, government has to grow more and more powerful in order to accomplish lofty goals like eliminating poverty, discrimination, or war, in the process threatening political freedom and personal autonomy. This demand for absolute personal freedom and greater government power to achieve unrealistic goals reflects the incoherence typical of childish reasoning.
This is the world the Boomers have created. Popular and “serious” culture both reflect a highly polished mediocrity, its stale and questionable ideas given a patina of technical high finish and spurious innovation. Our politics embodies a juvenile utopianism expressed in bumper-sticker bromides — “hope and change” — dangerous in a world of hard men, conflicting goods, tragic limits, and fanatical evil. Worst of all, adolescent sentimentalism rules all, one peculiarly offensive when it is hidden by “transgressive” camouflage. Just think of the treacly melodrama Angels in America. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, you have to have a heart of stone to watch this show without bursting out laughing. These are all the expressions of an over-indulged, badly educated teen-aged mind.
But the ultimate blame for this generation’s pathologies lies with bad ideas birthed long before 1946 and spread by grown-ups who should have known better.
Romanticism midwifed the cult of feeling and solipsistic individualism.
Positivism popularized the notion that science and technology could liberate us from suffering, want, and failure.
Communism, socialism, and progressivism all pursued the impossible dream of perfect equality and justice.
Secularism and the decline of faith empowered pseudo-scientific substitutes like psychology and sociology.
All these diseases of modernity slumbered in the body politic, infecting mostly the intellectual and artistic elites, until they broke out into an epidemic nurtured by post-war wealth and mass media. And here we are today, like Livy’s Romans so far gone that we can stand neither the disease nor the cure.
©2011 Bruce S. Thornton