Saturday, March 10, 2007

On being right

My comments about the Boom generation have drawn angry comments from time to time, but my thinking on the subject has made some advances during the last year, partly through teaching and more recently as a result of the Vietnam conference I mentioned last week. Today the topic is on my mind because of a Sidney Blumenthal item in Salon, and I hope that I can make my position clearer and even perhaps to bring a few skeptics on board.

Blumenthal reports that Karl Rove is running a White House book club for the President. He picks a book and invites the author and a number of intellectuals--according to him, neoconservatives--to discuss it with George W. Bush. The latest gathering featured Andrew Roberts, who recently completed (as he saw it) Winston Churchill's "History of the English-Speaking peoples." Here, for non-commercial use, is what some one told Blumenthal about the meeting.

"For this Bush book club meeting, the guest was Andrew Roberts, an English conservative historian and columnist and the author of "The Churchillians" and, most recently, "A History of the English-Speaking People Since 1900." The subject of Winston Churchill inspired Bush's self-reflection. The president confided to Roberts that he believes he has an advantage over Churchill, a reliable source with access to the conversation told me. He has faith in God, Bush explained, but Churchill, an agnostic, did not. Because he believes in God, it is easier for him to make decisions and stick to them than it was for Churchill. Bush said he doesn't worry, or feel alone, or care if he is unpopular."

Now it drives many of my contemporaries crazy, as I found out again last weekend, when I cite Bush as an exemplar of our generation. That isn't surprising, for reasons that I will get to in a moment, and it's true that he is particularly extreme. But even though more educated Boomers, like Churchill (who also came from a Prophet generation) are agnostics rather than believers, Bush was expressing perhaps the chief characteristic of the Boom generation--a certainty that whatever we believe, and whatever we want, must be best, not only for us, but for everyone. More significantly and tragically, most Boomers, like Bush, don't really care whether they can put their beliefs into practice outside their own narrow sphere. Righteousness, for us, is its own reward.

It is, in retrospect, easy enough to see how this happened. First, growing up during the peak of American self-confidence (1946-64),we breathed air that told us we were special-
-as the Mickey Mouse Club put it prophetically, "the leaders of the twentieth century." We were encouraged to think for ourselves. And then, as we hit young adulthood, the catastrophe of the Vietnam War encouraged us--indeed, required us--to confront our parents' sad fallibility. For many, it was an easy step to conclude that our parents knew nothing about anything--that we indeed had the right and the duty to recreate the world from square one. Nor was the legacy of Vietnam unambiguous: as Bill Strauss and Neil Howe wrote in Generations, the only thing Boomers agree about regarding Vietnam is that their elders mismanaged it. For every John Kerry or David Kaiser who knows we never should have begun the war in the first place there is a Jim Webb or George W. Bush who is certain that we should have won it.

We have other unfortunate characteristics as well. Teaching "Generations in Film" this January, I used Twelve Angry Men to show midlife GIs at their best, and asked the students to make a list of virtues and vices, based on what they saw on the screen. The vices they identified included being emotional, irrational, confrontational and carried away with ones feelings. "This is making me very depressed," I said as the exercise continued, and then I explained why: the vices were virtually a definition of Boomers. They reminded me of some of the cries I heard from the SDS in the late 1960s: "We've had enough of your reasoned discourse!" And so it is with our President: faith is better, for him, than reason.

But the key that explains how hard it is for Boomers to see themselves as other generations see them (especially the younger ones--and if you don't believe me, ask them), is that these are collective traits that manifest themselves individually. Because liberal and conservative Boomers share the same self-righteousness, each sees the other simply as hopelessly wrong. More to the point, each tends to surround himself with like-minded people, as liberals have done within academia and conservatives in their own burgeoning think tanks, publications, and television networks. And with rare exceptions, neither side pays much attention to the actual effects of what they think and do--rightness is its own reward.

These traits, I think, are severely hampering the Democratic majority as it begins to attack the Bush Administration. They are holding some interesting Congressional hearings, but I am not sure how much good they will do. We have had one-day spectaculars on cash for Iraq and the situation at Walter Reed, but will we have sustained follow-up, either in the form of legislation or investigations that lead to indictments? It is painfully easy to point out how badly the Administration has fouled up, but it is much harder actually to declare that the war in Iraq has been lost already (as Jacob Weisberg pointed out the other day) or to call for a roll back of tax cuts on the rich. (Indeed, since the latter course would probably fail and perhaps make the Democrats unpopular, it would cast doubt on their righteousness.) The situation is oddly parallel to that of the late 1960s when the folly of the Vietnam war had become obvious. And although Richard Nixon prolonged it needlessly and never admitted it was wrong, he did, slowly but surely, bring it to an end. Amazingly, we are now at the chronological point--four years on--when withdrawals from Vietnam tentatively began--but we are increasing our commitment to a losing cause instead of reducing it.

We will not begin reducing the decline of American business, government, and yes, academia, until we start recognizing that producing a good result is more important than being "right" according to what we have always believed. That was how FDR eclipsed Herbert Hoover and his acolytes, who believed in free market principles with the same devotion that neoconsevatives reserve for their foreign policy. (I am sad to report, too, my favorite pair of FDR's Prophet contemporaries, Charles A. Beard and W. E. B. Dubois, were both too committed to their own version of righteousness to appreciate what he had done, and ended their lives in isolated opposition.) In his time another Prophet, Lincoln, initially angered his Abolitionist contemporaries as well as southern fire-eaters because he would not go as far as they, but he proved that he, and not they, knew the path to the result they desired. We now need another leader like that, and it is depressing to note how many candidates on both sides (including Edwards, Gingrich, Giuliani and Romney) have found actually holding office, standing for elections, and doing the people's business a useless distraction from the real business of running for President. That may be, indeed, a symptom of another generational failing. Boomer politicians, in general, are not a very impressive group--perhaps because successful politicians actually have to pay attention to those who disagree with them, and that's something Boomers don't like to do..

Perhaps my biggest debt to Strauss and Howe is that they taught me to think beyond politics and to see commonalities across ideological lines. My contemporaries react hostilely because they feel this as a challenge to their identity. "You can't use Bush to judge a whole generation," one said last week--but I can. He is, it is true, more of a caricature than an real archetype, but his traits, however exaggerated, are those of his contemporaries. And that may even account in part for how much he and his Administration have managed to get away with. At some level, his contemporaries in the upper reaches of other American institutions understand that he is only doing what they have done, or would do, if they had the chance--but their impact, of course, would be good!


Matthew E said...

Teaching "Generations in Film" this January, I used Twelve Angry Men to show midlife GIs at their best, and asked the students to make a list of virtues and vices, based on what they saw on the screen. The vices they identified included being emotional, irrational, confrontational and carried away with ones feelings.

The kicker here, I expect, is that these were G.I.-like Millennials identifying these vices?

serial catowner said...

I find this whole speaking in generalities about a "Boomer Generation" to be silly.

For example, about 500,000 of the "Boomer Generation" fled to Canada during the Vietnam War. To describe those of us who stayed as the inevitable product of the 50s makes about as much sense as raising a child with oatmeal for every breakfast and then, at age 18, amputating an arm and saying "There, you see how that turned out?"

Nor am I particularly impressed by the observation that Boomer politicians are an undistinguished lot. Not only is that not confirmed by my own observations, but, even if it were, how would that make them any different from any politicians, observed close-up and described as a hopelessly broad average?

Certainly it would be very unusual for a democracy to cough up a legislature in which every member was above average, and I see no evidence that this has actually happened at any time in our own history.

The beginning of the post was more promising. The idea that Karl Rove would lead a book club for George Bush was inherently humorous even before we learn that a book to be discussed was Churchill's History of the English Speaking Peoples. Hard to imagine that Bush would have the time today to read such a book, but perhaps it formed the 'foundation' of his history degree.

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serial catowner said...

I'll admit to morbidly pondering this post as one might contemplate some ambiguous but unmistakeably dead sea creature cast ashore by the tide. I finally realized it makes sense if we see that Dr. Kaiser is describing himself.

His immense concern about the Boomer cohort makes it possible for him to effortlessly, and with no visible sense of irony, conflate George Bush with Abby Hoffman, Tom Hayden, and Allen Ginsberg. And then to go on and proclaim that George Bush, perhaps the oddest and least representative speciman of American manhood, is in fact Everyman of the Boomer cohort.

Wherever he looks, Dr. Kaiser sees Boomers. In discussing a film made in 1957 with a class of 20-somethings, he sees- that's right!- Boomers. Somehow he misses the fact that the students identified, no doubt as a result of something they'd learned at home, 'being emotional, irrational, confrontational' as vices. Certainly the 'Greatest Generation' didn't see these as vices, as they screamed at their children that they would disown them if they failed to enlist and carry the flag in Vietnam.

Confirming his fixation on the 60s and his ethnocentric views, in his next post Dr. Kaiser sees Vietman in Iraq, a misreading of events made possible by seeing WW II in Vietnam.

In reality, our 'man' in Vietnam was concerned with preventing the electoral victory of the National Liberation Front, a group with no prominent leader that gathered all nationalist sentiments in South Vietnam under one electoral banner. Policy makers well understood that actual democracy in Vietnam would result in the re-unification of North and South Vietnam as a result of the long-delayed elections promised in the Geneva Accords of 1956, a re-unification and triumph of socialism that would only be opposed by an Americanized minority of Vietnamese.

In contrast, our Iraq struggle is supposedly to prevent the democratic Balkanization of Iraq, an event widely believed to presage a spreading conflict in the region precisely because there is no great power polarity to stabillize events.

We may, in Iraq, be travelling the same paths of error we travelled in Vietnam, but that is simply because, to a man with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail- and that analogy applies to more than one topic in this comment.