In the preface of her new book, Boomers: The Men and Women Who Promised Freedom and Delivered Disaster, Helen Andrews notes with characteristic bluntness, “Boomers didn’t just shake up the nuclear family. They broke it.” It’s a defensible claim, but unfortunately, Andrews (a senior editor at The American Conservative) does almost nothing in the rest of her book to defend it.
The book consists of six profiles of famous Boomers—Steve Jobs, Aaron Sorkin, Jeffrey Sachs, Camille Paglia, Al Sharpton, and Sonia Sotomayor. “They were mainly people who would have made great contributions to humanity if they had been born at any other time,” Andrews writes. But I’m not sure she even believes that about half of them. Maybe Jobs is an example of someone she sees as having true potential. For all the corporate propaganda about Apple being a company for rebels, she maintains Jobs did one of the most un-Boomerish things possible: He built an institution from the ground up. She also credits him with trying to keep pornography off of Apple devices. He told one reporter: “It’s not about freedom. It’s about Apple trying to do the right thing for its users.” But porn is only part of the “freedom” that comes from Silicon Valley. The kind of technology that Apple helped to build, Andrews rightly notes, has also provided endless ways for the unemployed and unengaged (with family or community) to fritter away their time.
Andrews goes after iconoclast scholar Camille Paglia, who—though she has pushed back against the worst kinds of narrowmindedness in the academy—spends her time on trivial pursuits, according to Andrews. “When it comes to Paglia’s personal moral record on this earth,” Andrews writes, “it will have to take account of the fact that no public intellectual has argued more vehemently in defense of television, Hollywood, rock and roll and other low entertainment.”
It strikes me as odd, then, that Andrews also says that Paglia was a “more acute critic than [Allan] Bloom, because she realized that the so-called tenured radicals were not really radicals at all but apple-polishing class president types, or else plain hucksters.” There is no reason to believe Bloom didn’t realize this, but more importantly, Bloom devoted a considerable amount of effort to criticizing the low culture (especially the rock and roll culture) that Andrews is so irritated with Paglia for elevating.
Andrews also takes Paglia to task for her support of unlimited sexual freedom: “Paglia, of all people, should have known that this escalating licentiousness would not come to rest in a happy equilibrium.” But aside from people being more willing to tolerate gratuitous sex in movies, Andrews never offers examples of what these shifting social attitudes have done to real adults and children in this country.
Maybe it’s all so obvious. She notes (again in the preface) that Boomers were the ones who “hustled women into the workplace with the false promise that wage work was the only way to be independent and self-actualized, and that shock to the labor market killed the family wage.” Are we supposed to infer that “killing the family wage” (a term she doesn’t define) also killed the family?
There were plenty of women in the workforce long before the Boomers came along. Maybe those in the upper classes didn’t have such demanding jobs, but if Andrews wants to claim that women going into the workforce were the reason for the breakdown of the nuclear family, she should have provided more evidence.
Indeed, it is striking that Andrews devotes a number of pages to rightly arguing that Boomers cannot claim credit for the Civil Rights movement—“unless they were freedom riders at age ten [it] is a stretch”—but she has almost nothing to say about the Great Society, for which Boomers surely should get plenty of blame. If we want to understand the breakdown of the nuclear family—particularly for the bottom economic half of America—it is important to talk about the government policies that allowed for the replacement of fathers with checks from Uncle Sam.
Andrews is right to note that the Boomers’ approach to civil rights—the “transformational politics” of the Al Sharptons, which relied more on demands for affirmative action from businesses and universities than on the “transactional politics” of Tammany Hall—was often just as corrupt while also being ineffective. But she fails to acknowledge that even while blacks were poorer (failing to make a “family wage”) and suffering more discrimination in the first half of the 20th century, they were also more likely to marry and stay married than they are today. Maybe the politics of either the transformational or the transactional sort wasn’t the best way to help oppressed groups. Jewish and Asian Americans stayed out of politics for decades after waves of immigration here and probably did better faster as a result.
As entertaining as Boomers may be, it seems to me that Andrews is more concerned with clever quips than with any serious assessment of what the Boomer generation has done wrong. Looking at the situation abroad, Andrews also seems out of her depth, such as her claim that when it comes to aiding the developing world, Jeffrey Sachs and William Easterly are “equally wrong” because they have both “cut themselves off from the greatest fund of experience available to them—the great liberal empires.”Sachs favors a top-down form of control, telling countries and communities what they should do to lift themselves up from poverty, restricting trade, and expanding environmental regulations that hinder economic growth. Easterly favors giving local communities more control and exposing them to the same “Hayekian” free-market principles that have brought historically unprecedented health and wealth to the great liberal empires. (That is our “greatest fund of experience.”) Sachs wants to bring poor families more access to contraception. Easterly wants to figure out how families can support themselves, whatever their size.
These sorts of policy distinctions may not seem important in the scheme of critiquing an entire generation, but they are the ideas on which families—and even nations—succeed or fail.