by Bruce S. Thornton
Like the hero of Gunter Grass’ novel The Tin Drum, America’s progressive Baby Boomers chose not to grow up. Why should they? They decided that their development was complete when they graduated from college. All they needed to do was affirm their magnificent, world-historical identity. No surprise, then, that we are currently afflicted by the juvenile politics of the Democratic Party, the policies of which embody the Boomer creed: we all have a right to eat our entitlement and hedonism cake and have it too — as long as it’s subsidized by the evil rich.
Boomers, of course, had a lot of help in postponing adulthood. The ever-extending length of adolescence partly accounts for this. Post-war affluence made it affordable to prolong further this historically unprecedented time of life between childhood and adulthood. Consumerism took advantage of this new market, one prone to impulse buying and enjoying access to lots of surplus wealth. So they elevated in social importance the transient whims, banal ideas, and foolish desires of a group flush with disposable income. The result was the most pampered, obsessed over, and indulged generation in American history.
As a consequence, the Boomers developed the unearned sense of entitlement and unrealistic expectations more typical of spoiled children. And the culture went right along with them and pandered to their juvenile taste, mainly because there was money to be made. The traditional moral limits on materialism and freely indulging one’s appetites had always gotten in the way of profit. Starting in the 50’s, the old taboos about sex, public vulgarity, and drugs all began to be swept away. “If it feels good, do it” 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 “edgy” and “transgressive” into the dullest of clichés, and reduced what was once the sordid practices of rakes and roués into the mass-marketed fashion accessories of pre-teens, and the subject of smutty jokes on prime-time sit-coms. And anyone who tries to stand athwart this locomotive of degradation is dismissed as a fascist square or a religious fanatic who wants to “turn back the clock” to the dark days of sexual oppression and repression.
This cultural debasement was helped along 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 debased history into a cheap political melodrama of oppression, institutionalized victim politics, abandoned training in critical analysis, and promoted utopian standards of happiness and justice never to be met in a complex world of flawed humans. Yet chanting the slogans, jargon, and clichés embodying 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 intellectual or moral 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 in politics, schools, and the media. Better yet, the privilege of bourgeoisie Boomers was now compensated for by the ostentatious endorsement of “social justice” for people living two zip codes over.
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 what Madison called the “passions and interests” of human nature impose limits on what governments can accomplish. Loss, failure, disappointment, poverty, injustice, and suffering can never be eliminated from human life, only mitigated at best. 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 philosophy of the Founders, as can be seen everywhere in theFederalist essays and the assumptions underlying the Constitution. For example, Hamilton in Federalist 6 reminds us “that men are ambitious, vindictive, and rapacious.” In 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, so that faction will block faction from threatening the freedom of the whole citizenry. As John Adams said, dismissing 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.”
With progressive 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 alike reflect a highly polished mediocrity, its stale and questionable ideas and creaking clichéd plots and characters — psycho white guys, CIA agents, corporate CEOs, repressed Christians — 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. 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 and eternal universal happiness. 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, eventually leading to the presidency of Barack Obama, a walking symptomatology of the progressive Boomer disease. And here we are today, like Livy’s Romans so far gone that we can stand neither the disease nor the cure.
©2013 Bruce S. Thornton