Monday, January 10, 2022

Guest Review: @pdxsag on "Boomers: The Men and Women Who Promised Freedom and Delivered Disaster" by Helen Andrews

 [This is a guest review by CBS correspondent @PdxSag of Boomers: The Men and Women Who Promised Freedom and Delivered Disaster.] 

Early reviews of Boomers: The Men and Women Who Promised Freedom and Delivered Disaster [4/5] suggested that author Helen Andrews had given the Baby Boomers the proper fisking they deserve. She is a conservative essayist and senior editor at The American Conservative, so I was hoping that her take-down of Boomers would be better grounded in reality than the typical criticisms that were coming from progressive Millennials (some say communists); essentially that Boomers weren't liberal enough.

Andrews modeled her book on Eminent Victorians by Lytton Strachey, which was a very popular criticism of a prior generation that had been held in undue esteem and was now getting a second reckoning. (An important distinction with Boomers is they are unduly esteemed only by themselves.) EV is four essays taking aim at four Victorians that were the ideological standard bearers for Great Britain's involvement in The Great War: Cardinal Manning ("Roman Catholic Archbishop and social progressive"), Thomas Arnold (inventor of the English public school as we know it), Charles Gordon (famous British general in the Raj) and Florence Nightingale. While EV was an unfair take-down – to which the author, a cynical, nihilstic, Modernist, freely admitted – it resonated among a war-weary public who wanted to blame someone for the mess Great Britain found itself in at the conclusion of the war.

In contrast to Strachey, Andrews intends her criticism to be fair, which it is. As with Eminent Victorians, Andrews' Boomers is a collection of essays taking aim at and knocking down a selection of Boomers who best exemplify the popular nostrums for which Boomers hold themselves in high and thoroughly undue esteem.

Andrews' targets are: Steve Jobs, Aaron Sorkin, Jeffery Sachs, Camilla Paglia, Al Sharpton, and Sonia Sotomayor. This cast of characters capture Boomers' narcissism, hypocrisy, and perhaps most of all mediocre talent and intellect trying to use irony in order to pass itself for genius.

Jobs and Sorkin representative of the numerous cultural icons that Boomers use to claim their generation's unique moral integrity. Of course, as narcissists and hypocrites, the Boomers' claims to moral integrity could not be further from the truth. And so likewise: Jobs is famously a narcissist's narcissist and a hypocrite's hypocrite. Sorkin is similarly a hypocrite in that he claims we wants to be a highbrow auteur, but his greatest success is a middle-brow, schlocky TV show: The West Wing. His biggest failure is Newsroom, an overwrought, self-important TV show about cable-TV news.

The irony is that these two Boomers are actually the anti-Boomers of the group: they are legitimately virtuosos of talent in their fields, and they were critical of the debased, laissez-faire cultural revolution that remains the defining characteristic of the Boomer generation. For Jobs it meant taking a hardline against online pornography. For Sorkin it meant trying to critique television broadly and cable TV news specifically. One must admit, Quixotic “hills to die on” are as anti-Boomer as it gets. Nonetheless, Boomers themselves conveniently glossed over these flights of fancy and ret-conned the rest of Jobs and Sorkin cultural criticisms as being supportive of Boomers' raison d'etre: cultural revolution.

  • When [Jobs] married Powell in a Zen Buddist ceremony in 1991, Jobs served an eggless, dairyless, no-refined-sugar wedding cake that many of his guests found inedible. This proves that his vaguely mystical asceticism about food was genuine, if we wasn't willing to let it slide for a special occasion. On the other hand, forcing your friends and admirers to eat a flavorless vegan loaf is also a power trip.
  • More than half the tech workers in Silicon Valley are foreign-born. A conservative journalist once analyzed the big tech companies' spending on lobbying to see which bills received the most attention. The top targets weren't patent protections or communications spending but visas for high-skilled workers. Cheap labor from Asia is one reason wages for computer programmers have been stagnant since 1998.
  • Apple had long been a holdout against outsourcing, in large part thanks to Jobs. He insisted that Macintosh be built in America, and the operations team complied, building a factory in Fremont, California. When investors in NeXT pressured Jobs to outsource manufacturing to Asia, he refused, even when Ross Perot resigned from the board in protest... It was Cook [also a Boomer] who cultivated Apple' close relationship with Foxconn.
  • They discovered that the tradition did not exist... At that moment, we realized we all must have been thinking about this episode of The West Wing where Leo asks for the cabinet resignations... I [Andrews] can personally confirm what must be, to people living outside Washington, a disturbing truth: a significant portion of our ruling class is made up of former West Wing obsessives.
  • Baby Boomers love idealism, but do they even know the difference between the real thing and the imitation? Is their appreciation of moral integrity real or just an affectation?

Sachs and Paglia embody the hubris of Boomers. The arc of many Boomer's career is that they always fail up. It is stiff competition, but Sachs may be the winner at failing up given his choice of career: foreign aide and economic redevelopment, certainly the most dismal field of the dismal science. Sachs CV includes such gems as Bolivia, Poland, Russia, before trying his hand in Africa, and finally creating his own NGO: The Millennium Villages Project.

Their hubris comes into play when they believe they can help succeed in reforming and developing the 3rd world when all prior attempts have failed. Paglia's hubris is that culture's vast unwritten norms, especially around sexual mores, can be deconstructed and  tossed aside without any consequence for the vast majority of society. As if that which is workable among upper-class, homosexual college students is in any way applicable to broad society. She validates every criticism aimed at the Ivory Tower stereotype.

  •  Looking at the consequences of television from politics to journalism [to investing -@pdxsag], one starts to wonder whether pseudo-knowledge might be worse than no knowledge at all.
    Two-thirds of the money USAID spent in Eastern Europe in 1991 went to “technical assistance,” which meant it was hoovered up by contractors like the Big Six accounting firms for their fees and expenses... Sardonic officials joked that USAID seemed to be solving the West's unemployment problem, but not Poland's.
  • Like Wilde, Paglia has dabbled in decadence as if it were a game. The pithy paradoxes, the valorization of glamour, the celebration of sexual daring, have to her been a way of striking a pose, a way to annoy all the academic frumps and feminist scolds who considered Madonna's Sex book beneath their attention. Paglia's tragedy, like that of her fin de siecle forebears, is that she toyed with forces that were much more dangerous than she imagined them to be, and they turned on her in the end.
  • In 1956 the concept did not exist at all. In 1966 it was full grown and dominant... the idea was this: no matter what the courts and the legislatures had traditionally deemed 'obscene'... the government could not suppress a book if it had merit as literature... This effectively cancelled almost all censorship at a stroke, for even in 1966 there was no work of art so repellent that it could not find a defender in some English department somewhere.
  • She [Paglia] realized that the so-called tenured radicals were not really radicals at all but apple polishing class president types, or else plain hucksters. All the real radicals had flamed out on drugs or dropped out of academia after one rejection too many by timid hiring committees. The universities were abandoned to “toadying careerists, Fifties types who wave around Sixties banners to conceal their record of ruthless beaverlike tunneling to the top.”
  • When they [college professoriat] see that they have the power to make a man who once would have been an adult with a wife and kid instead sit in a cage well into his midtwenties, taking creative writing from some goateed drudge, they don't worry whether they have the power to get away with a comparative bagatelle like gender-neutral pronouns.

Sharpton and Sotomayor embody mediocre talent and intellect trying to pass for genius. It is fitting that nowhere is this more true than in these two affirmative action cases. It is fitting that nowhere is this more true than in these two affirmative action cases. Probably the best two chapters in the book are these two because Andrews doesn't shrink from criticizing racial politics, something almost verboten outside of anonymous social media channels.

  • How could this calamity [school busing and forced neighborhood integration] be memory-holed so thoroughly that, to the extent anyone remembers it today, we talk as if the Holocaust survivors were the villains of the story? It is because the boomers themselves were too young to remember it. Most people born in the decade after 1945 would have been in their twenties when Judge Garrity's busing decision came down, too old to be in school and too young to have children of their own.
  • Preserving the boomers' liberalism on race was, in many cases, precisely why their parents had fled to the suburbs. Bernie and Roz Ebstein of Chicago had marched with Martin Luther King and were committed to staying in Merrionette Manor even as the neighborhood flipped, until their school-age sons started expressing racial resentments: “You believe this stuff about integration,” their eldest told them, “but we're living it.” The Ebsteins quickly moved to Hyde Park, where little David and Steven would no longer have their liberal opinions beaten out of them. Having high-status views on race was part of the middle-class life they wanted to pass on to their children, no less than material comforts and a college education. It is therefore a mark of white flight's success that so many boomers are willing to believe Ta-Nehisi Coates' lies about it.
  • The problem today is not that we have regressed to the old machine politics. It is that we have all of the old machine politicians' vices and none of their virtues. The D.C. mayor Marion Barry was quite a step down from the old Irish bosses. At one point he had nearly one in thirteen D.C. residents on the municipal payroll; Boss Tweed would have been appalled at the inefficiency. He would also have been appalled at the sanctimony. Barry cloaked his most brazen peculations in the high-flown language of civil rights, even after be was busted smoking crack on FBI surveillance video. In the eyes of his supporters, standing up to the white power structure justified any level of corruption and waste in the actual operations of the city government... Tammany rule was always punctuated by intervals of reform when voters got fed up, whereas Marion Barry held office in D.C. pretty much continually until his death, except for the brief period when he was actually incarcerated.
  • Anonymous quotations from clerks who worked with Sotomayor on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals piled insult on insult. “Not that smart and kind of a bully on the bench,” said one. “She has an inflated opinion of herself, and is domineering during oral arguments but her questions aren't penetrating and don't get to the heart of the issue,” said another. Rosen's idea of giving a balanced view was to quote a third clerk as saying, “She's a fine Second Circuit judge. Maybe not the smartest ever, but how often are Supreme Court nominees the smartest ever?”
  • The irony was that Tribe and Rosen had both defended affirmative action in the past... [Tribe] probably believed for the really important stuff, like Supreme Court nominations, affirmative action would yield to pure meritocracy.”
  • Some first-year justices lie low out of deference to the more senior justices. Not Sotomayor, whose interruptions – not just of lawyers, but of other justices in the middle of asking their own questions – are so frequent that Chief Justice Roberts sometimes has to reprimand her or give an attorney extra time to finish his remarks. During oral argument for Department of Commerce v. New Your, on whether the 2020 census could ask respondents their citizenship status, Sotomayor interrupted the soliciter general fifty-eight times in eighty minutes, a record number of interruptions for any justice that term. In 2013 she was so quick to seize the floor that she managed to talk over the famously taciturn Clarence Thomas' only intervention in a decade.

I've been an unabashed critic of the Boomers since the 90's. I've been an unabashed critic of the Boomers since the 90's. And, so far as I am aware, my ire towards them is rivaled only by that of fellow Gen X-er VoxDay. I wanted a vitriolic fisking of the Boomers. As Andrews explains in the preface, this book is not that. I can do no better than to quote Andrews herself on this point:

“[F]or Eminent Victorians his [Lytton Strachey's] ironic prose only helped. It gave the book a light touch. The Victorians could survive being proven wrong. They could not survive being made to look ridiculous...

“I don't feel this book was written in a spirit of meanness. As I was drafting a list of boomers to profile, I found that I had no interest at all in writing about buffoons and psychopaths... Instead, I was drawn to the boomers who had all the elements of greatness but whose effect on the world was tragically and often ironically contrary to their intentions. Their destructiveness came from their virtues as much as their vices.”

“I began this book thinking that it could articulate the same anti-boomer brief that all my millennial friends seemed to be arriving at independently. Boomers were the people who scolded us for complaining about student loan debt when, in their day, you could work off a semester's tuition in a few shifts sweeping floors at the biology lab. They're the parents who ask why we're still single when their example of broken homes and sexual anarchism didn't leave us with much to go on. They're the ones who discredited the old uncomplicated patriotism and replaced it with worship of – themselves.”

After completing Boomers, I agree that Andrews' choice of a light touch was the correct one. There's an old attorney joke that when the facts are on your side, pound the facts, when the law is on your side pound the law, and when neither the facts nor the law are on your side, pound the table. Well, the facts are on her side, so yelling, as much as I think I would have enjoyed it, really isn't necessary.

Nonetheless, I do have two criticisms. The first is among her selection of six Boomers to pan, she did not include anyone to represent the financial nexus of government and Wall Street. Two easy and obvious choices here are Ben Bernanke and Larry Summers. Perhaps this is to be expected owing to her primarily political journalism, but to ignore the economic destruction of the middle class is to miss the elephant in the room.

Boomers were gifted the richest inheritance the world has ever known. Yet, not content with that birthright, they also mortgaged their children's and grandchildren's financial futures. The serial asset bubbles instigated by the Federal Reserve (and front-run by Fed Board Governors and Congress members alike) has transformed the national character. The reigning zeitgeist from Silicon Valley to r/wsb is a mad, speculative dash to make enough money now that the country's problems won't apply to you come the 4th Turning. Arguably, if anything, Boomers' selfishness has insured the widely hailed, if slow to arrive, 4th Turning's inevitability. My fear is that the Boomers, like the Victorians, won't actually be around to experience that which they have wrought.

My second criticism is that, like so many other millennials, Andrews completely ignores that there exists a generation between hers and Boomers: Gen X. Millennials are always complaining about their Boomer parents and the hash Boomers have made of things for them and their future. Fair enough. However, Millennials are not the only ones to have Boomer parents. Many Gen X have Boomer parents too. 1991 had a pretty ugly recession. Being a college grad in 1991 was as harrowing a situation as being a college grad in 2008, such as Andrews was. I'm not sure Millennials know this, but latchkey kid was a common term of art in the 1980's. In contrast, “snowflake” is all Millennials' own.

So why the difference? There are many, of course, but one that I've not seen discussed on the interwebz is the difference among Boomers themselves. Boomers that skipped or dropped out of college, got married soon after high school, and had their kids in their early 20's (ie. late 1960's and through the 1970's) were more culturally conservative than the Boomers that went to college, joined the white collar work force in predominately blue urban-metros, then got married and started having their kids in the 1980's. This cultural bifurcation in Boomers has made a generational bifurcation between Gen X and Millennials. So now we see Millennials largely share a similar narcissistic “communism for me, but not for thee” that their Boomer parents essentially have.

Andrews herself (~1986) is a perfect example in form, albeit not function. She dedicates the book to her father, who was born in 1953. She describes her father as a “liberal Southern lawyer of the Atticus Finch type,” and of her mother, “a bit of a hippie when she was younger – she majored in pottery at a college that no longer exists.” Holy Frig. "Fiscally conservative, but socially liberal" called, and they want their Bush tax cuts back. Seriously.

I think being from the South narrowly saved Andrews from being yet another progressive liberal punched out of the Ivy League-Atlantic-NPR assembly line. However, by way of contrast, my parents were born just one year before Andrews' father, yet I graduated from college before Norm MacDonald was doing Dan Akroyd doing Bob Dole.

In fact, Gen X are the truest libertarian, live-and-let-live generation since the Frontier was still open. They are under-represented in politics because they mostly DGAF about trying to micro-manage everyone else living according to their best judgment. The exceptions prove the rule. You have to go to the judiciary, the least political of the three branches of government, to find any Gen X-ers on the national stage with household names: Kavanaugh, Gorsuch, and Barrett. And how are their politics best described? Probably BoomerCon-lite. It's amazing when you think about it. The few Gen X you can find are in their positions because they are essentially Boomers-lite.

My point of bringing up Gen X is to make clear there is a third way. What's missing from the Boomer v. Millennial zero-sum fight over how much largess from the public purse each is due, is how about less public purse. Instead of fighting over who gets the most value-transferred, let us have less value-transference. The GI Generation, for all their Big Gov/Big Corp deference, on the individual level were rugged individualists and irrepressable entrepreneurs. By not exploring this avenue, I feel Andrews left an important question unsettled.

As our host pointed out in his review of A Generation of Sociopaths (also about the Boomers, by Bruce Gibney), the Boomers are not old enough to be directly responsible for all the bad ideas attributed to them:

If I had to defend the boomers at their trial, like John Adams and the soldiers in Boston, the key to their defense would be that the oldest boomers were only in their 20s when the economic collapse of the middle class in the U.S. began. (It's important to get our collapses straight, because we live in a fractal of increasing collapses within collapses.) Take a look at the website WTF Happened In 1971? as well as the related twitter account. The year 1971 is when middle class compensation in the U.S. decoupled from its productivity, and all gains from increased productivity went exclusively to oligarchs, making the distribution of wealth much more unequal. Other disquieting trends started at the same time: increasing age at first marriage, the obesity epidemic, falling beef consumption per capita. What happened in 1971 was that it was the date of the second of the U.S.'s three big dollar devaluations so far. (The first was in 1933, and the third is happening right now.) The year 1970 was also the nadir of foreign-born in the U.S. labor force, which went from 5% in 1970 to (at least) 17% today. Boomers simply cannot have been responsible for this - they were too young. I think what we can say in fairness to the boomers is that they did behave selfishly because by the time they were adults, their nation had been repealed and replaced with a free-for-all economic zone. Smashing the middle class (via central banking and imported serfs) and making their neighborhoods no-go zones was not something the boomers did, it was something they responded to by adopting a code of "every man for himself." So of course boomers fled to the suburbs and committed architectural atrocities. People (including boomers) build cheap disposable houses because the U.S. middle class is a stateless people whose neighborhoods can be targeted for destruction at any time. (Twitter account @wrathofgnon feigns ignorance about the real reasons for our pathetic suburbs.) 

Andrews also makes clear in her chapters on Sachs and Sotomayor that the Boomers were not old enough to be directly responsible for all the bad ideas attributed to them. At best they were useful idiots (perhaps naive would be more correct owing to their age). The liberal, modernist ideas then circulating primarily among academics, think-tanks, NGO's, and the upper-echelons of the administrative government were not yet taken seriously among the general public.

However, Boomers' student protests gave the ideas the appearance of popular support they wouldn't have been able to otherwise claim. So, does one blame Boomers or does one blame the largely Silents and GI Generations that indulged them? I argue it is as with spoiled children: when they are children, you blame the parents; when they are adults, you blame the person. In the case of the Boomers, as they left college and moved into adulthood they did not correct course on any of the progressive agenda, especially when they directly benefited from it. If it benefited them, they doubled-down. In contrast, when it personally cost their cohort money, they could and did reverse course. I blame the Boomers.

Andrews is an essayist and it comes through very strongly in Boomers. She takes each of her subjects to task with the speed and precision of Zorro. It's fabulous and absolutely makes the book worth the price of admission, earning it a solid 4/5 rating. As I was reading Boomers I would tag lines that I thought would make for interesting collection of quotes. By the time I concluded I had over 32 tags, and this was being scrupulous because I figured at most I would only be able to quote a couple per chapter. As I flipped through the book to write this review I was struck by how many quotable paragraphs I didn't tag. I could easily double the number of quotes still not have hit all of them. Like this one:

“Proletariat” comes from the Latin proles, “child,”  meaning it is the class that has no wealth but its offspring. Today's proletariat has had even that taken away from them. 

This one stuck with me most of all when I read it. The rage among tech bros and the YOLO speculative crowd is “generational wealth” – make so much money that you set-up not only yourself, but your kids and grandkids to be a self-actualizing free people not beholden to money and status-striving rat-race that the wage-slaves find themselves trapped in. This is the X Class as Fussell originally described it, before the term was applied to an entire demographic cohort. The truth is, generational wealth conceived that way is a chimera. Humans are not meant to be idle, rich or no. The FIRE bros show us where that leads. Wealth is the legacy you create with your children. Instilling (investing) into them strong moral fiber, an appreciation for the history and culture which they are the products of, and a high agency mindset – arete.

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