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Baby Boomers

Righty: I’m a Baby Boomer myself, but I blame my generation for virtually all the cultural evils that have spread like some insidious virus throughout the Western world since the 1960s: drugs, permissiveness, crackpot “liberation” movements, chronic self-absorption, political correctness and some of the ugliest music in history. We’re still paying for those excesses today. What happened to all those wild, long-haired, pot-smoking rebels who came of age in the late sixties? They’re either acquiring million-dollar vacation homes or buying their wheat-free organic granola at the local food co-op. Rich or poor, the common thread here seems to be pathological self-indulgence. Most Boomers can’t see beyond their own navels. We have yet to produce a single writer, artist, composer or statesman of genuine greatness. Even our generation’s culture heroes (think of Dylan, the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones, Jane Fonda, Woody Allen) are pre-Boomers to a man (or woman). Well, at least we can claim George W. Bush as one of our own.

Lefty: Maybe we Boomers haven’t produced many cultural giants of our own, but we’ve produced an incomparably more just and progressive culture than the one we inherited from our parents. Look at the strides we’ve made in improving life for women, gays and people of color. Look at the extended lifespans, the loss of rigid class divisions, the world-changing brilliance of our technology. (You wouldn’t be posting your opinions here, Righty, if you hadn’t been standing on the sturdy shoulders of farsighted Boomers.) I guess the common thread here is an all-encompassing sense of community; instead of the individual genius, we’ve produced a democratic culture that cherishes contributions from ordinary people like you and me. Can’t you take generational pride in an achievement like that? Oh, and don’t forget that the Clintons are Boomers, too.

The New Moderate:

Let me confess that I never took to the streets with the scruffy collegiate revolutionaries of my generation. My parents had decent values and generally lived up to them; I didn’t feel the need to act out my adolescent angst in the form of political rallies, psychotropic drugs or excessive cranial foliage.

Years later, I used to lament my abstention from the woolly excesses of sixties culture. Why couldn’t I have lived in a commune or at least enjoyed a few wild weeks of free hippie love? Why did I hold fast to buttoned-down bourgeois values, when everyone around me was letting it all hang out? But now I think I was wiser than I thought, if that makes any sense.

What I loathed about the Boomer counterculture was its inordinate love of bad-boy, in-your-face, confrontational behavior coupled with belligerent left-wing fanaticism. Granted, the revolutionaries never succeeded in storming the barricades; they simply hunkered down on campus, where they now enjoy life as comfortably tenured radicals who reject all ideas that grate against their ideological agendas. And of course, our culture is still hopelessly smitten with bad boys (even when those bad boys happen to be girls).

What began as a healthy skepticism toward corrupt authority degenerated into a generalized contempt for all authority: religious, political, social, moral, cultural, parental. We toppled ancient idols and gloated over the wreckage. We still dwell amid those ruins today, but we haven’t erected anything more impressive in their place.

What I liked about the Boomer counterculture — its playful spirit, its freaky humor and expressiveness, its love of adventures both physical and intellectual — seems to have died a slow death as the working world purged us of our romantic inclinations. Most of us seem to have sold out without the least whimper of regret; we became militant moneymakers. And so our Boomer playfulness eventually found expression in more mundane outlets: the cultivation of rarefied restaurant cuisine, a quirky preoccupation with lifestyle (there were no “style” sections in our newspapers before 1970), an obstinate refusal to age on schedule, and of course, a never-ending preoccupation with our own feelings. No other generation ever took to therapy with such enthusiasm, or needed to.

Why, then, has so much of Boomer culture tended toward anti-playfulness? Consider the Boomers’ transformation of parenting into a joyless science, the rampant careerism, the intrusion of work into personal time, the rejection of goofy fun and games in favor of dinner-party correctness, the unhealthy obsession with health and fitness. It all confirms my suspicion of a strong fanatical streak in the Boomer psyche.

In the end, after the last Boomers have turned to sawdust, how will history look upon us? I suspect we’ll be known as the Peter Pan generation. We attacked life with all the gusto and petulance of children, we believed the world revolved around us, and we despised old age. (The Baby Boomers will probably gain distinction as the first generation in history to advance from adolescence to old age without an intervening interval of maturity.) If we never achieved greatness, or even goodness, at least it can be said that we expanded our horizons beyond our parents’ humble meatloaf and mashed potatoes. That appears to be our legacy, for better or worse, and it looks as if we’ll have to be satisfied with it.

Summary: With their self-absorbed view of life, the Baby Boomers have done ample good and probably more harm. In the end, they renounced greatness for the comforts of their self-made lifestyles.

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