In autumn of 1912, the British journalist Lytton Strachey declared to Virginia Woolf his opinion of the Victorians: they “seem to me a set of mouth bungled hypocrites,” he wrote. In this spirit Strachey embarked on a quest to write a multi-person critical biography of the figures he considered the most Victorian of the Victorians, the ones who embodied most completely the ethos and legacy Strachey despised. The book he wrote was Eminent Victorians, still considered a landmark classic of the genre.
You don’t have to be familiar with Strachey or his magnum opus to appreciate what Helen Andrews is doing in Boomers: The Men and Women Who Promised Freedom and Delivered Disaster, but the literary tradition to which she contributes makes perhaps a bit more sense out of her project. Cultural criticism is one thing; generational criticism is a bit hairier. How can one possibly debate the political or aesthetic legacy of a group identified only by a birth date range? But Strachey—whom Andrews helpfully invokes in her introduction—was not ultimately seeking to pass a moral judgment on Victorians, but on his readers, who had projected unearned virtues onto their ancestors by way of fuzzy history. So also Andrews’s book is not so much a case for something in the water between 1946-1964, as it is a lament for an inattentive and over-compliant progeny who have been all too happy to surrender wealth and power to the undeserving.
For Andrews, the story of the Baby Boomers and American society is a simple tale. “Every generation is dealt its own challenges and handles them as well as it can,” she writes. “The boomers were dealt an uncommonly good hand, which makes it truly incredible that they should have screwed up so badly.” The “good hand” was, of course, the astonishing economic security that followed Allied victory in WWII, as well as an unusually concentrated sense of American solidarity and purpose that manifested itself in the creation and flourishing of strong institutions. The Boomers were born in the warm afterglow of American victory, both military and social.
Andrews tells the story of how Boomers screwed all this up by selecting six of them whose lives and ideas form a sort of narrative arc into American decadence. She begins with Steve Jobs, who, of all her subjects, was the least politically powerful but perhaps the most truly eminent. Jobs gave the world Apple, and Apple, in Andrews’ telling, is the perfect metaphor for the defining characteristic of the Boomers: a resilient idealism, an unflagging belief in the potential of utopian progress that was matched only by its Dickensian descent into raw, naked mammonism.
The story continues with Boomer #2, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin. If Jobs is Andrews’s most eminent Boomer, Sorkin is certainly her least. Yet in Sorkin, and especially his most enduring work, The West Wing, Andrews sees the Boomer idealism take a technocratic shape. Of The West Wing’s colorfully written characters, she writes:
Well-intentioned, hypercompetent, with the relevant facts at their fingertips at all times, these were just the sorts of people anyone would want to see running the country. In the absence of a strong preexisting commitment to small government, one could easily come to the conclusion that such people ought to have as much power and they can get their hands on. Sorkin taught a generation of Washingtonians that they were capable of running the country from eighteen acres on Pennsylvania Avenue if only they put in the hours, and worse, that they deserved to.
Andrews sees in Sorkin the Boomer propensity toward technocratic do-goodery, aping the moral structure of religion while ridiculing its non-cosmopolitan doctrines. Understanding this critique is vital to tracking Andrews’ case against the Boomers, since all of the Boomers profiled in the book share the same essential worldview whether they express it through technology, art, activism, or politics.
Irony is at the heart of the Boomer legacy. The fragmented, infertile society into which iGen are graduating is nothing like the world envisioned by Woodstock’s children, so confident they were of sexual liberation’s power to heal the self. Such is the parable of the life and work of Camille Paglia, the subject of Andrews’ best and most convincing chapter: “Paglia has dabbled in decadence as if it were a game…she toyed with forces that were much more dangerous than she imagined them to be, and they turned on her in the end.” I can imagine a very compelling book about our cultural harvest from Steve Jobs and Camille Paglia, two Boomers very unlike each other except in their commitments to freeing the post-sexual revolutionary individual from the constraints of body and soul. What would they think if they saw the millions of bleary-eyed, unemployed thirty-something men spend this hard-won liberation watching free porn on palm-sized screens?
The final two profiles in Boomers are of Al Sharpton and Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor, and interestingly, it is Sharpton who comes off more sympathetic. But if Andrews’s case against technocratic Boomer idealism was on sure footing against Paglia and Jobs, it is less secure when the topic changes to the politics of race. Whether Sharpton is something of a victim of an idealistic but misguided public war on “transactional leadership” (the politics of compromise and quid pro quo) is an intriguing point, and there’s little question that “arc of history” eschatology has paralyzed American problem-solving. But considering the Boomer legacy of race is one example of why such generational criticism is so fraught with pitfalls: it asks us to judge choices from above the formative effects of experience.
Why did the Boomers make the choices they did? Andrews’s answer seems to be that they were foolish, arrogant people. This is undoubtedly true of some, but perhaps others did not receive as good of a hand as she thinks.
Consider parenting, which shapes a worldview far more powerfully than any ambient generational zeitgeist. Many of the parents of these eminent Boomers were colossal failures. Sotomayor’s father was an alcoholic, and Sharpton’s dad abandoned the family to hook up with his son’s half-sister. Jobs’s biological mother put him up for adoption (his lifelong resentment of being given up is a major theme of the 2015 biopic Steve Jobs, written by none other than Aaron Sorkin). Likewise, the notion that Boomers were wholly responsible for ushering in an era of skyrocketing divorce and sexual dysfunction — thus igniting a much wider decline of American solidarity and institutional health — is misleading. As Brad Wilcox documents, America’s first no-fault divorce law came to California via governor Ronald Reagan. Hugh Hefner wrote for a military paper during WWII, and Alfred Kinsey published Sexual Behavior in the Human Male in 1948 — the same year Reagan’s first wife, Jane Wyman, filed for divorce.
The point is that Reagan, Hefner, and Kinsey were not Boomers, but they created social and legal realities for them. Thus, tracing cultural neuroses may be slippier work than some suppose. Granting that politics is downstream from culture, it seems inarguable that the political dysfunction and decadence that the ruling Boomer class oversaw was downstream from cultural revolutions that began well before the first flower children showed up at Woodstock. One could perhaps even venture the opinion that technocratic idealism was a rational, if destructive, response to the shattering experiences of war and Jim Crow that defined the Silent Generation. Whether that is the best analysis of the Boomers’ legacy is certainly up for debate (it is almost certainly too generous to those who, as Andrews notes, dominate the levers of power and capital to this day). But it’s at least plausible.
Nonetheless, Andrews’s sense that Boomers presided over disastrous transformations in American culture seems right. Particularly within evangelicalism, the beliefs and practices that ascended during Boomer pre-eminence have borne rotted fruit. It was the leadership of the Boomers inside the Southern Baptist Convention — my institutional church home — that led to a one-note emphasis on mass evangelism, cutting corners in discipleship, and empowering charismatic CEO-types, rather than qualified servant-shepherds, to take leadership.
Evangelicalism under the Boomers was indeed often a delusional idealism, an overconfidence in the power of technique and media savvy to effect lasting influence. It’s not a coincidence that the #MeToo revelations that have scorched American media elites have been nearly as omnipresent in conservative Protestantism as in Hollywood: both groups use strikingly similar methods to measure success and anoint leaders. If the current generation of evangelicals succeed in correcting the drifts of our churches and institutions, it will be due firstly to the power and mercy of the Spirit, but also to the willingness of many to admit that those whom we thought were heroes may have been the problem.
But critique and destruction, however necessary, are not sufficient. We need more than the negative examples of Boomers to avoid their mistakes; we need to not only, as Paul wrote, abhor what is evil but also cling to the good. In that spirit, let me offer three examples of Boomers whose legacies give me hope for the future.
John Piper was born at the very top of the Boomer border, in 1946. Timothy Keller was born a little later, in 1950. In their own ways, both men embody many of the signature characteristics of American Boomers. For a Calvinist, Piper is remarkably idealistic. His Southern evangelical pietism doesn’t always play well on the internet. Keller, on the other hand, could be an Aaron Sorkin masterwork: philosophical, articulate, and urbane, he quotes experts and The New York Times, always casting a wide contrast against the typical coastal elite depiction of Christians.
But I can’t listen to anyone talk about the Boomers without thinking of the way these two men, in the twilight of their lives (Keller was recently diagnosed with pancreatic cancer), have stood like pillars as the chaotic waves of evangelicalism have crashed around them. There are no accusations of marital infidelity or sexual abuse. They’ve allowed oceans of money from books and speaking to pass them by, choosing to entrust advances and honorariums to non-profit ministries. They didn’t go to seminary to become celebrity pastors; both men were firmly middle-aged and seasoned pastors before publishing their first books. You don’t have to agree with everything they say to appreciate the race they’ve run, alongside so many other runners who abandoned the course. In a morass of American Christian culture that seemingly has a new villain exposed every month, these two Boomers look primed to finish their race as patriarchs of thousands of faithful pastors and teachers.
The third Boomer is my father. It’s not just that he’s the man I love and respect more than any other man in the world. It’s that, for as long as I’ve been able to think about stuff like this, I’ve felt something was true of his will and outlook on the world that wasn’t true of me. There is a steely-eyed determination in him to do as much as he can for those he loves and serves, no matter the personal inconvenience. The phrase “self-care” means nothing to him. He is not interested in his personality profile or Enneagram number.
As long as I’ve known him, he has taught and modeled one thing: doing what’s right as much as you can. Whatever his Boomer naivete about the power of higher education, he put his kids through college on a minister’s salary that couldn’t provide health insurance. Dad would reject any insinuation that he’s exceptional. He would say he only did what he learned to do. The lesson stuck to him far better than it ever stuck to me. I pray to get there one day.