Did boomers break America?
May 30, 2018
There’s been a spate of press recently about ‘how baby boomers broke America.'
Seriously, that’s the title of a piece on Time’s web site by Steven Brill — it's an excerpt from his new book, Tailspin, on how screwed up the country is. And for all the vehement disagreement out there, that's the one thing we can all agree on: The country is screwed up. More so now than any time since, say 1968, when the cops were bashing heads in Chicago at the Democratic National Convention and blood was running down Michigan Avenue.
By consensus, there’s more division, vitriol and blame today than ever. Or does it just seem that way because we all have our own media channels? Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Instagram (not baby boomer inventions, it must be noted) are a maelstrom of non-stop and naked rage, narcissism, and deception. It's ugly, and through this toxicity of our public sphere, and to the shame of the majority of thinking Americans, we’ve elevated the single person best at this vile and vulgar game — the very worst person among us — to be our president.
Are baby boomers really to blame?
Didn't the Greatest Generation bequeath an at least semi-orderly world upon us? Three major TV networks, Kentucky Fried Chicken and gas for under $2 a gallon, right? We’ve been the adults in the room for quite a few decades now. We own the results we created, and it’s a fine mess. But before ‘how boomers fucked everything up’ becomes a full-blown meme, let’s take a look a this.
Brill makes the case that, beginning about 50 years ago, smart people began using the freedoms available only in America to enrich and then structurally protect themselves, in ways that have dearly cost the rest of us. It's a smart theory might have some validity to it, and I look forward to reading his book. But let's be clear: If this is what happened, the elites got us here. Not all baby boomers.
Today, the conservative David Brooks used his platform at the New York Times to chime in with some hand-wringing at what his generation (and mine) has wrought. His column, subtitled ‘The flaw in boomer leadership,” (paywall) laments how the country took a wrong turn somewhere, which he claims he's been pointing out for 20 years.
“We need to build a meritocracy that is true to its values, truly open to all,” Brooks writes. Ah yes, our values. We're all familiar with the American values: hard work, community, lending a helping hand. But when you've spent you career amplifying the fundamental notion that government is bad, and that regardless of public policy outcomes, taxes have to be as low as possible, and your party rules both houses of Congress and the White House, and was nothing but fervently obstructionist for the previous eight years when they were not in absolute control… you've got to take some ownership, bub.
If there's a conservative, Republican ethos, it's about exploiting your advantage, limiting your exposure, protecting your own and pulling the ladder up after you’ve gotten yours. It's just business, right? And it goes way beyond labeling ketchup as a vegetable in order to spend less on school lunches. Reagan looks like a saint now. As modeled for us by the stable genius CEO who leads us, Republicanism is also about sowing division, projecting your faults upon the opposition, trampling the downtrodden and scapegoating the underclass.
Brooks somehow fails to articulate those values. Because obfuscation is a core value too. Looking the other way as authoritarianism takes root — because you are getting the tax and social services cuts you've always wanted — which of the American values is that?
After decrying ‘the misplace idolization of diversity,' Brooks concludes that:
The meritocracy is here to stay, thank goodness, but we probably need a new ethos to reconfigure it — to redefine how people are seen, how applicants are selected, how social roles are understood and how we narrate a common national purpose.
We begin to narrate a national purpose when you stop pointing the finger of blame at whatever class of people you have decided is responsible for the mess we find ourselves in. Boomers are not a monolithic class with identical interests or biases, obviously. The culture we live in is a mix of ages, races, creeds and colors, with built-in checks and balances designed to protect us against the excesses of power. Diversity is our strength, there's nothing more American than idolizing that, you nitwit. Your generation's conservative elites — of whom you surely consider yourself one — figured out how to defeat those checks and balances, and they have fucked things up for the rest of us.
Own it, Brill and Brooks. And help the rest of us clean this mess up.