Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Today's Favorite Cliche: Blame It On the Boomers

Dana Milbank at the Washington Post must not have been getting enough comments online, because he stirred it up with that cinch perennial, the slamming the Baby Boomers column.  Even more popular than slamming the Millennials since more Boomers read newspapers.

It's headlined Baby boomers have been a disaster for America, and Trump is their biggest mistake yet.  It begins:
The idealists of the 1960s have come a long way from Woodstock. After a quarter- century of mismanaging the country, they have produced Donald Trump, who with his narcissistic and uncompromising style is a bright orange symbol of what went wrong with the massive generation. And polls show that the boomers are the biggest source of support for Trump.

His evidence for boomer support is based on age breakdown, with the 50-64 cohort favoring Trump by 3 points in one poll, and by 1 point in another.  Both within the margin of error, and neither exactly a ringing endorsement.

Let's forget for a second that every era's older voters tend to skew conservative and Republican.  And we'll let slide the fact that the oldest boomers are 70 (born in 1946) and the youngest are 52 (born in 1964), within the borders of the demographer-defined post-World War II baby boom.  So that his selected demographic includes some who aren't boomers and excludes others who are.  And some of those it includes are Hillary and Bill Clinton, Barack and Michelle Obama.

That in polls a few percentage points of people above the age of 50 support Trump is pretty meaningless in itself, and that most of them fit within the demographic definition of the baby boom is obviously true and just as meaningless. Until you get to this.

It is the assertion that this generation has a defined character that can be defined with a few media images: Baby Boomers equal Woodstock/hippie/radical/idealist.

It's often repeated, but that doesn't make it true. Only someone who is not a baby boomer can believe that cliche. (Except for boomers who make their living promoting it.)

There is one salient fact about the baby boom generation: it is BIG.  It was always BIG.  (It's a little smaller now as we are dying off, no doubt to Dana's delight.)

The point is that, yes, we had Woodstock with thousands of people in it.  We had antiwar marches with thousands of people marching. Lots of people in the parks in the Summer of Love, crowds in the Zen centers.  But there were more, many more, who did none of those things--and weren't always kind to those of us who did.

Those of us who were antiwar, aware and idealists were a minority within our generation, and we knew it--every damn day.  Numerically there were a lot of us.  As a proportion of our age cohort, of our "generation," we were small.

Milbank and his ilk provide no evidence that boomer "idealists" became right wing Trump supporters en masse.  That the Republican politics of the 90s was fueled by the same age cohort is meaningless beyond the fact that they were the right ages to be moving into authority in business and political institutions. (Besides which, most rightward activists I knew of in the 90s were Gen Xers. Some of them originated the far right Internet sites and methods of discourse--namely trolling.)

That most boomers are Republicans hardly comes as a surprise. The vast bulk of the baby boom were apprentice members of the silent majority.  Although that's not entirely fair--many were affected by the Vietnam war, civil rights, the Summer of Love, etc in some ways. There were many gradations beyond the cliches.

There were many many gradations even among the "idealists."  One of  the idealists who most influenced members of our generation died the other day.

 Tom Hayden was author of the Port Huron Statement that began Students for a Democratic Society--it is one of the least recognized yet most profound documents of the 1960s.  Even though he was born before the boom, as a 60s idealist and activist Hayden was an icon to some in the boomer generation.

The 1960s were at least two "decades," probably three.  The Port Huron Statement belongs to the middle 60s.  By the late 60s, when the antiwar movement was in a fractured frenzy, Hayden was indicted for conspiracy to riot in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic Convention there, along with seven others.  It was a bogus charge, ultimately thrown out for judicial misconduct.

But the Chicago Eight were like a continuum of off-center 60s politics, from the elder (David Dellinger) to the Yippie-Dadaists Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman, and Bobby Seale, the one black activist who of course got the worst of it.

Now at the time I definitely had my Abbie Hoffman side.  But I also had my Tom Hayden side--more scholarly, politically more pragmatic, but yes, idealistic.  In 1969 I heard Hayden speak in a classroom in the Bay Area, probably at Berkeley. He seemed like the older student activists I'd admired on my campus in the mid-60s, before Vietnam became a defining issue.  Hayden was still being reasonable amid the turmoil and despair and all the searching of the late 60s.

Jeff Greenfield has an excellent remembrance of Hayden, who he calls "the complicated radical."  Before he became a TV reporter and author, Greenfield wrote speeches for candidates including Robert Kennedy.  I remember reading Greenfield's book on RFK in which he mentioned seeing Tom Hayden back in the shadows at St. Patrick's Cathedral while Kennedy's coffin was being viewed, weeping.  He opens this piece with that scene.

He notes that Hayden went on to seek political office, winning a seat in the California state senate, though he also campaigned for higher.  Yet Hayden didn't give up his ideals.  He worked for them in ways that, in the times, might prove effective, even if in small ways.

It's not so surprising to me that Hayden felt the loss of the Kennedys. (He apparently was also a source for Greenfield's excellent book speculating on what might have happened if JFK had not been assassinated.)  They also were idealists--RFK more so perhaps than JFK.

 I marched for Civil Rights and against the war, and engaged in other protests, and I backed RFK in 1968, even as some activist friends backed Eugene McCarthy.  We were complicated radicals, too.  Maybe we all were.  And maybe we still are.

We were young and naive--Hayden himself admits to that in connection with North Vietnam, Greenfield writes.  But as Abbie Hoffman once said,"We were young, we were reckless, arrogant, silly, headstrong … and we were right!"

Milbank cites support about generational identity from social scientists.  Good luck with that.  Bad social science must be one of those Gen X diseases.  But Milbank is also being deliberately provocative (I think) when he states as fact: "Boomers, coddled in their youth, grew up selfish and unyielding. When they got power, they created polarization and gridlock from both sides."  Oh those naive Gen Xers, lost in popular cliches.  Especially that baby boomer selfishness.

Greenfield quotes a few passages from the Port Huron Statement:

“The goal of man and society,” Hayden wrote, “should be human independence: a concern not with . . . popularity but with finding a meaning in life that is personally authentic. . . .This kind of independence does not mean egotistic individualism—the object is not to have one’s way so much as it is to have a way that is one’s own.”

“We would replace power rooted in possession, privilege or circumstance by power and uniqueness rooted in love, reflectiveness, reason and creativity.”

I'll take this "selfishness" over Gen X self-professed cynicism any day.

No comments: